Isn’t it fascinating that one of the oldest rituals that’s still around in Kerala is called the Dance of Gods? Well, that’s Theyyam for you! It is believed that the performer’s spirit is possessed by a divine God during the dance. The performance is accompanied by drum beats, ritual chants and handheld burning torches.
This spectacular dance ritual is popular mainly in North Kerala. The dance is performed in honour of heroes from myth or spirits of temple deities. The entire performance is a form of worship and there are more than 400 varieties to Theyyam.
If it is your first time watching a Theyyam performance, you will surely be taken aback by the pulse of the place when the ritual starts. The Theyyam is not a staged act and hence the actions of the performer are always unpredictable and this keeps the onlookers tense and wired to the performance.
What Happens During A Theyyam Performance?
The dancer’s body becomes a medium through which God can bless his devotees. It is believed that the dancer is not a mere human during the performance. When the dancer is possessed by the spirit of God, he will move towards the audience in ways that keep the audience on edge. There’s also times when the performer would walk over a heap of fire on the ground, and is then pulled back by the priests of the temple. Suddenly, you’d feel that Theyyam is not just a theatrical or artistic performance. Yes, it’s much more. Theyyam is a ritual that manages to evoke the spirit of a deity, hero or goddess in the dancer.
If the Theyyam is enacting a mythological character who was a warrior, then there would probably be stunts involving swords too. The performer dances or engages in movements as per the mythical character he is enacting. The headgear, bright decorated mask, ornaments and costumes help the performer appear ready for the role of heroic divine power. Depending on the deity being enacted, the headpiece could also have a long hairpiece on it. At one point, the headdress might even be changed with an even larger captivating one, giving the performer a powerful new look. There are different props given out as per the role the performer plays. During the performance, the dancer does a number of spins and rushes in different directions. The headpiece draws a person’s attention in such instances, as it still sits perfectly once the performer stops.
The expressions of the performer can seem aggressive, intense and eerie at the same time. People who watch the performance are afraid at times, but then the entire community is also delighted to seek blessings from Theyyam, once the dance is over. You will literally witness people rushing to form a line and meet Theyyam.
The entire performance is extremely unique to witness and preparation for the ritual begins months in advance. The performer is also known as ‘Theyyakaran’ and has to adhere to a strict lifestyle, so that he has purified himself to be a vehicle of God. As these performances go on for months, the dancer must be prepared mentally and physically.
Another highlight of the festival is the makeup session and attire of the dancer. Just like in show business, the green room acts as a space for actors to get ready for the role. In a similar way, the performer has his own space to get ready. The makeup session takes nearly 4-5 hours, as the painting is not just limited to the face, but also arms, chest area, stomach and any skin still exposed after putting on the costume. The colors used for painting are red, yellow, green and orange.
The coverage of the makeup ensures that the performer can no longer recognise himself in the mirror once the makeup and costume is put on. That’s because he’s completely covered in the color and attire of the God/Goddess. It’s important that the performer reinstate the feeling that he would no longer be in human form, throughout the course of the ritual. For this, he has to look in the mirror and associate with the reflection as a divine figure.
Other than the makeup, there are drummers and priests that hold torches to invite the spirit of the God. These are just virtual descriptions of what happens during the ritual. But to truly understand the energy of the unleashed spirit, one must attend the performance.
When And Where Does Theyyam Happen?
The Theyyam season lasts from November to March each year. During the Theyyam season, most of the shrines and small temples across North Kerala have performances. November and December is the peak season to experience Theyyam in Kerala. This is when multiple performances occur on a daily basis, in temples all over the region. A Theyyam performance could already be included in a Kerala tour package during peak season.
This event is specially unique to the region of Malabar. We’d recommend keeping Kannur as your base city, since it is the most convenient place to explore other small villages and towns where you could see the ritual.
An easy guide to finding out about a Theyyam performance is seeing the posters put up on the streets of Kannur. The details would be in the local language so you could ask a friend or someone at your accommodation to help you figure the details on the poster.
One thing to keep in mind is that the festival dates are in accordance with the Malayalam calendar and adhere to local traditions and customs. That’s why we can’t mention the exact dates of the festival, as this is bound to change.
Temples that host a Theyyam performance with regularity are Pulikunnu Shree Ivar Bhagavathi Temple (Kasaragod), Neeliyar Bhagavathi temple near the town of Kannur and Sri Muthappan temple which is again in Kannur.
How To Attend A Theyyam Festival
The ceremonies usually happen at odd hours. It either begins late evening and goes on till midnight or it could start anytime before dawn. So, if you’re staying far away from the temple, where the ceremony will take place, you would surely be having a very early morning. We would advise you to hire a guide with an auto rickshaw or private vehicle.
The reason is that it will not be easy to try and find a small temple or local shrine where the ceremony is happening. The locations are not a secret to the local people, so your guesthouse would already know the dates and could put you in touch with a local guide you can trust too.
Photography is allowed and everyone is welcomed to see a Theyyam performance at no charge.
You can leave a donation to the temple if you wish. Be aware that a Theyyam performance can go on up to 12 hours with intervals. You can stay for one performance, which means you’d need to spare at least 4 hours, including travel.
There is definitely a high probability of finding a Theyyam performance in Kannur. Our suggestion would be that you book a homestay in Kannur or Bekal area.
Overall, attending the ceremony is not costly, as you would mainly need to pay for the transport to get the temple or shrine you’ve decided to visit.