Theyyam – Living Deities

theyyam-sacred-ritual-kerala-india-sarah-hickson-3606Theyyam is an ancient Hindu ceremony in which stories of the gods are interpreted through nocturnal ritual performances. Specific to the Malabar region of Northern Kerala, Theyyam involves dance, music, costumes, trance & fire. Performers go through rigorous training & preparation to enable the spirit of a particular deity to enter their body & interact with their devotees on specific dates determined by an astrologer.

AJ, our driver indicates a narrow pathway lit intermittently with bright fluorescent tubes, & lined on both sides by tall palms & 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 small Hindu temple comes into view, adorned with flower garlands & strings of coloured lights. The temple sits on a raised platform, with several square shrines around it. Women & children gather on one side of the compound, men on the other.

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

The Theyyam artists are in a trance when they enter the temple area & begin their ritual performances. The atmosphere is edgy & unpredictable. Glowing embers from small fires are raked into neat piles & the air fills with smoke. The Oracle, or Revealer of Light leads a hypnotic dance accompanied by pulsating drums. The flames burn with increased vigour as the Theyyams circle the temple compound, surveying the audience.

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 costume is distinctive - a tall headpiece made from coconut fronds and a mask with large, round eyes. The fire torches on Puthiya Bhagavathi's headdress & skirt are ablaze.

The most dramatic of the Theyyams is the warrior god Kandanar Kelan. Red-hot ash & sparks fly into the air as he leaps through the flames of a raging fire. It's intoxicating - the drums, the shouting, the heat, the highly decorated bodies silhouetted against the flames – a heady cocktail.

As dawn breaks, the exhausted Theyyams sit as their devotees approach them silently to be blessed. In the early morning light a few smudges of black soot on Kandanar Kelan's face & body are the only visible signs of his nocturnal dance with fire. 

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