The Time-Turner Series || Discovering Theyyam in Kannur, Kerala

A lot of people confuse Theyyams with Kathakali, and there are good reasons for that. There is considerable similarity in the makeup, getup and some dance moves. But the fact is that there are fundamental differences between both the art forms, in terms of both purpose and artists. While Kathakali has evolved as an art form and is often used to depict epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat, Theyyam is mostly used to propagate and sustain deity worship. Most of the performers in Kathakali are Brahmins, whereas most people who perform Theyyams belong to the castes that society terms as "low".
Intricate patterns being painted on an artist's face. This man isn't a Theyyam till he is in his full attire
A lot of people confuse Theyyams with Kathakali, and there are good reasons for that. There is considerable similarity in the makeup, getup and some dance moves. But the fact is that there are fundamental differences between both the art forms, in terms of both purpose and artists. While Kathakali has evolved as an art form and is often used to depict epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat, Theyyam is mostly used to propagate and sustain deity worship. Most of the performers in Kathakali are Brahmins, whereas most people who perform Theyyams belong to the castes that society terms as "low".



It was Theyyams we were excited about when we were in Kerala in December 2014. We happened to be at Kannur at the right time. And if you are there close to Theyyam festival, make sure you pay them a visit. It will be worth it. The fact that two years later, I am writing a time-turner post about the entire festival from memory is an indication of how impactful it is.
Artist in the process of becoming Pulimaran


It was Theyyams we were excited about when we were in Kerala in December 2014. We happened to be at Kannur at the right time. And if you are there close to Theyyam festival, make sure you pay them a visit. It will be worth it. The fact that two years later, I am writing a time-turner post about the entire festival from memory is an indication of how impactful it is. 


I remember we had some trouble getting to the village where Theyyam was being performed. We had to change cabs and when we reached there, the prayers hadn't really started. We happened to chance upon some artists getting their makeup done for their performances. VJ took full advantage of this rare opportunity and clicked away to his heart's content.
Priests chanting stories of Theyyams
I remember we had some trouble getting to the village where Theyyam was being performed. We had to change cabs and when we reached there, the prayers hadn't really started. We happened to chance upon some artists getting their makeup done for their performances. VJ took full advantage of this rare opportunity and clicked away to his heart's content.


While VJ clicked pictures, I went and sat on the benches around the temple's boundary. By this time, the chanting had started. The intonations of the two priests who were chanting sounded mournful and full of foreboding to us, but a young girl sitting next to me explained that the priests were singing about the Theyyam who was about to perform next.
Pulimaran performing in the temple complex
While VJ clicked pictures, I went and sat on the benches around the temple's boundary. By this time, the chanting had started. The intonations of the two priests who were chanting sounded mournful and full of foreboding to us, but a young girl sitting next to me explained that the priests were singing about the Theyyam who was about to perform next.


If you think that the Theyyams came in soon after the chanting began, you cannot be more wrong. They made us wait, those Theyyams. They made us wait for what seemed like hours. But when they did come in, it was nothing short of magical. Their feet danced to the percussions and they looked magnificient with their grand headdresses and the otherworldly makeup.
This was the Theyyam of Naginiamma - one of the toughest to represent. The costume is very restrictive and did not allow for any arm or neck movement. The arms stuck out at a very uncomfortable angle.
If you think that the Theyyams came in soon after the chanting began, you cannot be more wrong. They made us wait, those Theyyams. They made us wait for what seemed like hours. But when they did come in, it was nothing short of magical. Their feet danced to the percussions and they looked magnificient with their grand headdresses and the otherworldly makeup.


The first Theyyam to perform was pulimaran, a reincarnation of Vishnu. This Theyyam had a large but manageable headdress, but looked fierce with his kohl-lined eyes that were like marbles in the sockets. Pulimaran danced and performed prayers at the main temple and then went around temple complex blessing people and distributing Prasadam.
A Theyyam blessing the priests. These performers are considered as God themselves once they don the Theyyam costume
The first Theyyam to perform was pulimaran, a reincarnation of Vishnu. This Theyyam had a large but manageable headdress, but looked fierce with his kohl-lined eyes that were like marbles in the sockets. Pulimaran danced and performed prayers at the main temple and then went around temple complex blessing people and distributing Prasadam.


