FAST FORWARD TO FEBRUARY, 2019.
We were near a shrine around 1 pm in Kanahangad, a district in Kannur, Kerala, India. It was the month of February and yet, 30°C. There were some trees here and there to take shelter from the scorching sun. The entire village had gathered to witness Theyaam, a thousand-year-old ritual since the folklore has it that these Human Gods solve all the problems who pray to them.
There was a secluded palm-thatched hut where these dancers were applying makeup. I entered this hut to see a boy applying make up on the dancer’s face which was smeared in orange turmeric. The dancer was wearing a white lungi while his hands and torso were bare. The boy, with the help of a stick and black paint, was drawing loops and spirals on his face.
The palm-thatched hut had a lot of flowers, fruits, camphor, diyas, leaves and mattresses lying around.
The dancers, after applying make-up, get ready for the performance. He had two feet mirrored headgear, metal cups on his breasts, fake long metal teeth protruding from both the sides of his lips, orange lips and intense kohl surrounding his eyes!
Some of them start by sinking into a crouching position, their head and body quivering, his hands shaking, his eyes flickering from side to side. Drummers insistently beat the goat hide cenda drums with their hands or wooden drumsticks. As the drummers increase the tempo, the dancers start to dance frantically till the time they are possessed by the Gods.
What is Theyyam?
Theyyam is a ritual/classical dance art form belonging to North Kerala which predates Hinduism (500BCE)! T-rees, plants, and animals are worshipped alongside Hindu gods in Theyyam rituals. Some rituals involve blood sacrifices. It is predominantly practiced in some districts of Kannur, Kozhikode, Kasargod, and Wayanad.
A performance can last from 12 minutes to TWENTY FOUR HOURS (obviously, with a break)
Most of these performers are well versed with Kalaripayattu because it requires an immense amount of strength. Kalaripayattu is an ancient Indian martial art and fighting system that originated in Kerala, origin dating back to the 3rd century BCE! Some of the dance postures require to be in that position for many minutes to hours! Some of the headgears are 40 feet tall! Imagine its weight!
The ceremonious dance is accompanied by the chorus of such musical instruments as Chenda, Elathalam, Kurumkuzal, and Veekkuchenda. There are over 400 separate Theyyams, each with their own music, style, and choreography. The most prominent among these are Raktha Chamundi, Kari Chamundi, Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Wayanadu Kulaven, Gulikan, and Pottan.
Upon asking these Human Gods about their experiences of Theyyam, this is what they had to tell us.
“How do you feel?” It is difficult to describe. I used to get scared earlier. Fear of me not summoning God correctly, properly. It is the intensity of your devotion that determines your intensity of possession.
“Are you aware of what’s happening?” No. The light stays with you the entire time. Voice changes. You become the deity. You are in a trance – the feeling of being divine doesn’t end only when the headgear is removed.
“What do you feel after coming back from the trance?” It is like a feeling. You do not remember anything. What happens during the performance, is not in your hands. It is just a feeling of offloading something.
Three Theyyams were scheduled on that Sunday :
- Pullikarinkali (We missed it because it was at 3 am)
- Vishnumoorthy (Enacting Hirankashyapu and Narshimha story – photo in the end)
- Pulluran Theyyam (most of the photos are from this Theyyam act)
A brief history of hypocrisy
How’d I get in contact with these events?
When I started researching, there were literally NO BLOGS available. No data or information was available. So, I stalked a lot of people on Instagram who had posted Theyyam photos. I contacted a few of them and asked them where I can go and whom I could contact to experience Theyyam. I finally found someone who could help me out during the dates which were feasible and gave me the details of Mr. Sreejith – guide and professional photographer. You can contact him on – +91 8089650716.
I was really thrilled when this old school method of research and travel worked out perfectly for me!
Dancers’ life after Theyyam
Lower caste community leave their work from mid-October to May end to indulge in the rituals of Theyyam. They are part-time Gods. Other months, they are working somewhere. Maybe a job in a jail or a politician’s office or a farmer in their own field.
They live a normal life like we do when they are not Theyyam artists. Ironically, Brahmins do not interact with them when they are not Theyyams. It is funny how people believe in them to help them out and when the work is done, they are back to treating them like they are not humans and remind every time that they are Dalits.
However, these Theyyam dancers are the happiest when they are performing. They wait for these months so they can help out their fellow villagers.
Things to know
- Theyyam performances are held from mid-October to May end.
- The concept of untouchability is history. Everyone is at par and respected.
- Giving money as a donation is your wish to seek blessings. There is no compulsion.
- You will be visiting the innermost areas of the village. Be respectful by wearing attire that covers your entire body
- Avoid flash photography to not add a hindrance to God’s dance while or before he is getting possessed.
- Try to witness performances in the night and day time. Both of them have their own beauty! The night time performances include fire torches and bonfire as a part of the ritual. The day time doesn’t
Cost? Accommodation? Which district to go to?
My friend and I took an overnight bus from Bangalore to Kanhangad on a Saturday night. We were in Kanahangad the entire Sunday and took a return bus on that night itself to reach Bangalore on Monday morning. We booked our bus tickets on Goibibo.
We stayed in Hotel Bekal International which is 1km from Kanahangad bus stop. We did not pre-book the room (the rate on Make My Trip was INR 1500), approached the hotel directly and got a room for just ~INR 800 /-.
We had hired Mr. Sreejith’s services, who is a guide out of a passion for Theyyam and a professional photographer, who charged us INR 2000 for an entire day. He told us the history of Theyyam and the three dances we witnessed. Took us around the shrine while narrating its stories. Made us meet the dancers.
So overall, we spent INR 3500 per person including all the things mentioned above and food.
Do let me know if I have added Theyyam to your bucket list! I’d be very delighted to know that.
Got any more doubts? Drop them below in the comments and I’ll answer them right away!
Other blogs that might of interest to you:
Temple that has Sita mata’s footprint, hanging pillar etc – Read here
Digital detox getaway from Bangalore – Read here
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