The Theyyam – Playing God in God’s Own Country.

*Please be warned that this post, towards the end, contains a few images of animal sacrifice that some readers may find disturbing. These images have been included in order to depict the ritual in its purest form.

Part 1 – The Kari Chamundi Theyyam

Theyyam (Also known as Teyyam, Theyyattam or Thira): A popular ancient ritual form of worship of the North Malabar region in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The main performer of this ritual (Malayanmar) is also known as ‘Theyyam’ and is considered to be a form of God.

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My palms were sweaty; I had to keep wiping them as I tried to optimize the camera settings. In my excitement I had almost dropped my camera trying to get the best spot.  I had been waiting for more than six hours for it to begin. The evening was spent watching the men work diligently on coconut leaves in preparation for the night. It was interesting but I had heard so much about the Kari Chamundi Theyyam that the wait for the actual ritual to start seemed to go on forever!

The preparations for the Theyyam begin early in the evening.

The preparations for the Theyyam begin early in the evening.

The men work for hours with the coconut leave creating small ornamental units.

The men work for hours with the coconut leave creating small ornamental units.

Some of the simple decorations prepared.

Some of the simple props prepared.

Some more complex looking than the others!

Some looked more intricate than the others!

The kota is prepared for the Theyyam with a simple arrangement of brass lamps.

The kota is prepared for the Theyyam with a simple arrangement of brass lamps.

At around half past midnight, wearing only their white mundus and armed with chendas, the men walked towards the front of the kota, the bare and inconspicuous temple structure that was the abode of the family deity. Without much fanfare, the ritual of Thottam, the recital of a song that described the story of the Goddess Kari Chamundi, began.

The loud rhythmic beats of the drum had managed to draw everyone towards the kota. I was informed by my cousin that this was just a precursor to the actual performance. The approximately fifteen minute long recitals would be performed twice before the Theyyam began. Between these performances, some of the performers would get back to the preparations and the others would rest. The work on preparing the props for the venue and those that would adorn the main performer needed exceptional skill and oodles of concentration; the men seemed to be generously endowed with both. The swigs of toddy that I noticed them downing with amazing regularity earlier in the evening seemed to be helping them too. I was curious to see how these small prop units would be assembled for the main performance. But that would have to wait for later.

The first part of the Thottam begins. The man standing in the center is the main performer.

The first Thottam begins. The man standing in the center is the main performer.

A boy from the neighbourhood watches the Thottam.

A boy from the neighbourhood watches the Thottam.

One of the men creates begins work on the centre piece around which the Theyyam will be performed.

One of the men begins work on the ceremonial centre piece around which the Theyyam will be performed.

The main performer prays before starting the second Thottam.

The main performer prays before starting the second Thottam.

Most of the family members had gone to sleep after the second recital got over as it would be another hour before the main ritual began. At around 2 am, a little over eight hours into the wait, I was told that the main performer had just begun the elaborate process of putting on his make-up.

This was it, I would finally get to see and photograph one of the malayanmars transforming into a Goddess. As I walked towards the area where they were seated, I could see him with his back towards me looking into a mirror and working on the makeup. A second man sat next to him holding an antique brass lamp. The light from the single bulb that hung from the stunted mango tree they sat under was probably not enough for the makeup. To me, it was the perfect setup; the light from the solitary bulb created an ambient setting and the flickering flame of the oil lamp added the touch of drama that my photo needed. I took my camera off my shoulder and was taking the lens cap off when I noticed the malayanmar suddenly turn and look at me; it was a strange and piercing glance which lasted only for a couple of seconds before he turned back to the mirror. Realizing that the stare had only managed to freeze me, the assistant gestured with his hand asking me to leave. I was told by another one of the assistants that I would have to wait for the ritual to begin to get my shots as the malayanmar did not wish to be disturbed when he was undergoing the transformation.

