Art Work of TheyyamIn December 2005, I had a chance to go to North Kerala with my friend and fellow photoblogger Thulasi Das to his native place, a beautiful village called Kakkaatt, in Nileshwaram, Kasaragod district. My aim was to see as much Theyyams as possible and know more about this ritual and also to do an interview with the famous Theyyam performer Sri. Rajan Panicker.

Theyyam, otherwise known as Kaliyattom, is an ancient socio religious ceremony performed in Kerala since very remote times. As the word Kaliyattom denotes, this is a sacred dance performance for Kali. Kaliyattom is sometimes called Theyyattom because every thera or village was duly bound to perform it. These names show that Kaliyattoms were special festivals of religious and social importance.

Sri. Rajan Panicker began to perform Theyyam from the age of 12 and he is son of Sri. Kannan Panicker who was honored by Kerala Folklore Academy in 1999. Rajan Panicker talks about Theyyam and its socio-religious backgrounds.

The name Theyyam originates from the word Theivam, which means God.

Q) Let’s start talking about the origin of Theyyam.

A) In the early days our forefathers used to worship snakes, trees etc. Theyyam comes apart from that. There are different types of Theyyam peformed by different castes – Vannaan, Malayan, Velan, Anjoottaan, Koppaalan etc. Some of these Theyyams originated from the late forefathers or from the myth of someone who sacrificed his life to prove his innocence in the society. Each Theyyam has a background story. Let us take Vishnumoorthy Theyyam for example. This Theyyam was shown to one of our forefathers, who were called Paalayi Parappan, in his dream. The prayers and mantras to recite while performing this Theyyam was written in the sand by the time he woke up in the morning. In the modern days we have added more colors to the whole thing.

Q) Is there any myth behind Theyyam?

A) Yes, there is. Every Theyyam has a myth. I will talk about one. Let’s take Pottan Theyyam for example. The myth is that Lord Shiva came as a Pulayan (Pottan Theyyam) to test Sankaraachaarya (Pulayan is a low caste) and asked questions like, “What is the difference between you and me? Isn’t it the same blood running through our body? Then why should we differentiate ourselves?” etc. Every Theyyam has such a myth in the background and it is strongly connected to the modern society.

Q) How old is this ritual?

A) I cannot say about an accurate timeframe on this. In the early days when there was dynasty ruling, they needed Theyyam to be performed in their celebrations and made the low caste to do it. Then there were many additions to it and it transformed to this level.

Q) Where do you perform Theyyam?

A) Its performed in Palliyara, Kaavu, Sthaanam etc.

Q) What is the difference between this Palliyara and a normal temple with idols?

A) Temples have idol worship, poojas etc, but Palliayara has only Theyyams which is performed once in every year or so.

Attakkaattu BhagavathiThis is what makes the Kaavu and Palliyara of low-caste different from the temples of high-castes. These Kaavus don’t have everyday Poojas or rituals. There is no idol to worship, but just a lamp lit that depicts the eternal light of God. Their Gods come in the form of Theyyam in every year or so to see and talk to the devotees. Remember, such a beautiful concept of God existed here ages ago.

Also remember that the low-caste took the form of God through Theyyam at a time when they were not allowed to enter the temples. Think about a situation when even the high-caste people (some sub-castes of Nair, a high-caste) praying to the God that comes in the form of Theyyam, performed by a low-caste and read this along with the then social situation of Kerala divided on the caste basis. Then only we can understand the social importance of Theyyam. Eventhough this is the case, Theyyam could not escape the caste-system totally. In the time of blessings (which is the final part of Theyyam performance) Theyyam first calls the family name of high-caste people present at the ceremony and would give them special blessings. Seeing this would make us feel that Theyyam is representing the God who is helpless with the caste system.

Rajan Panicker says: Although we have the myths against caste system in Theyyam, it is not possible to make it practical while performing Theyyam. We can give an insight to the community through Theyyam, but the caste-system is very strict here. There is no compromise in it.

(To be continued…)

Translated from the M-Pod episode. Click here to listen to Theyyam episode in M-Pod, The Malayalam Podcaster.

Image 1: Facial artwork of Theyyam (See the art on his face. In the early days, only the natural colors were used but now they use artificial colors for this. )

Image 2: A Bhagavathi (Goddess) Theyyam (This Goddess is named Attakkaattu Bhagavati. The interesting thing you will notice is the Goddess theyyams are performed by men, not women. Some say it is because the women wouldn’t be able to manage the painful/stressful ritual and the heavy costumes.)

Images copyright: Joseph Thomas.