The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.
Bright red costumes. Faces painted a fierce red. Makeup, stark and layered. Eyes burning through a thick application of kohl. The long headdress is a combination of red and silver. Turmeric paste covers the forehead. Brass anklets. Above it all is an ornate breastplate.
The thought that immediately comes to mind is a Kathakali dancer. But this is no Kathakali dance.
Dance of the Gods
Kerala is known for its backwaters, scenic beauty, the aroma of spices, and rich culture. It is also known for its various dance forms, one of which theyyam. Theyyam is derived from daivam, the Malayalam word for God.
Theyyam is said to have originated as a fertility ritual. Though a dance form, it is not performed for entertainment. This is a dance of the Gods, a ritualistic display of centuries-old worship. Mainly performed in the Northern parts of Kerala, the purpose of this dance worship is to unite humanity with divinity.
Before the deity can be invoked, the (invariably) male dancer decks up in makeup and costume. He then stares at his image in a small mirror that he holds in his hand. This act is called mukha darshan. This is the moment he manifests into a deity.
For the spectators, this is no performance. The dancers are thought to get possessed by the spirits of gods and goddesses. Their performance is so pure and divine, the spirituality engulfs the atmosphere and the spectators both.
The dancers arrive at the temple accompanied by the hypnotic rhythm of the drums. As the sounds of their footsteps grow nearer, reverence grips the crowds. They watch enthralled as the dancers, through their energetic and powerful performances as gods, goddesses, demons, and spirit, depict mythological stories.
As the dancers perform their last act — walking or leaping into the fire, rolling on burning coal — they transcend their human bodies, appearing to be, to the watchers, the gods themselves, capable of blessing or cursing, saving or destroying.
The ritual ends with the dancers distributing blessings — kuri (turmeric powder) and rice. When the music begins to wind down, the devotees throw this rice on the theyyam.
After the conclusion of their performance, the dancers give an audience. Always, a large crowd gathers, seeking blessings, and also advice on how to invite prosperity and overcome adversity.
Theyyam has more than 450 variations, each with its own unique style, music and choreography. Some of the more popular theyyams are vishnumoorthi, gulikan and kuttichathan.
As per Hindu legends, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Parasurama, bestowed the theyyam to the people of North Kerala, especially the Malabar region.
The theyyam festival, which lasts for two days, takes place each year in May or in December. The festival is celebrated in more than 1200 temples across North Kerala.
Most communities, households, and villages have their own deity, and accordingly, they celebrate theyyam.
Worshipped By All
Theyyam is customarily performed by men from the lower strata of Kerala’s caste structure. Although the caste system is conventionally followed in North Kerala, the theyyam dancers, in their divine form, are worshiped by all classes of people. This can be a big incentive for men from these castes to be a theyyam.
Preparations to become a theyyam starts at a very young age. It can dancers take years to master the complexity of face painting, and making costumes from coconut husk.
Before acquiring the divine avatar of the gods and goddesses, the dancers purify themselves. They follow a strict code which includes celibacy and staying away from non-vegetarian food and alcohol.
The tradition of theyyam is integral to the cultural fabric of Kerala, fitting perfectly its label of “God’s Own Country.”
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