A ritual performance in the Kolathunadu region of Kerala, theyyam is characterised by the use of elaborate, crowned masks that represent particular deities. The word ‘theyyam’ is derived from the Sanskrit daivam, referring to a mythologized ancestor, a local Hindu god or goddess, hero, animal or force of nature. The term is also used to refer to the performance itself. There are over 600 kinds of theyyam rituals performed today, primarily by Dalit communities.
Theyyam is believed to manifest the physical presence of a deity, with each deity requiring a different kind of ritual. The belief system around the deities can be of two kinds — directly connected to the Hindu pantheon, or derived from folk tales and stories of people who were later deified. The Vannan, Malayan, Velan, Anjoottan, Kopalan, Pulayan, Mavilan, Vettuvan and Kolathari communities are the primary performers of theyyam, although a wide range of communities participate in theyya rituals.
The primary ceremony within theyyam is known as kaliyattam, a festival which is organised in a shrine by a joint family or caste community on specific days of the Malayalam calendar, typically between the months of November and May. More public theyyams are also held, such as the perumkaliyattam held every five, fifteen or twenty-five years and the nerchakaliyattam, held to celebrate extraordinary events. Families can also request home visits for the performance of a theyyam, which may be invoked to help with an illness or a crisis or to inaugurate a new home. Theyyam is primarily performed by men, with the exception of the devakkooth theyyam, which is performed by women. The music, also known as vadyam, is performed with a chenda (cylindrical drum), cymbals and pipes.
The kolakaran (main performer), who will embody the theyyam, begins to observe a lifestyle of abstinence about two weeks before the ritual commences. The location of the performance is typically conveyed through word of mouth. It may last between three to six days, each of which is dedicated to a different stage of the rituals. On the first day, a thorram or a ritual prayer song is performed, wherein the kolakaran wears a small part of the ritual crown. The painting of the face and body is undertaken the following day, referred to as vellatam. The performer also wears half of the designated outfit, sans the divine crown. On the third day of the ritual, the kolakaran wears the rest of the sacred crown, thus completing his transformation into the depicted deity. The kolakaran, embodying the deity, recites from a litany of prayer songs as the intensity of the music steadily increases. He strikes his body with sharp swords, participates in further ritual singing and chanting, and recites prophecies and spells to ward away evil and bad luck and grant blessings to the participants. The celebrations involve members from the entire local community, invited to participate according to their status in the social structure. Certain theyyams such as the Thettam Vellatam might include audience participation wherein the theyyam might chase or directly interact with them.
Although the actual origin of the form is unclear, theyyam rituals have been associated with tantric rites and performances due to the use of offerings of blood and meat. It has also been suggested that theyyam may have emerged from either a fertility cult of premodern agrarian societies in the region, or from cults of hero worship dating back to the Sangam period. Contemporary theyyam forms are also credited to the work of Manakkadan Gurukul, a tantric saint, who is believed to have showcased thirty-nine kinds of theyyam to the king Chirakkal Tampuran of the Kolathiri dynasty in Kannur. The king selected thirty-five forms from those presented, which were consecrated and formed the first theyyam performances. Theyyam rituals have similarities with forms such as Bhuta Kola rituals from the Tulu region in South Karnataka and Mudiyettu rituals from South Kerala.
Theyyam performances invite and incorporate transgression from the established caste and social order. The invocation of shakti (cosmic energy associated with mother goddess cults) in the ritual actions of theyyam may bring about actions not adherent to established caste and social order. Examples include the Muchilottu Bhagavati theyyam, which is the story of a young woman ostracised by patriarchal male Brahmin scholars, and the Thottinkara Bhagavati theyyam, about a woman from the Thiyya community murdered by high caste rulers for reading a religious book. A popular theyyam performed in North Kerala is the Potten theyyam, which revolves around the life of Adi Shankara, a sage and scholar of Hinduism. During the months of July and August, recognised in the Malayalam calendar as Karkidakam, the Adivedan and Galinjan theyyam are performed in individual households to prevent disease. This theyyam is performed primarily by young boys, with the visits restricted to Saturdays and Sundays.
Theyyam has drawn renewed interest in recent years, with perumkaliyattam being performed at various shrines and urban centres. Since 2021, the Kerala government has promoted the theyyam festival at Andalur Kavu temple as part of its Thalassery Heritage Project.
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