Theyyam in Kannur



Travel has a distinctive smell. Even before you leave home, its heady seductive fragrance seduces you. As you step out from the cosy confines of home, you start to see the rounded curves of the world. You begin to realise that beyond the horizon that you see, earth and its uncharted mysteries stretch on. Suddenly, you have an out of body experience and as you rise, you see where you are positioned on this planet. You are insignificant, you realise. There is much going on in the word, apart from the life you know.

I did not have a God oriented upbringing. My father is a devout non believer and his influence rubbed off on me. Logic had no space for mumbo jumbo. Yet, I was taught not to question the religious beliefs of others; I never bothered arguing the probability of the existence of God. An absolute non believer that kept his beliefs to himself – that is where I stood on religion, at the age of seventeen. During college, I discovered the difference between religion and spirituality. Gradually my views changed; yet often, I could not find the words to express what that change meant; I could only illustrate them by example.

A window seat in a night bus is a great place for philosophy, I reflected, smiling silently to myself. I was going to visit Kannur, in Kerala, to witness the Theyyam.


The word ‘Theyyam’ is said to be derived from ‘Deivam’, meaning God, in Malayalam. In those districts where the Theyyam ceremonies are held, people consider that God has been manifested in the dancer and seek blessings from Him.

I am not one for huge crowds of swarming and sweaty people. My lanky frame does not instil any confidence that I would survive a stampede. Yet, during this first Theyyam that I witnessed, where my sweat mingled with that of the pushing and swaying crowd, I was oblivious to the discomfort. Apart from the crowds that had come to witness the Theyyam, an army of five hundred boys and men followed Hanuman as he did a parikrama around the main temple in the courtyard. As the crowds poured into the temple courtyard, all women (and the men that weren’t part of Hanuman’s army) were shooed off the mud floor where the Theyyam would take place. That’s a lot of people, I thought, as I began my photography. Little did I know that in twenty minutes, their numbers would double and I would be separated from the rest of my camera equipment, devising panicky escape plans in my head. The crowd began to get restless with the delays in the ceremony. Soon Hanuman’s army experienced a collective rise in their testosterone levels and human pyramids started to form in here and there in the crowd. The presence of a TV camera behind me, prompted energetic pyramid forming activity in my proximity. Yet, the heightened energy levels were all expended in good humour; thank God these were good natured “paavam” Malayalees.

It was only a matter of time; I had to hold my ground, resisting the pushing and shoving, to get a glimpse of the day’s main performers. As Rama, Laxman and Hanuman too, the army’s leader, stepped onto the mud floor, silence descended on the unruly army. They now resembled devout priests. This Theyyam performance I witnessed was to be the first day of a storytelling spread over five days. After this performance the Theyyam would move to the next temple and continue the story for four more days. This Theyyam was an introduction to the characters.

I should have realised that the silence from the army was the lull before a storm. Hanuman flapped his arms like a butterfly its wings, and complete chaos broke out. Soon the position of the three Gods could only be discerned by the ripples of the surrounding army in the courtyard. As the ripples spread outwards, the lake of soldiers started to break its banks, pushing us to the fringes of the courtyard, against its walls. I could see Hanuman leaping in the air, urging on his army to leap further; Laxman and Rama were much more dignified.


Theyyam is a dance and performance form that is more than 2000 years old. What a wonderful sight it must have been in the past, when seen in the light of a thousand flame torches! Before the Theyyam begins the performer in helped to don his costume.


In Theyyam the performer is put under a trance aided by toddy. One of the opening moments is when the performer is shown his reflection in a mirror. Immediately his eyes dilate. If the God that consumes him momentarily is an angry one, His seething anger bursts out of the helpless human that he possesses. To soothe the anger of the God a rooster is offered. The Theyyam performer beheads the hapless bird with his teeth. The roster kicks long after it has lost its life and the sight of its spasms churns my stomach.

The sight haunted me long after I returned from Kannur. I recounted the incident to my friends; that I watched a man beheading a chicken with a bite. My friends are not the type to judge and most of them found the beheading to be absolutely fascinating. But as I spoke about it to more people the opinions started rolling in. Shock, revulsion, horror. (is this what you want to say? I have just put this in. Please check before putting on the site)


Through the years ruling landlord communities like the Nambiars and Nairs were patrons of Theyyam, and it was not uncommon for every joint family to have its own Theyyam. Even today, well to do families organise their own theyyam. The Brahmins did not have the right to directly take part in the performance of Theyyam. Parashurama is said to have assigned the responsibility of performing the Theyyam dance to the indigenous tribal communities like Malayar, Panan, Vannan and Velan.