Theyyam: the divine incarnate in Kerala

In particular, despite theyyam’s purely Dravidian (south Indian) origins, the Hindu caste system played a central role in its development. Until very recently, only high caste Hindus were allowed to worship in temples, since the presence of the poorer, working people, branded as Dalits, was thought to defile and pollute the sacred space. Naturally, the lower caste people also wished to honour and propitiate the gods, and in Malabar the existence of theyyam gave them the opportunity. Gradually, the upper caste Brahmins and Kshatriyas also began to believe in the power of these deities and they sought to establish themselves as patrons, in order to assert their authority over the workers. The result was the entire society became united in their worship of theyyam. Furthermore, the lower caste man possessed by the deity was suddenly able to speak freely to the high caste landlords and mock their arrogance, or tell them of injustices done to those ‘beneath’ them. It gave a voice to those who otherwise had none. Many of the stories behind the deities, particularly the goddesses, are of ordinary mortals who suffer from being falsely accused and are later recognised as both innocent and divine.

Theyyam shrine - Pottantheyyam, Guligan, Chamundi

Hinduism has four main castes: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Sudra; and beneath all of them are the Dalits, or Untouchables. But things get more complicated when one learns that within the Sudra and Dalit communities alone there are more than 150 sub-castes, and these are also arranged in order of supposed merit. Of them, only 12 communities are allowed to perform theyyam and each of these communities only has the right to perform certain deities, in certain shrines. Shrine rights are always inherited from the mother’s side and everything depends on which family you are born into. If a man marries he also acquires the shrine rights of his mother’s family. However, when a private household wishes to host a theyyam in its compound, as I had witnessed, the house can choose whichever performers they wish. Generally, the performers earn more money from these private presentations. Shrines usually worship their deities on the same date every year and each shrine can only honour specific deities.

Kurien told me that one of these annual festivals was taking place at a shrine about 15 km away from Costa Malabari, and I decided to go there early the next morning, by which time the presentation would be in its later stages. A full theyyam performance goes through four main stages, beginning with thottam – devotional songs, and proceeding to vellatam, which represents the youth of the deity and has simple costume and make-up. There may be several vellatams, depending on how many deities are being honoured. By the time I arrived at 5am, again on the back of Kurien’s hardy moped, the festival was about to enter the third stage, thirayattam, the old age of the deity. The festival ends with chanthattum, the ceremonial removal of the makeup, but this wouldn’t happen for many hours yet.

It was dark when we drove up a dirt road to the temple but a small bonfire and several hundred blue fairy lights illuminated the faces of a crowd of people gathered at the edges of the precinct. I was encouraged to step over the low wall into the central area and join a small gathering of men, who turned out to be part of the family that owned the temple. Five half-naked Dalits nearby were beating sharp toned chenda drums and the noise was incredible after the silence of the empty roads we had just driven along. Standing in front of the fire was a god with a white face, long dark hair, coconut leaf skirt, red feet and black-rimmed eyes. His belly was smeared with white rice paste and painted with black stripes. He began to run around the central Kavu shrine in a strange, slightly maniacal way, arms held closely to his sides, bells jangling from silver anklets. He paused at all the smaller shrines in the precinct but moved erratically between them, suddenly stopping to whirl around or jump in the air. Men followed him with large bundles of burning reeds and he danced frenetically in the embers thrown from the flames. There was an atmosphere of awed excitement as the already feverish drumming reached a new pitch and then, without warning, the god leapt over the low temple wall and disappeared among dark coconut palms, pursued by the men with torches.

Guligan pursued by men with torches

‘The boundary of the temple stretches far beyond these grounds,’ explained an older man next to me, ‘and he will run around the whole area in order to purify it. His name is Guligan and he has many different moods.’

The man introduced himself as Mr Janardhanan and said that although his family owned the temple, they lived in Bangalore and only came here once a year. ‘It’s a chance for the whole family to get together,’ he said. In the afternoon, once it was all over, there would be a huge feast.

Guligan

By the time Guligan returned dawn was breaking and his body painting was streaked with perspiration, yet the young man who was now a god didn’t seem tired. He sat down quietly while a headdress made of coconut leaves was added to his costume, then a large red and white mask. Guligan, I discovered later, is the god of death, and is one of the most powerful and ancient gods. His character, like many theyyams, changes from shrine to shrine. In his current manifestation he was largely silent until he began to receive and speak to the people who wished to ask for his blessing. When I approached him he gave me a pinch of ash to smear on my forehead.

‘Ash,’ Mr Janardhanan said, ‘because we all turn to ash eventually. It symbolises our transience and our ultimate equality in the face of death.’ This sentiment seemed particularly relevant to the those at the bottom of the caste system, as the performers of theyyam are.

Guligan the Destroyer

While an artist is possessed by a god he is believed to have divine and absolute power and is treated with utmost respect by everyone, but once the festival is over he immediately returns to his low caste status, with all the prejudice this brings with it. The theyyam season lasts for only a few months of the year so a man must find other work in order to survive. In ‘Nine Lives’ William Dalrymple describes a young man called Hari Das who works as a prison warder and well digger when he isn’t performing theyyam. Hari Das tells how he is reverentially worshipped by a Brahmin man at the shrine, and then treated as untouchable by the same man a week later, when he goes to dig a well at the Brahmin’s house. The beauty of theyyam is it turns the caste system upside-down, inspiring self-confidence in the Dalit community.

Man preparing to become Kuttichathan

While Guligan was giving individual advice and blessings, other young men were getting ready in different corners of the compound. After a while, Kuttichathan appeared in an enormous, fabulous costume that stuck out three feet from his body in flame-like whorls of red and white. His body-writing was much more elaborate than Guligan’s and his jewelled head-dress included two circular side pieces and large wooden flaps extending from above and below his mouth. His eyes were covered with opaque white goggles and he held his head tilted sidewards. The human face had completely disappeared, but to me the overall effect was less compelling than when a man’s transfigured features were in view.

Kuttichathan

Furthermore, Kuttichathan’s costume was so large it inhibited his movements and the most he could do was stand on a stool and gradually turn to face different directions, with the help of attendants. He stood aloof and mysterious and it seemed the purpose was to dazzle by his appearance, rather than by his actions. His ambiguous myth describes him as the unruly son of a Brahmin exorcist, who goes on a bloodthirsty rampage after his father beats him for sacrificing a favourite red bull. He is one of five ‘magical’ deities and apparently possesses tremendous powers, but after Muthappan and Guligan he seemed a little subdued. Nevertheless, a steady stream of devotees soon queued up to ask his advice.

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