The next Theyyam made a grand entrance. He wore an enormous headgear than Pulimaran. It was while watching this Theyyam that the true hardship of being a Theyyam really struck me. With the heavy headgear and elaborate costume, this Theyyam performed for a long time, never once showing any sign of fatigue. The realization about the kind of hardwork that goes into performing a Theyyam was overwhelming. Full of respect for the professionals behind the customs, I watched rest of the Theyyams in awe.
Pulimaran distributing Prasadam
The next Theyyam made a grand entrance. He wore a much bigger headgear than Pulimaran. It was while watching this Theyyam that the true hardship of being a Theyyam really struck me. With the heavy headgear and elaborate costume, this Theyyam performed for a long time, never once showing any sign of fatigue. The realization about the kind of hardwork that goes into performing a Theyyam was overwhelming. Full of respect for the professionals behind the customs, I watched rest of the Theyyams in awe.


Another memory I still carry of that day is oranges. We were there almost the entire day and were very hungry. Only a couple of hawkers were in sight and we bought a dozen oranges and ate them through the day. They were tiny oranges, but were incredibly sweet. Around the evening we discovered that the temple had organized community meals for everyone. We wanted to taste the meal, but the queue was huge. Some organizers however spotted us in the queue and gave us a back door entry. They probably noticed that we were ready to pass out because of humidity and hunger. I have no particular memories of the meal itself though.
Naginiamma performing Pooja. It must have been painful to move the arms as the costume didn't allow for that. Moreover, the fact that these Theyyams don't sweat wearing this costume in sweltering heat is no less than a miracle.
Another memory I still carry of that day is oranges. We were there almost the entire day and were very hungry. Only a couple of hawkers were in sight and we bought a dozen oranges and ate them through the day. They were tiny oranges, but were incredibly sweet. Around the evening we discovered that the temple had organized community meals for everyone. We wanted to taste the meal, but the queue was huge. Some organizers however spotted us in the queue and gave us a back door entry. They probably noticed that we were ready to pass out because of humidity and hunger. I have no particular memories of the meal itself though.


We headed back after that looking forward to another evening on the beach. While we were in the village, it felt like another world altogether and though we liked it there, we wanted to be back in the world we recognized. Today when I think of it, while the Theyyam experience was memorable, I probably won't go out of my way to watch it again because of the sheer torture of sitting in the humid heat without any shelter. But everyone should experience it once at least.
Anklets worn by Theyyams - these ornaments made a metallic sound when Theyyams danced to the percussion instruments.

We headed back after that looking forward to another evening on the beach. While we were in the village, it felt like another world altogether and though we liked it there, we wanted to be back in the world we recognized. Today when I think of it, while the Theyyam experience was memorable, I probably won't go out of my way to watch it again because of the sheer torture of sitting in the humid heat without any shelter. But everyone should experience it once at least. 


If you liked this post and found it helpful, I would request you to follow these things when traveling - 

1. Manage your waste well and don’t litter Use dustbins.
2. Tell us if you went to a place and found it hard to locate a dustbin. 

3. Avoid bottle waters in hills. Usually you get clean water in hills and water bottles create lot of mess in our ecosystem. 

4. Say big no to plastic and avoid those unhealthy snacks packed in plastic bags. Rather buy fruits. 


5. Don't play loud blaring music in forests of jungle camps. You are a guest in that ecosystem and disturbing the locals (humans and animals) is not polite

Comments

dNambiar said…
Brilliant pictures of the Theyyams and the mood, VJ.
This must have been quite an experience.
sunil deepak said…
Beautiful pictures! I saw Theyyam costumes in a museum and visiting a performance is on my wish list!

Trending Post Today !

Travel Guide for Weekend Destinations around Delhi during Winters

Apple Park - a place worth exploring in Cupertino, San Francisco Bay Area