Though the photographer in me was disappointed, I knew that respecting the traditions and nuances of every culture that I came across was important. Many ancient traditions have been distorted and at times destroyed with the aim of creating a ‘more exciting’ experience for the tourist. In the process, the original pure rituals have ceased to exist and sometimes the newer versions, created by putting together only the ‘not-so-boring’ aspects, begin to become the only known images of the original. This adulteration of cultures and ancient practices is one of the major impacts that ‘cultural tourism’ has and is one that all of us as sensitive travellers must try to reduce.

Moreover, by not allowing me to photograph the preparations, the performers had ensured that the beginning of the ritual would end up becoming ’more exciting’ for me as now there would be an added element of surprise (if there wasn’t enough of it already!).

I decided to shift my focus to the other members of the group who were busy preparing the front of the kota for the ritual. Some of the props that had been prepared earlier were now being used to decorate the center piece and as the time for the actual ritual came closer, the work began to take on a frenzied pace. Hands moved faster and orders were shouted out louder but there was no sense of chaos. It seemed like clockwork. The pile of coconut fronds had now been transformed into this intricate and beautiful ceremonial centre piece. The stiffer parts of the frond had become mini-torches; sticks with rags of cotton cloth wrapped around one end. These were doused in oil and would be lit later when the ritual began.

The beautiful center piece takes about 30-45 minutes to prepare.

The beautiful centre piece takes about 30-45 minutes to prepare.

The work on the props continues in to the night.

The work on the props continues in to the night.

After a while, with all the preparations over and having lit all the torches and the central lamp, the men picked up their chendas and began playing a slow rhythmic beat that seemed to be an invitation to the malayanmar to begin the ritual. As the beat began to gather pace, people started to appear from all sides. In a span of 5-10 minutes, the kota was surrounded by almost a hundred people. Everyone was keen to witness the presence of the goddess!

The men begin to play the chendas to announce the start of the ritual.

The men begin to play the chendas to announce the start of the ritual.

The family members and people from the neighbourhood gather around the kota.

The family members and people from the neighbourhood gather around the kota. A bottle of toddy can be seen in the foreground!

Disclaimer: From this moment onwards, you may find me rushing through the ritual and I confess that at the moment I feel a sense of helplessness mixed with a strange exhilaration. The actual Theyyam is such a powerful and at times shocking experience that the only way to gauge its true impact is by seeing it in person. I am trying to create a decent image of the ritual through a few words, some pictures and a video montage but that in no way can be compared to the real experience.

The entry of the malayanmar was just the thing that was needed to jolt everyone out of their sleepiness. The transformation wasn’t complete but was still striking. He bowed before the idol of the Devi (Goddess) placed inside the sanctum sanctorum. It seemed like he was having a conversation with her. He would soon be her.

The ritual begins with the malayanmar running into the kota and praying to the Goddess.

The ritual begins with her running into the kota and praying to the Goddess.

The metamorphosis had begun. The piercing yet distant gaze, the periodic twitching of his mouth, the sound of his beautiful antique anklets as he moved in a systematic pattern and the occasional muttering in a strange outlandish tone; as he started circumambulating around the lit central piece a few times, it was there for everyone to see. He seemed to be moving farther away.

After repeating this a few times, he sat on the wooden stool kept in front of the fire. The other men began putting the remaining costume onto him. Even as they went about getting him ready, he continued tapping his feet and muttering every now and then. In a couple of minutes, they had completed his physical transformation. They let go of his hands and moved away from him. His eyes seemed to be more active; his movements quicker. There was a visible change in his body language. She had taken over.

The men work on the final stages of the malayanmar's costume.

The men work on the final stages of the her costume.

As he sits on the stool, he mumbles and his eyes keep moving about randomly stopping at members from the audience.

As she sits on the stool, he mumbles and stares at the night sky as if in a conversation with the Goddess.

Looking upwards; talking to the Goddess.

Looking upwards; talking to the Goddess.

The parts of the costume that were being prepared earlier finally come together.

The parts of the costume that were being prepared earlier finally come together.

