Theyyam – Living Deities

theyyam-sacred-ritual-kerala-india-sarah-hickson-3606Theyyam is an ancient Hindu tradition, specific to the Malabar region of Northern Kerala in India. During Theyyam, stories of the gods are interpreted by skilled performers who are believed to embody the spirit of a particular deity. Theyyam artists undergo rigorous physical and mental training before taking part in these mysterious nocturnal rituals involving dance, music, costumes, trance and fire.

Astrologers determine the date and location of each Theyyam ceremony, which generally take place at small family temples. Our driver AJ indicates a narrow path lit intermittently with bright fluorescent tubes and lined on both sides by thick jungle undergrowth. As we make our way in silence down the dirt track, the faint drumming we could hear from the road becomes more distinct. Tucked away beneath the trees a modest temple comes into view, adorned with flower garlands and strings of coloured lights. The temple sits on a raised platform, with several square shrines around it. Women and children gather on one side of the compound, men on the other.

Set back from the temple, a blue tarpaulin hangs loosely from the trees. The ground below is strewn with coconut leaves. It is here that the Theyyam performers prepare for their transformation, supported by assistants and apprentices. 'Face-writing' is an integral part of a Theyyam artist's metamorphosis from mortal to deity. The elaborate make-up completely masks the human face, taking several hours of  artistry to apply. After the base layer of scarlet and orange has been applied, symbolic details are added in black, with a fine quill made from a coconut stem.

The Theyyam artists are in a trance when they begin their ritual performances. The Oracle, or 'Revealer of Light' leads a hypnotic dance around a fire, accompanied by pulsating drums.  As the Theyyams circle the temple compound, surveying the audience, the flames burn with increased vigour. The atmosphere is edgy and intense.

The god Pulliyoor Kannan dances elegantly, his heavy ankle bracelets accentuating the rhythmic drumming. Gulikan is an unpredictable god - sometimes angry, sometimes benevolent, often playing tricks. His distinctive costume comprises a tall headpiece made from coconut fronds, and a mask with large, round eyes. The fire torches on Puthiya Bhagavathi's headdress and skirt are ablaze. The most dramatic of the Theyyams is the warrior god Kandanar Kelan. Red-hot ash flies into the air as he leaps through the flames of a raging fire. It's intoxicating - the fierce heat, the drums, the shouting and the jostling of the agitated crowd.

As dawn breaks, devotees approach the exhausted Theyyams to make offerings and receive a personal blessing. In the early morning light a few smudges of black soot on Kandanar Kelan's face and body are the only visible signs of his nocturnal dance with fire. 

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