Theyyams: A Dance Divine

The December air is sticky with perspiration, as mosquitoes buzz around and fly into our faces, like little drunks who have lost the way, in the thick vegetation on either side of the narrow mud road we are traversing on.  A numb thumping of the drums in the distance breaks through the 2 a.m. darkness of the sky.  Ahead, the road is lit with fluorescent white tube lights attached to the tall coconut trees.  Traditional veedus stand amidst the farms at regular distances and we take a turn into a non-descriptive by-road that starts leading us towards the sound of the drums.

Traditional Kavus are the typical locations for Theyyam performances

We are requested to leave our footwear behind under a tree as we approach the private ceremony that is taking place around a Kavu – sacred groves that are used for ritual dancing.  A handful of people from the village are sitting on plastic chairs, around the small temple that houses the deity of the area.  In the middle of the grove, the priests are preparing for the ritual to begin and in colourful tents on the left, artists are preparing the performers who will conduct tonight’s rituals.

A bonfire is lit and preparations for the ritual are ongoing when we arrive

We are at a Theyyam ceremony, and we have been told that today’s ritual at this place promises a spectacle.  Theyyams – living Gods as they are called – are fairly private ceremonies hosted and sponsored by a group of people from the same locality.  The artist is decked up in the image of the God that he is personifying for the day (or night) and invokes the deity’s energy into himself for the entire performance that can last hours.

Kandanar Kelan Theyyam starts the ritualistic dance around a stack of fire

In the tents alongside, clothing, accessories and headgear hang above, while the performers lay on their back, eyes closed, in complete calm, getting their faces painted in the hues of orange, red and black.  The motifs that are painted on the faces and torsos, are each representative of the deity they will be invoking.  Once the painting is complete, then starts the cumbersome process of layering several pieces of accessories and ornaments that are piled upon the performers.  From waistbands to armlets, each layer is placed with meticulous detail and the final touch is given with a headgear, some of which can weigh up to several kilograms.

All this while, the drumming doesn’t let up even for a moment, and now that the Theyyam is ready, the tempo starts increasing.  As part of the ritual, a last dab of crimson is applied on the lips (or in some cases the bridge of the nose) to finish the dressing up.  The Theyyam is handed a wood encased mirror and he looks at himself as the final part of the ritual to invoke the deity.  After a few minutes of staring into his reflection, he starts to thump the ground with his feet, swaying to the drumbeats and twirling, slowly at first and then picks up pace.

The embers of the bonfire are being prepared for the next set of the Theyyam dance

After a few minutes of circling around the bonfire that is lit in the centre of the grove, he comes to a halt in front of the temple.  The priests bring out the ceremonial weapons of the deity and hand over to the Theyyam.  The dancing begins again.  A set of fire sticks on stacks of bamboo is now the focus of his attention as he moves around it.  A small group of people start clearing the grove and placing burning embers in four neat piles, leaving enough space for a person to walk through.

In the meantime, two men with bare torsos and white cloths around their waist holding a chicken come and stand towards our right in front of the stack of fire needles.  Someone in our group gives us a warning much in advance for what is to come, but most of the other spectators from outside are not that lucky.  The rest of the village people sit calmly as the Theyyam starts walking towards the two men and holds the chicken by its neck, twists it, and rips its head apart from its body.  A collective gasp goes out from the group next to us as the writhing headless body of the chicken is put on the ground.  With a nonchalance, the Theyyam along with the priests moves for the next fifteen minutes inside the house nearby to finish the sacrificial ritual.

Blood sacrifices are a part of the ancient tradition

The party emerges with the Theyyam in lead, now in a completely trance-like state, and enters the grove, where the tube lights have been dimmed and the previously burning embers are now being fed with dried grass to build a fire.  The flames start leaping and a wooden stool is placed in the middle of it.  The Theyyam climbs on top of it and starts roaring in all directions as the fires are fed continuously from below.  Slowly he climbs down, the stool is removed, bundles of dried grass and wooden sticks are thrown into the heart of the flames.  On the other side, the Theyyam is now being held by his arms by two men one on each side as he sways and curses the fire.

The lights go out as the dance within the fire is about to start

The drums become wilder, the thumping and the roaring get higher as anticipation builds up.  There is an electric energy in the air.  The Theyyam charges towards the fire and kicks it with his feet, sending burning embers flying in the opposite direction.  His anger at the fire is palpable.  He turns around and walks away, as the bonfire leaps higher.  He gives a high-pitched roar and with the two men by his side, runs towards the fire, jumps into and emerges on the other side of it, turns around and goes back through the fire again to the other side.  He repeats this ritual three times before the men by his side fall away and he starts leaping into the fire by himself, several times more.  A gesture symbolic of stamping the fire out with his wrath.

The first of the many assisted jumps in the fire by the Theyyam
After a few rounds, in a trance-like state, the Theyyam starts leaping into the flames on his own
Vanquishing the fire seems to be the driving force for the Theyyam

Then begins the dance around the bonfire and provocation of the fire with a long stick.  He flips the burning grass from the core of the bonfire, sending millions of fire flecks and ash up into the air.  Finally, having vanquished the fire and satiated his wrath, he goes around the crowd, distributing prasad in the form of raw rice.  The lights come back up slowly.  The Theyyam has taken a seat now and is blessing the people now who have formed a queue alongside the temple.  This goes on until the day breaks into a mild pink.  As the crowd starts to disperse, 5-6 old women make a queue to see the Theyyam.  Each one of them is overwhelmed as they hold his hand and speak to him, seeking blessings.  I am told that they are asking for a safe and quick journey into the afterlife.

Guttural sounds of howling and shouting are followed later
Provoking the fire and cursing it until the Theyyam’s wrath is satiated
Long bamboo sticks are used to keep the fire raging

I sit in a corner and try to digest all the events from the night.  The faith of the old women in front of me, in a living God that can grant them a quick pass to the afterlife is unshakeable.  The ritual sacrifice, even though it left me a little shocked at that moment, made me realise later that the first thing that came out of my mouth at that instant was my core mantra.  The invoking of the Gods in human form and playing out centuries of legends is a way to honour the local deities.  The long hours of preparation and the equally long hours of the ritual have a certain element of dedication and faith in them too.  There can be numerous interpretations to all that I witnessed that night, but one string that binds it all together is, faith.

3 responses to “Theyyams: A Dance Divine”

  1. That’s beautifully narrated and images are nicely going along with write up.

    1. Thank you so much 🙂

  2. […] The performances for this Theyyam are a spectacular ritual of dance, sacrifices and leaping into the fire.  If you are interested in reading some more, I have written more about it in detail on Theyyams: A Dance Divine. […]

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