The Dancing Gods and Goddesses of Malabar

While travelling through the north Malabar region, one would come across huge hoarding boards announcing various Theyyam festivals, locally called as Kaliyattam.

Published: 10th November 2021 01:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th November 2021 01:21 AM   |  A+A-

Madayil Chamundi, Annur, Kannur

The 27th of October 2021 was a normal working day for most of us. Even the local calendars of Kerala did not celebrate the day with the colour red. However, in north Kerala, the day initiated the festival season that would continue till the Southwest monsoon comes knocking on the doors of the state next year. Known as Patthaam Udayam, the 10th day of the month of Tula (Libra) in the Malayalam calendar witnesses the beginning of the Theyyam season in north Malabar, especially in Kannur and Kasaragod districts. While travelling through the region, one would come across huge hoarding boards announcing various Theyyam festivals, locally called as Kaliyattam (often mentioned as Perum Kaliyatta Mahotsavam, meaning Grand Performance Festival). If you are travelling by night on the national highway, you may be slowed down by the traffic congestion created by the makeshift market and parking connected to the festival. Slowing down thus, you may hear the beating of drums and the rhythmic chiming of anklets worn by the gods and goddesses. The season for the gods to descend upon north Malabar has arrived. For the next six months, these divinities will be dancing in various temples impersonated by proficient Theyyam artists. Through them, the deities will re-enact their great feats and sacrifices. They will converse with their devotees, heal their wounds, and bless them for better health, harvest and prosperity. Worshippers will congregate in large numbers to meet their deity. One can witness the recurrence of ancient aniconic religious behaviour sustained in popular memory, an intangible heritage.

Bhagavati Theyyam

The word Theyyam is the local pronunciation of the word Daivam, denoting the divine. A unique aspect of this ritualistic dance form is the performers’ metamorphosis into the deity. The costumes and the performance will be based on a specific story of the god/goddess. For example, Kativanur Veeran would enact his fight against the Coorgi warriors with elaborate kalari movements. Likewise, in the Putiya Bhagavati Theyyam, which tells the story of a woman who burns the fort of her husband’s tormentor and immolates herself in that fire, she would appear with four big fire balls attached to her body. The stories used for the performances refer to, along with puranic tales, regional, local legends and family chronicles of North Malabar. There are a few stories that are a mixture of local traditions as well as Brahmanical ones, as in the case of the Vishnumoorthi. In Vishnumoorthi Theyyam, the Narasimha tale and the local tradition of Palantayi Kannan, a lower caste boy killed by a landlord, are depicted.

Though it is difficult to trace the history of the Theyyam performance, one can definitely identify it as an alternate propitiating system that probably had pre-Brahmanical origin where the animistic and ancestor worship was in vogue as referred to by the Tamil Sangam literature. One can observe the traces of these worshipping systems in Theyyam as in the case of Kativanur Veeran, who sacrificed his life for the community in a war and becomes the deity or in the deification of Muchilottu Bhagavati, who rebelled against the society with her knowledge, the retaliation of which led her to sacrifice herself in fire. Various communities of North Malabar belonging to various agrarian, merchant and craft-oriented castes as the Tiyans, Vaniyans, Maniyanis, Moosaris, Asaris, Nairs, Nambiars, Poduvals, etc., worship these deities in the sacred precinct known as Aras belonging to ancestral homes (tharavadus), or kavus/kshetrams of local communities belonging a specific caste.Theyyam is performed mainly by artists of the community of Vannan, Malayan, Velan, Koppalan, Chingathan, Anjoottan, Munnoottan, Mavilan, Panan and Parayan, and among them, the first three communities perform the most.

Theyyam presents a unique and fascinating amalgamation of performance, ritual, literature and music. The performances start with Thottams that are sung by the performer and accompanying percussionists. Thottams are musical renditions of the origin myth of the deity. At the end of the Thottam, the performer gets into a trance and enacts some representative feats of the deity. Thottam is the prelude to the main performance to the gods and goddesses. The Veeran/Hero Theyyams however have the prelude known as Vellattam (with the exception of Kativanur Veeran). The main performance of a Theyyam is known as Kolam, which will have elaborate costumes and monumental headgear known as mudi. The mudis are made of bamboo, fabric and coconut leaves along with the occasional use of locally available soft wood. Other portions of the costume will be cloths that are predominantly red with designs in white and black colours, ideal for the light conditions at night and day. The Kolams will have intricate facial designs depending on the character of the divinities invoking the veera, roudra and bhayanaka rasas. The Theyyam artist may not quote Bharata’s Natyashastra but he creates these rasas among the devotees who enter into a trance with the rhythm and dance.

The flames of the fire emanating from the torches give a divine halo to the deity, the tall headgear rising above the crowd and swaying with the rhythmic movement. The flames from the torches slowly fade away to the rising sun. Magic moments of colour, music and dance take us to the crescendo of devotion. At that moment we don’t see the performer but the Goddess herself in front of us, dancing.

Jayaram Poduval

Head, Department of Art History, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda


CAPTION: (1) Bhagavati Theyyam, Nileswaram, Kasargod; (2)



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