THEYYAM: THE MYSTICAL CULTURAL HERITAGE OF KERALA
The word "Theyyam" comes from the word "daivam," which means "god," and this performance ritual has a recorded history that dates back at least 1,500 years. It occurs inside the boundaries of modest shrines and ancestral estates in central and northern Malabar. The dancer goes through a significant metamorphosis while performing the Theyyam, feeling more like the goddess or divinity. The dancer may cover his face during some Theyyam performances to increase the ritual's mystery. The dancer wears a variety of long headdresses and crowns, some of which are conical or circular in shape, to represent the fundamental change in identity towards the enigmatic divine. This transformational process is further enhanced with elaborate, multicoloured body and face paintings.
A well-known ceremonial dance called Velan Veriyyattu was practised in the Tamilakam region to please the God Murugan. While the native Velan priests practised this simple type of worship, the Brahmins performed elaborate rites to honour the God Murugan. The dance that the Velan priests did to appease Murugan was eventually included into the Bhagavati worship. The Theyyam dance style might have its roots here. Theyyam, often referred to as Kaliyattam, is a traditional socio-religious ritual that has been performed in Kerala for ages. It is a religious dance performance honouring Kali, as the name "Kaliyattam" suggests. It was required of every village or "thera" to do this ceremony, hence the name "Theyyattam."
In the past, Kaliyattam was traditionally performed in front of the "kavu," a community temple that was present in every village in Kerala. A "kolam" which denotes a particular shape or form, is the name given to each manifestation in a Kaliyattam. Each of the different shapes that gods, goddesses, heroes, and heroines take represents a different feature.
Kottams and Palliyaras, houses of worship, are where Kaliyattams are frequently held. The courtyards outside the individual divisions of these buildings are the locations for these performances.
Typically, the Kaliyattam season lasts from December until May. A song that describes the history, immense power, and sacred character of the specific kolam is sung by a group of people before the performance, accompanied by chenda and elathalam drums. The kolam then appears in front of the crowd gathered in front of the place of worship after the singing. It is thought that the individual who assumes that particular form receives the spirit of the god, goddess, hero, or heroine of the kolam.
Legend has it that Parasurama, the fictitious founder of Kerala, authorised the festivals of Kaliyattam, Puravela, and Deivattam or Theyyattam for the benefit of the people of Kerala. He gave native communities including the Panan, Malayar, Velan, and Vannan the duty of maintaining the Theyyam dance. These customs serve as examples of how native cults like Theyyam were adopted and changed by the Brahmanic religion. Sudras and Vaishyas, who belong to lower castes, are the most common performers of theyyam. Communities such as the Peruvannan and the Nambiars were patrons of Theyyam, and it was usual for each Tharavadu (ancestral home) to have its own shrines and kavus (holy woods) dedicated to Theyyam deities, where non-Brahmanical rituals and practises were practised.
Payyannur and Perimchellur (Thaliparamba), two of the earliest Brahmanical settlements in Kolathunadu, were particularly important in spreading the Brahmanical faith through temple institutions and influencing the prevalent folk religion centred around Theyyam and other tribal cults. The "little" culture of Theyyam belonged to the underprivileged castes and classes, whereas the temple-centred culture belonged to the dominant castes and classes in Kerala during the course of its long historical process. Since the native culture was not entirely wiped out, there was no violent struggle between these two.
A GRAND CELEBRATION
Theyyam or Teyyam, also known as teyyattam or kaliyattam, is a cultural tradition practised in Kerala, India, where localised deities are revered. It may be seen in castes, families, or villages. A male specialist who is temporarily possessed by the deity during Theyyam rites speaks on the deity's behalf. These deities are frequently former humans who became gods through remarkable deeds, typically horrific demises. They are members of particular castes or lineages and are in charge of certain regions. All castes, including ex-Untouchables and Brahmins, are welcome to participate in Teyyam devotion. Two different categories of experts have the ability to manifest the deities. The normal shrine priests have the ability to become possessed by the deities at any time and act as their agents. Specialised dancers called Teyyams represent the deity at festivals. In contrast to the patrons, these dancers often hail from lower social classes. The deity takes on its full form within the dancer during festivals, creating a visually stunning performance. This entails intricate makeup, elaborate costumes, colourful drumming, recital of holy deeds, a variety of dance moves and occasionally combat activities. These public displays, which frequently involve performances of remarkable feats, are intended to demonstrate the vast might of the divine presence.
Some Teyyams perform feats that are beyond human comprehension. For instance, some Teyyams roll over burning coals, drink copious amounts of alcohol, or use their teeth to rip live chickens apart as an offering to appease the deity's appetite. The ceremonial violence connected to these cults is a reflection of the alleged authority of these gods. They are regarded as extremely deadly, and any bad luck is attributed to either their punishment or their desire to be recognised and placed in a shrine. However, these deities possess extremely protective abilities when properly appeased. For different favours, such as good health, fertility, success, and prosperity, people can ask for their help. Teyyams can also mediate disagreements involving land or charges of theft in their community. Their decisions are thought to uphold morality. Teyyams are generally thought to offer their followers remarkable ways to impact the course of their life. Theyyam is typically performed by robust and well-built artists who have extensive training. These performers, who are frequently from lower social classes, paint their faces with ornate, multicoloured traditional makeup. They dress in colourful, elaborate outfits with exquisite details, which are matched by various kinds of crowns placed on their heads. The beginning of the Theyyam dance is signalled by the rhythm of the drums and the melodies of the musical instruments.
Theyyattam is typically practised in homes and shared spaces of communities under pipal or banyan trees. This emphasises the importance of tree symbolism and tree worship in relation to Theyyattam.
A LIVING CULTURAL HERITAGE
The religious and social fabric of northern Malabar, the northernmost part of Kerala, continues to be profoundly influenced by these cults. Despite being primarily seen in rural areas, they are widespread and have a significant impact on the daily lives of millions of people. Lineages, castes, villages, and congregations all play important roles in shaping and maintaining different kinds of "locality" as a result of these cults. They offer a framework of common feelings and experiences that evolves against a background of anxiety, social change, ecological uncertainty, cosmic volatility, and the complexity of kinship, adversaries, spirits, and several other factors. The purpose of the Theyyam festival is to honour and celebrate the magical abilities of respected deities or legendary individuals that the gathered community worships at the temple, or "kavu." This ritualistic dancing style is used to honour these holy beings and all of their extraordinary attributes.
It's interesting to see that Theyyam has influenced Muslim art as well, showing how this Hindu art form has been adapted. Muslim Theyyams like Madayi Theyyam and Ali Theyyam are thought to have been created as a result of Hindu converts to Islam altering indigenous heroes. The pre-literature culture had a strong tradition of hero worship, and through Theyyam, many heroes who had previously battled for survival in society had been named and given immortal status. Among the well-known hero deities worshipped in Theyyam are Thacholi Othenan, Kadivanoor Veeran, Mandappan, and Muthappan.
Meril Mathew, Intern @DH
BA EPH, Christ University, Bangalore
1. Pereira, F. (2017). Ritual Liminality and Frame: What Did Barbosa See When He Saw the “Theyyam”? Asian Theatre Journal, 34(2), 373–396. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44631305
2. Vennila, P. (2019). A HISTORICAL STUDY OF THEYYAM. Editorial Board, 8(1), 112.