God, in the context of Polytheistic thought which forms the basis of Indian religions( Hinduism more precisely, since other religions practised in our country, are monotheistic by and large), is not seen as a benevolent entity but more as a collection of forces of nature. This is more vividly evidenced when we cast an eye at the religious
practices of the tribals across the country, worship of natural forces resonates with their religious outlook more than individual GOD, as recognised in organised Hinduism. Idolatry in a different form & context is a part of their beliefs. Folk art has been around for thousands of years. Barring the last 100 odd years, when man invented entertainment modes like cinema & television, humans have been keeping the mind fresh & supple with amusements in the form of dramas, plays, acrobatic circus shows etc. Their themes have been a pithy commentary on social issues, legends of Gods & demons, folk tales. Some of these legends & folktales are deeply entrenched enough, to have survived the onslaught of modern life. They may have faced a threat of extinction purely owing to redundancy in the context of time, but the 21st century, with its fascination for exotic travels & allure for local cultural heritages, has breathed a fresh life into these art forms. Not only in India, in places like southwest Asia, the African continent & the Amazonia & even eastern Europe, there has been a revival of the local folk art forms. In the context of India, every province & state has a very rich cultural heritage that has been handed down from generation to generation for millennia. Some states have multiple folk art forms.
Kathakkali is the signature art form of Kerala, but the northern part of the state, specifically Kasargod & Kannur districts & the North Malabar region (consisting of present-day Kasargod, Kannur Districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad and Vadakara and Koyilandy Taluks of Kozhikode) boast of a ritual art form of surreal beauty called Theyyam. A similar custom is followed in the Mangalore region of neighbouring Karnataka known as Bhuta Kola.
A 3000-year-old custom, (the ancient Tamil Sangam literature (BC 500- CE 500) has a mention of Theyyam performances)it is seen as a form of thanksgiving after the harvests are reaped in.
Theyyam is distinctive as it unseats the hegemony of upper castes over liturgy since only the lowermost castes like Peruvannan, Perumalayan, Panan, Anjootan, Munnootan, Kalanadikal, Mavilan, Kappalan, Nalkithaya, Thulumalayala Velan, and Pulayar, have the honour. The performing artists are called as ‘Theyyakaran’.
The theyyakaran are revered as GODs for the period of the ritual & all seek their blessing. Theyyam as an art form is a male-dominated territory barring the sole exception of the Devakoothu Theyyam: the only Theyyam ritual performed by women. It is performed only in the Thekkumbad Kulom temple.
How magnificent is it? The locals revere these demigods, they don’t take any manner of disrespect by outsiders lightly. It is sacred even now, unlike its cousin from southern Kerala; Kathakalli, which has lost the battle of maintaining sanctity, to commercialism under the onslaught of tourism ratchet. As for Theyyam Photography & other modes of documentation, they are seen as a sideshow in these performances, even if it is helping the art form to survive. The focus is very much on maintaining the sanctity of the rituals.
What are the themes in these performances? Theyyam ritual offers a place for worshipping spirits, ancestors, heroes, masathi-worship, trees, animals, serpents, the goddesses of disease and Gramadevata (Village-Deity). Legends of local tribes are
enshrined in these performances. There are as many as 500 different forms of Theyyams, as recorded, but there could be many more.
Theyyam is celebrated and enacted in front of village deities, known as Kavus! It is also performed in ‘Tharavadu’ (Ancestral homes), mandapam (open empty thatched shed), Kannirashi of the houses, ilam (homes of Namboothiri Brahmins), pathi, kottam, mannam, madam, palliyara, kotta, mana etc. Theyyam is a wonderful fusion of the Brahminical Vaishnavite religious practices & the more rustic tribal rituals. Each Theyyam tells a story, a different story of valour, sacrifice, courage, fortitude; of wickedness as well as of cowardice all ending in a triumphant overcoming of troubles. All religion has been a means of offering hope to the human mind where reason fails.
In Theyyam & the Kavu shrine a way, religion begins where reason hits a wall & logic deserts man.
Religion has survived & thrived the world over due to patronage by the ruling kings, because history is a testament to the necessity of religion for the very survival of society. Donations to temples & shrines have been in tradition in India since time immemorial. Something similar can be seen in the tithes which are paid to the Christian churches.
From a pure photographic perspective the challenge & charm offered by Theyyam has few peers. I have been searching for an opportunity to have a close look at some of the bylines of religion, alleyways which are traversed only by those who either stumble upon or are looking for such roads less travelled.
