Several thousand years old ritual art tradition invoking the spirits of the gods

Theyyam is a vibrant and colorful form of ritualistic worship that is deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of Kerala, India. This living tradition involves elaborate rituals, music, dance, and vibrant costumes that bring to life the divine spirits being invoked. Each Theyyam performance is unique, featuring different deities, stories, and rituals. The performers, who are typically men from specific communities, undergo rigorous training and preparation before they are allowed to participate in the ritual.

Theyyam is not just a form of worship but also a way of preserving the rich cultural heritage and traditions of Kerala.

The dance or invocation is generally performed in front of the village shrine, sacred groves or in the houses as ancestor, worshipped with elaborate rites and rituals. There is no stage, the devotees would be standing or some of them would be sitting on a sacred tree in front of the shrine. It is an open theatre. Performance of a particular deity according to its significance and hierarchy in the shrine continues with intervals for twelve hours and even whole day and night. 

The chief dancer who propitiates the central deity of the shrine has to reside in the rituals. Further, after the sun sets, this particular dancer would not eat anything for the remainder of that day. His make-up is done by specialists and other dancers. The first part of the performance is usually known as Vellattam or Thottam. It is performed without proper make-up or any decorative costume. Only a small, red headdress is worn on this occasion.

The Theyyam’s demeanor, his hoarseness of voice and fluttering eye movements reveal that he is being incarnated by the deity, and it is only then that he can be approached by devotees.

The dancer along with the drummers recites the particular ritual song, which describes the myths and legends, of the deity of the shrine or the folk deity to be propitiated. This is accompanied by the playing of folk musical instruments. After finishing this primary ritualistic part of the invocation, the dancer returns to the green room. Again after a short interval, he appears with proper make-up and costumes. 


Theyyam or Theyyattam or Thira is a popular Hindu ritual form of worship of North Malabar in Kerala state, India, predominant in the Kolathunadu area (consisting of present-day Kasargod, Kannur Districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad and Vadakara & Koyilandy Taluks of Kozhikode of Kerala state. As a living cult with several thousand-year-old traditions, rituals and customs, it embraces almost all the castes and classes of the Hindu religion in this region. The performers of Theyyam belong to the indigenous tribal community, and have an important position in Theyyam. This is unique, since only in Kerala, do both the upper-caste Brahmins and lower-caste tribals share an important position in a major form of worship. The term Theyyam is a corrupt form of Devam or God. People of these districts consider Theyyam itself as a God and they seek blessings from this Theyyam. A similar custom is followed in the Tulu Nadu region of neighbouring Karnataka known as Bhuta Kola.

There are different patterns of face painting. Some of these patterns are called vairadelam, kattaram, kozhipuspam, kottumpurikam, and prakkezhuthu. Mostly primary and secondary colours are applied with contrast for face painting. It helps in effecting certain stylization in the dances. 

The Theyyam’s face and body paintings are of supreme significance and importance. The make-up surrounding the eyes is black, while red, orange, yellow and white are the traditional colors used on the rest of the face and body in order to project the aggressive nature of the deities.

Then the dancer comes in front of the shrine and gradually "metamorphoses" into the particular deity of the shrine. The performance signifies the transitional inversion, reversal, and elevation of status denoting the anti-structural homogeneity of Theyyam. He, after observation of certain rituals places the head-dress on his head and starts dancing. 

In the background, folk musical instruments like chenda, tudi, kuzhal and veekni are played in a certain rhythm. All the dancers take a shield and kadthala (sword) in their hands as continuation of the weapons. Then the dancer circumambulates the shrine, runs in the courtyard and continues dancing there.

The men who perform the Theyyam must abstain from liquor, non-vegetarian food and from sexual relations for a period of forty-one days before the ritual takes place.

The Theyyam dance has different steps known as Kalaasams. Each Kalasam is repeated systematically from the first to the eighth step of footwork. A performance is a combination of playing of musical instruments, vocal recitations, dance, and peculiar makeup (usually predominantly orange) and costumes.









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