Dance of the Gods

Theyyam Sunrise Sword

Theyyam is a very old tradition in northern Kerala in the area also known as North Malabar. The tradition has its roots in Neolithic culture and has been practiced by tribal communities in the area for thousands of years, predating the Brahmic traditions of Hinduism. Theyyam means ‘God’, and the festival centers around dancers who evoke and invite Gods to enter their bodies and then perform dances while being possessed and wearing extremely elaborate costumes and face paint. Devotees treat the dancer as a God and hope to receive graces and influences from that specific spirit. The interaction between devotee and holy is very direct during the ceremony: worshippers are able to pray to the God in a human form, give offerings, and speak with and listen to the deity’s message.

We wandered around the cow pen to take our minds off of the time. The rickshaw driver was already over half an hour late and we had a train to catch heading north to Kasaragod if we had any hopes of attending the opening ceremony of a three day Theyyam festival. I stared back down at the small cows tied up before me, an indigenous breed that evolved in the jungles of Kerala which is now a rarity after the arrival of larger European breeds. Ashok said, “they are better for this environment, they don’t over heat, don’t over eat, and their milk is more easy for humans to digest.” I kept investigating the miniature cows so I would stop pacing.

The main motivation for riding the rails into the northern most district of Kerala was to attend this festival, which now hung in the balance, dependent on a nonchalant rickshaw drive. Finally, Ashok’s cell rang, I grabbed at my bags before he hung up and we started moving towards the driveway, walking up the hill to meet the belated driver.

The train was running an hour late so we made it in time. I sipped on a cup of chai with relief, welcoming the Indian railway system’s typical unreliability with open arms. It seems that the trains are just running to the same beat as the rest of the country, efficiency wearing a veil. If everything is late, then is not everything on time?

The ceremony began after sunset and went all night long, concluding with a sunrise dance. Theyyams are often performed at the times of the day that coincide with the epic tales of that particular God. Three Theyyams were planned to take the festival well into the wee hours, with a fourth dialed for sunrise. I knew we were in for something big when I had to slip my chacos off at the entrance to the temple in what had to be a sea of over 500 pairs of sandals piled up at the gate.

The dancer stopped at many locations to yell and wave his array of silver weapons, until he came to a wooden deer that sat on a cart with wheels also carved from wood. The Theyyam dancer was helped by his topless helpers to sit on top of the wooden deer, he then screamed and the sky began to erupt with fireworks. The dancer towered over the crowd standing on his deer to yell out over the masses intermittently. The scene was epic; the procession, drums, fireworks, costume, weapons, and hollering did indeed convey an otherness that demanded attention and respect from the hoards of humans that stood in awe below. When the explosions and hoopla subsided, the escorts strained against ropes as they pulled the dancer on his deer-thrown over a dirt road towards his next temple destination, wooden wheels squeaking as they went.

Theyyam festival in Kasaragod, Kerala, India. Possessed dancer rides his wooden deer steed to a nearby temple behind procession and fireworks.

The procession with fireworks was the climax of the evening, but performances continued until after 3:00 a.m. By then, the crowd had dwindled from a few thousand to a handful. We were introduced to the dancer, who had removed his elaborate costume but still had his face paint on, as if the divine departed slowly, exiting his face last. I have never come across a more drastic contrast in someone’s identity. Just a short moment ago, people were touching this guy’s feet, treating him as heaven on earth, asking him for his advice on how to live, and offering him alms, but he would wake up in a few hours to being a lower caste teenage boy from the Indian country side.

The last dancer couldn’t have been older than eight years old, he sat on a stool breathing heavily and shaking from head to toe as he awaited his moment. When the mask finally went on, he looked at himself in a mirror, seeing the mask starring back he exploded into action, prancing about, whirling two clusters of palm that were ignited on the ends. Swirling smoke in front of the temple he ran off into the night circling the temple leaving trails of smoke and embers in his wake. The dance concluded with the snuffing out of the bundles of burning plant. As the coals burned out we were taken to a nearby home and treated with utmost hospitality, even given a bed to catch some shut eye before the sunrise Theyyam kicked off a few hours later. I woke up feeling like a lump of curd after the short rest, but had pulled most of my wits about me by the time the sound of drum trills hit my ears.

Theyyam closing mask dance.

Theyyam is a very old tradition in northern Kerala in the area also known as North Malabar. The tradition has its roots in Neolithic culture and has been practiced by tribal communities in the area for thousands of years, predating the Brahmic traditions of Hinduism. Theyyam means ‘God’, and the festival centers around dancers who evoke and invite Gods to enter their bodies and then perform dances while being possessed and wearing extremely elaborate costumes and face paint. Devotees treat the dancer as a God and hope to receive graces and influences from that specific spirit. The interaction between devotee and holy is very direct during the ceremony: worshippers are able to pray to the God in a human form, give offerings, and speak with and listen to the deity’s message.