We start the day early at 4 to get the flight which will take us from Nagpur to Bengaluru first. A rather extended, tiresome inevitable layover of 6 hours & a delayed flight sees us at the grand Kannur international airport, we are greeted by a giant mural of the Theyyam!! What a sight!!! The airport at Kannur blows one away both with its pristine location ensconced in the midst of picturesque hills & also the grandeur & aesthetic of the airport building itself. Scarcely have I seen an airport so beautiful.
Anticipation, excitement & trepidation are all vying for attention on the emotional landscape even as we make our way down a winding road flanked by beautiful houses typical of the Malabar.
Lets see!! Sunlight- alright!!!
We reach the house of Mr Santosh Vengara in a small settlement called Vengara close to the town of Payangudi in northern Kerala, between Kannur & Kasargod. At a stone’s throw distance, lie the ruins of some shrines, which I am told, were destroyed during the reign of Tipu Sultan.
After settling down for a bit, we move out for our first tryst with the “Gods”.
Santosh is a local guy who actually had been in Dubai for the best part of the last 20 years working in a warehousing company as a finance manager. But the monotony of life in Dubai & the strong pull of home, capped by the desire to document & help preserve the fast-eroding cultural heritage of Theyyam, saw him leave his job & settle in India.
So Santosh decides that we head to a place called Katampalli Kavu in the Chirakkal area. A small, but beautifully built set of three shrines set in the shade of a small grove in the midst of a small clutch of houses, makes for a quaint setting for an elaborate ritual. The Theyyakaran are busy getting ready when we reach. After what seems like an invocation of the deity & having sought permission from the Deity to enter the act( this bit is known as Thottam/Velatam).
They head to get their faces adorned with elaborate makeup, the material for which is made out of locally available produce like Manayola (Arsenic bisulphate) and turmeric for yellow colour, Chaayilyam (Mercury sulphate) and Kumkum i.e. vermilion for red/ saffron colour, Arimaavu (rice paste) for white color, Neelam for Blue colour, Neelam mixed with Manayola to obtain Green colour and Kohl for black colour. These colours are then mixed with either water or suspended in oil and applied on the performer’s face with the sharpened mid rib of a coconut leaf that acts like a brush.
The performances happen day & night with different deities being worshipped at different times. The myths & legends which form the bedrock of these rituals vary with the place & the diety being worshipped. Drawn from the legends of yore, woven by human societies that inhabited the forests & lived off the land, they are fascinating & are generally regaled in the songs sung during the rituals. The musical accompaniments are the basic drums & wind instruments
The Theyyam enters the arena & after prostrating before the god starts getting into a trance & dances to the rhythm of the drums. The Mudi, or headgear, is elaborate. The first Theyyam I experience is Shri Pudiyavadappil Katampalli- Vellattam Kandanar Kelan. After much gyrating & invoking the fire gods the theyyakaran makes an exit. This the end of the introduction. The real action is to happen at midnight.
We return to Vengara village & settle down for a short sleep after having had a quick dinner.
We wake up at 2 am, get ready in a jiffy, and head back for the main Theyyam performance:
Kandanar Kelan Theyyam- a fire theyyam.
Attended by a wholesome crowd, given that it started at 2:30 am, it is a spectacle that needs to be experienced, since it imbues the senses & mind. Helped by the acolytes, the Theyyam runs through a straw & charcoal fire. Propitiates to the God & performs an amazing nuanced dance to the steady & roborant rhythm of the drum beats.
This is followed by the Vayanat Kulavan Theyyam.
As the first rays of sun breach the shroud of darkness, the last performance unfolds.
Enter the Thekkan Gullikan theyyam. With a headgear handmade from tender leaves of the betelnut tree & some sticks, towering over 18 feet in length/height. The Theyyam balances it on its head & dances to the beats, all the while blessing those present.
The Theyyakaran, after their performances of dance rituals are over, being considered living gods, give an audience to those present, listen to their private grievances & bless them all and assure a remedy to the problems. Showing the deep-seated roots of this whole ritual- of Humans becoming demigods & acting as a medium for the mortal souls.
The next day dawns & after some lazing around, a legacy of the overnight jamboree, we head to the beaches nearby to watch a performance of Kalari-Payattu, put up by some kids who have mastered this difficult art.
Accompanied by their teacher they show us their daring moves first with sword & shield, then with sticks & finally with a special sword called Daandpatta- something of a pair of sharp edges steel belts fixed to a wooden handle & used somewhat akin to the Nun-chuck to the Japanese and Chinese martial arts. Finally, they finish off, as the sun sets behind them & an Air India flight flies by in the skies, with some hand to hand combat moves.