She got up and moved towards the temple, bowed before it and then the dancing began. The sound of the chendas, the dance movements, the muttering and the gesturing went on for almost an hour. In the middle of the dance, she would suddenly sit down in front of the temple and roll from side to side while tapping her feet. This would go on for a couple of minutes before she got up and began the dance again.

The performance begins with the malayanmar performing a dance like act in front of the shrine.

The performance begins with her performing a dance like act in front of the shrine.

The sound of the brass anklets add to the music because of the constant foot tapping.

The sound of the brass anklets add to the music because of the constant foot tapping.

Continuing the conversations with the Goddess during the Theyyam.

Continuing the conversations with the Goddess during the Theyyam.

Part of the ritual involves the malayanmar sitting before the centre piece and taking sips of toddy from a dried coconut shell.

Part of the ritual involves her sitting before the centre piece and taking sips of toddy from a dried coconut shell.

After about an hour, she ran towards the house where the elders had asked everyone to gather. She walked towards the main entry door and sat down facing it. It was time for everyone to seek her blessings. She spoke to almost everyone. She was the Goddess. She asked most of them if they remembered her; if they thought about her. She asked them not to forget her. To me, she said that she had seen me take pictures and she hoped they would come out well. But she warned me that if I would use them to earn money, she would come back to remind me of her words!

She sits outside the main entrance to the family home blessing every body personally.

She sits outside the main entrance to the family home blessing every body personally.

As I waited and watched others receive her blessings, my father walked to me and asked me to rush back to the kota as there was a small but important part of the ritual pending. He explained that what I had experienced earlier was the Goddess in her ‘calm’ state. After she had finished blessing everyone, she would go back to the temple and then exhibit another transformation before the ritual ended. He assured me that this was going to be the most interesting part of the whole night.

In about 10 minutes, she ran back to the kota but she had changed once again! Her eyes were fiery and her body language aggressive. She danced with swift movement while screaming out in anger. And as her anger peaked, one of the men emerged from the crowd with two live hens in his hands. He held them by their feet as their heads dangled and then handed one to the Goddess. I wasn’t prepared for what would happen next. I had seen animal sacrifices before but never something that was done with such a powerful symbolic performance. I will spare you the details of the sacrifice as no amount of restrain in my writing will help create a milder image. All I can say was that in a few minutes after it started, it was over. There was blood splattered all over the kota. Two lifeless heads lay on one side while the limp bodies lay on another. Though I managed to capture a few shots of what had just happened, I still wasn’t able to get over the experience.

The final part of the Theyyam depicts her in he 'Rudra' (angry) state.

The final part of the Theyyam depicts her in he ‘Rudra’ (angry) state.

Leaning over the hen just before the sacrifice begins.

Leaning over the bird just before the sacrifice begins.

She bites on the neck before pulling the head apart and throwing it away. This is done in a particularly aggressive manner to depict anger.

She bites on the neck before pulling the head apart and throwing it away. This is done in a particularly aggressive manner to depict anger.

Holding the lifeless body with the neck in her mouth. After a couple of minutes, the ritual is repeated for the second bird. She sits and stares at people with two birds hanging out of her mouth.

Holding the lifeless body with the neck in her mouth. After a couple of minutes, the ritual is repeated for the second bird. She sits and stares at people with two birds hanging out of her mouth.

The Theyyam ends with the men taking off her costume.

The Theyyam ends with the men taking off her costume.

It took me about an hour to absorb the enormity of what I had just experienced and the fact that I had been a part of an event that had survived that had remained unchanged over centuries.

Would I recommend you to witness a Theyyam when you visit Kerala next time? Hell yeah! Just remember that Theyyam season begins around September in Kannur district and the last Theyyam is organized around the 1st of May. So plan a trip accordingly.

If you need any help with your trip. ‘Feel free’ to comment here and I will try to do the best I can to ensure a phenomenal experience!
P.S. After experiencing the Kari Chamundi Theyyam, I was lucky enough to attend another one about a month later. The next post on the blog will carry photographs of the Puthiya Bhagawathi Theyyam and trust me on this; you don’t want to miss that too! 🙂

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