A visit from the gods – Theyyam in Kerala
Only a couple of hours ago we arrived in Kannur from Mysore, a small city in the north of the beautiful state of Kerala. After our bumpy bus journey we finally arrived in the center of town and started to search for some tracks that would lead us towards the purpose of our visit in this “off the beaten track” part of Kerala which is full of tropical and magical landscape. Our intention is to be present and part of one of the most fascinating cultural phenomena in India known as Theyyam.
Theyyam is a unique tradition of sacred performances that can be found only in a specific geographical belt around the state of Kerala.They are not always easy to find as these colorful religious acts take place usually in courtyards of temples in small villages or in the suburbs of towns and occur only during a specific season.
When Theyyam takes place, the usually quiet and laid back county side of Kerala is transformed to an arena for the gods themselves to come down and play. Theyyam is one of the most famous possession rituals in Kerala and to bear witness to it is a truly an amazing experience, a highlight of any trip to India. This is a thousand years old tradition that has more than 400 versions, all are rich in makeup, dress, dance, music, poetry and legends. In some versions the Theyyam is small and intimate and takes a few hours with only one or two deities. In larger versions, it can include numerous performers that can dwell in the village for a number of days.
It can’t be described as a theatre performance in the Western sense because there is no stage, curtain,and not one story line. It is rather a dramatic ritual in which the actor becomes identified with a deity by getting into the deepest trance that transforms and takes hold of the physical body. The amazingly colorful dressed performer/deity acts in an open space among the spectators which are part of the show and can interact with the transformed actor.It’s a spectacle you don’t want to miss! How many times in life you can actually talk with god in person…?
Finally after much searching we find a local priest that gave us a note written in Malayalam (the local dialect of Kerala) and told us to show it to any rickshaw driver and he will take us to a performance that takes place today. We arrived to the village and to the local temple in a rickshaw. The host family greeted us very warmly and invited us into the yard. We sat and ate from a banana leaf served dinner alongside with some other one hundred or so local guests. It is the middle of the night with a full moon in the sky and the atmosphere is filled with anticipation and excitement.Surrounded by coconut groves and banana plantations we are ready for some Theyyam watching.Then the festival began and the gods started to play.
Getting ready to perform Theyyam takes hours and includes lots of makeup and dressing. These unique costumes are made by specialized artists and craftsmen that come from specific families that have done this art for generations.
The deities are now interacting with the crowd. They can be addressed for advice, a complaint, a gesture, an offering or just for a glimpse of divinity.
And then the trance like dancing continues all night long until sunrise, accomplished with loud drums and fire performing. For some, also jumping into the flames is part of the ritual (no damage has been done…)