We return home to the generous hospitality of our friend & host, Santosh, at his homestay & sleep for the night
Meeting the rising sun the next day we are up early, get ready & have a heavy breakfast of Dosa & chutney because we are going to spend the day in a rather remote place in Kanangad municipal area in Kasargod district- a place called Monacha. It is a small hamlet in the midst of a forest. The initial plan for the day was to head to Puttur in Karnataka to witness the race of Buffaloes called Kambala. A part of our group head tither, but I & my friend decide it is best to do a daytime Theyyam- enamoured as we were by its charm & magic. So, our friends dropped us off at Monacha & headed to Puttur themselves.
What a magical place Monacha turns out to be. After some initial introductions & understanding the basic etiquette to be followed at the place, we get ourselves set for the day. A secluded place in the depression of a small hill, this is the Shree Bhagawathi temple owned by a family of the same name. Consisting of a perimeter wall enclosing a courtyard containing a couple of shrines & beyond that in another area a dining area & the washrooms.
The Theyyakaran are getting ready for their performances. All people are extremely cooperative, warm & welcoming. We photograph at leisure & as the people open up we manage some nice portraits. The performances flow in a rhythm of the divine percussion of drums.
What rhythm! What atmosphere! Sheer unbridled extravagance!!!
Around 1 pm, a communal lunch is organised. This needs some special mention. The crowd is multitudinous, a good 800 heads, yet everyone queues up diligently, no chaos, no pushing , no shoving. The volunteers hand out the steel plates & the plates are soon
VISHNOOMOORTHI filled up with the prasadam- boiled rice, sambar, chutney, chickpea bhaji followed by the saccharine Payasam. The hosts make special exception for us two & serve us specially. The prasadam is really something for the Gods, extremely fresh & ambrosial. It is followed by the delectable Payasam. Now comes the most astonishing part, for me at least: post-lunch, everyone literally, again queues up, diligently empties their plates of any residual food which is minuscule( leaving any part of Prasadam is considered bad manners across India) & then all file past a row of taps, wash their respective dishes carefully with the hand, clean them, wash their hands and hand the plates to a group of volunteers, in their turn again clean the dishes with soap water & they return to the serving area.
This was something I have never seen in India and trust me on that since I have seen a fair bit.
We return to our photoshoot and make some more images.
While resting in the shade of a tree we meet a gentleman. An Uncle, in his mid 60’s, strikes a conversation with me. On learning that I came all way from Maharashtra to this small secluded place he is amazed and full of gratitude. Having retired from the Kerala electricity board. Uncle Balan, I learn is his name, shyly almost apologetically tells me that he is the owner of this temple. He sees to our comfort, instructs all artists to cooperate in our endeavour to photograph. We finish our shoot & take Balan Uncle’s leave and head back to our friend Santosh’s home for the night.
The Theyyam performers themselves, abide to a period of strict asceticism prior to the days of their ritual performance & thoroughly cleanse themselves. Thereafter whence they start the performance and maybe even before that, they enter a trance and are totally unmindful of the physical trials that entail the performances like the Fire Theyyam. They enchant, enthral and also provide succour to the bedraggled minds of the devotees. Even one who isn’t conversant with the Malayalam language which is the Lingua franca in this part of the country; or the cultural connotations of the rituals, is held in thrall by the sheer grandeur of the performances & the whole atmosphere is charged with an energy that elevates all this to the level of limbic resonance.
I had the fortune of being a witness to some enchanting Theyyam performances in Kannur. The hospitality of the locals, their discipline, their warm acceptance of outsiders like me and the eagerness to make us comfortable & also to understand their cultural nuances was a privilege. The images I was able to make do not do justice to what I felt. Nor can they achieve the humungous task of conveying the aura of divinity a person feels there. I return home awestruck with the grandeur I have witnessed!
Spirituality is a state wherein a person rises above his mundane love for material things & attempts to be in communion with the Holy providence.
Theyyam are Gods, who, the locals believe, descend to bless us mortals.
I believe Theyyam has divinity written all over it.
After reading this wonderful write-up want to go see this dance in person
If, indeed, I have been able to inspire you with my work, I consider it a success.
Outstanding images . Brilliantly captured Light and shades and the colours .
Thanks so much sir.
Excellent, excellent photos, and a very nice free-flowing write-up. The article is an honest ode to the elegant and enchanting Theyyam.
The photos have come out as pristine as the Theyyam ritual – pictures look so spiritual, in sync with the art. Outstanding!
Thanks. You have eulogised my work a bit too much here. I have only attempted to capture the beauty of a divine ritual. How can one claim to have captured the essence of God?
Nice description of a tradition usually forgotten in today’s modern era.
Love reading your blogs though it takes long time.
Excellent photos 👌👌
Thanks! The trouble with a topic like this is that it needs justice. Talking about it in a fleeting manner would have been a mistake. And breaking it into two parts would kill the flow. I am sure you will excuse me for the length of this one.
veryinspiring and unique way to pray God.