North Kerala Theyyam, Vishnumoorthi, Narasimha


I passed through the towering bamboo gate just as the morning sun was starting to break through the clouds and shed light on the temple complex, which was showing off its last bits of calm and cool before the calamity and heat arrived. I loitered around the temple talking to strangers who would approach frequently and inquire my location of origin. A younger, friendly guy, named Sagit asked me if I “believed in the power of Theyyam?” I told him that I thought it was a very powerful experience, but that the power might feel different for he and I as observers. He seemed satisfied with this and decided we could be friends. For the rest of the day he was not far from my side filling me in on the Theyyam customs.Passing around the back of the temple I was pleased to find the Theyyam dancer sitting alone in a small hut, quietly applying his makeup for the first performance. I smiled, touched my heart as a sign of respect, bobbed the head and watched as he traced lines of the brightest orange across his face. He mixed the natural dye in half of a coconut shell before scooping the paint out onto a banana leaf, and dabbing at it with a thin stick. The sunrise crept through the thin door of the hut and moved up towards his face as he opened a small sack of vermilion powder. Switching colors he began to fill in the spaces on his face with the flush red, seeming to borrow the new color directly from the sunrise.

Sagit found me gawking at the makeup session, and pulled me away for breakfast. He insisted that we get the food now, or else be forced to wait in line with thousands of hungry people that also dine on the free meals that the festival coordinators and temple donations provide. I took off my shoes and cautiously tiptoed into the kitchen area to see how they were pulling off providing free food for the people. 75 kilos of rice were already being brewed in large cauldrons over fires and it was only 7am.

As the dancer was preparing, small child informants would approach, shyly ask my name and nationality, and then going running back triumphantly to a huddle of women in saris waiting to hear the report. Before long my basic info had circulated through the crowd. Men would turn to a new comer and kindly catch him up to speed on my back story in Malayalam. The only part of the explanation I understood was my name, hand gestures, and the bits of English that were required to get across the facts. Overall, the kids were doing me a service, everyone seemed to be a lot more comfortable once they had some back story to assign to my presence.

The drums signaled that the first performance was approaching. The dancer had filled in his face with the vermilion and his eye sockets were jet black. His lips were painted on fully and he wore red breasts on his chest, invoking the female warrior goddess Chamundi, the Devi.

After the dance, a large balance scale was pulled out and added to the mix of rituals in front of the temple door. At first this caused a bit of anarchy as various queues formed; two lines divided by gender snaked all the way around the back of the temple to wait for the Devi, a gathering for the tumeric wrapped in Bodhi leaves and donation box at the temple door, and others began to slide into position to sit on the large balance scale and purchase their weight in tropical fruit. I had to ask for further explanation as to what the hell was going on after I saw people being weighed against mountains of bananas and coconuts. Most of the human weights were women sitting with children in their arms on the scale. They were the only slice of quiet in the whole scene, slowly lifting in the crowd of men, cradling the next generation as bananas and coconuts were piled onto the opposite side. The fruit paid for her blessings from theDevi and the hopeful answer to her long awaited prayers.

Kasaragod, Kerala

Video clip of the palm craftsmen who make the intricate costumes for the Theyyam. The guy next to me was the equivalent of a balloon man at a carnival, creating all sorts of animals, fish, a sun, etc… only his medium is palm leaves and a pocket knife.

Vishnumoorthi Theyyam (video below) is one of the most popular forms in the area due to a revival of Vaishnavism in Kerala. The crowd grew considerably for this performance and some Vishnu devotees ran through a fire, stomping out coals with their bare feet and making a huge ruckus to start it off. Currently, all of the Theyyam is categorized into various Hindu cults, but the Theyyam tradition predates this, and what is being shown is an open theater ritual which has routes in indigenous tribal traditions. This was very apparent as I witnessed my first animal sacrifice in India as a rooster lost its head behind me.

Second Vid

Vishnu devotees running barefoot through burning coals to begin the Vishnamoorthi Theyyam performance in Kasaragod, Kerala.

Narasimha is half lion, half man avatar of Vishnu. Statues of the deity date back over 1,500 years in South India and more recent statues can be found in temples in Indonesia and Cambodia. Although there is some record of Narasimha in early texts, the entry of Narasimha into Hinduism is still a bit dubious. The character of the half lion and half man is wrathful, and he destroys and protects with vengeance, disemboweling demons and killing all over the place. These characteristics do not jive with the normal descriptions of passive Vishnu and most likely Narasimha came out of some form of animism and was later sewn into the pantheon of gods. Narasimha is currently a very popular figure of devotion and is regarded as the great protector.

The Story of Narasimha

As usual the deity has an epic story to accompany it. Basically, Vishnu killed someone and his brother, Hiranyakashipu, vows to avenge his brother’s death. Hiranyakashipu prays to Brahma for a long time until Brahma grants him a boon, to which Hiranyakashipu requests:

O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you. Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving created by you. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets.” -Bhaktivedanta VedaBase: Srimad Bhagavatam

Brahma grants Hiranyakashipu the wish and he becomes very powerful, but is still quite a cruel character. This is shown by his plans to kill his son Prahlada, who does not recognize his father as the highest power. His father inquires why if Vishnu is so powerful is he not in the pillar in front of him. His son replies, “He was, he is, and he will be.”

Hiranyakaship is angered by his son’s defiance and his commitment to his sworn enemy Vishnu. He smashes the pillar and plans to kill his son, when Narasimha arrives. Narasimha (not human or animal) attacks Hiranyakashipu at dusk (not day or night) on the threshold of the house (not inside or outside a residence) places him on his knee (not ground or sky) and rips his bowels out with his claws (not using a weapon). Narasimha is worshiped as a protector deity and the epic invokes the ideas of omnipresence (Vishnu) and right action (Prahlada).

  1. Kuttan’s avatar

    I like this
    Your observsion power is great