David Kideckel:


Theyyam. None of the students have taken it upon themselves to blog about Theyyam, the ritual that we saw at the campus of Kerala University on the evening of Thursday, Jan 3. Perhaps they feel the experience indescribable and I can understand that.  Still I wanted to go on a bit about Theyyam and our role in it. Shaji Varkey in a message to us describes the ritual that we will see, Puthiya Bhagavathy Theyyam. This is a ritual found mainly in North Malabar and is performed in temples, sacred groves, and households. It is much less commercialized than the famous Kerala dance form, Kathakali. Theyyam artists mostly belong to the subaltern classes. A performing Theyyam becomes god incarnate and therefore carries much respect, even though off stage, he is poor and socially ostracized. Theyyam requires thorough training from childhood in use of percussion instruments, makeup, mask design, dance, recital of songs and art work on young palmshoots.

The meaning of the ritual: The female Theyyam, Puthiya Bhagavathy was born from the third eye of Lord Siva. Her mission was to heal the Devas (those who live in heaven) when they were afflicted with small pox. Later she was sent to earth to heal human beings and her six brothers. The brothers were killed by Asuras (the evil gods). Puthiya Bhagavathy, in a fit of rage, kills the Asuras and sets fire to their fort.  Bhagavathy’s power multiplies when she kills a Brahmana and drinks his blood. She was requested to perform a homa (ritual sacrifice) at Moolacherry family. When she found that the mantras (ritual chants) that the family head (Name-Moolacherry Kurup) recited were faulty, she threw his son-in-law into the raging fire. Repenting his fault, Kurup instituted a temple for the Bhagavathy.

The Experience of Theyyam: Everyone was tired today at the University campus. Today was the first day of theme group work so the morning was very busy.

Taking a break and waiting for Theyyam

Taking a break and waiting for Theyyam

Nate, April, and Teige even returned direct to the U from their group and waited a few hours for the rest of us. Meanwhile, I herded everyone else to the Thampanoor bus stand and got them on a public bus (an experience in itself) out to Kariavattom. Then we heard a nuanced lecture from sociologist, Meena Pillai, on Kerala gender, before it was off to Theyyam.

With funds provided specifically by the CCSU Anthropology department, our group had commissioned the performance of this Theyyam and a troupe of five Theyyam artists and ther attendants had travelled some 400 km from Kannur in north Kerala to perform. By the time we arrived at 3:30 at the area in front of the Men Researcher’s Hostel, we were late to see the first phase of the ritual, begun an hour previous.  The Theyyam group consisted of six or seven men. When we got there, they were busy making a decorative skirt for the god from fresh palm leaves and many other decorations for the coming ritual. The breast -plate that would help transfigure the dancer into the female god caused a bit of comment, but mainly our people were looking dragged out. When I told them that the ritual would last until 8 or 9 in the evening, there was almost an audible groan. I foreclosed a rebellion by giving them the option to take some time off tomorrow, instead of leaving early tonight. So people agreed and then milled around…some visited the hostel to see how the young researchers lived while a bunch of folks took off with a KU student and Arun Zacharaiah to find some food in a neighborhood near the campus.

The god's raiments are made anew

The god’s raiments are made anew

It was at this time that the artists took the materials they had been working on to behind the neighboring building near the offices of the International Center for Kerala Studies. It was here that intense preparation of them would commence and the actual ritual performed. Our students and many Malayali students, university staff, and others (even police), also began to show up to observe the quickening preparations. Arun showed up with a bunch of food…oranges, bananas of a few different varieties including my favorite red banana, kapopazham. There was lots of water to drink as well.

We sat on the steps eating while members of the Theyyam group continued to prepare the ritual materials. Meanwhile a number of large bats slowly and ominously crossed the sky above us. Soon particular attention began to be focused on the making-up and dressing of the god-to-be. He lay on stage while an attendant applied layers of face make-up. The intricate patterns of whorls and dots and lines created an angry visage. As more and different layers and items began to be added on the man-god,

The god begins to emerge

The god begins to emerge

people began to crowd around him as if drawn by magnetism and devotion. The costuming was so elaborate and ritualized, as each item like ankle bells and rice grains on the god’s arms, was added one after the other. I began to feel a bit uncertain, though, when around the middle of the god a square armature was constructed of the four torches that had been soaking in a bucket of coconut oil. They were going to light these torches, though the god would be protected by the freshness of the palm shoot skirt that was not likely to catch fire, or so I thought.

As the sky was darkening, seemingly out of nowhere appeared three drummers and began the intense cadence of the chenda drums that were to begin the ritual

Chenda drummers beat out a furious rhythm

Chenda drummers beat out a furious rhythm

and then accompany the god’s dance. The drumming was fiercer than I had ever heard previously the many times I heard chenda performed, but after drumming for about ten minutes straight came to an abrupt stop. Silence and darkness overtook all of us, now waiting quietly in anticipation of the god and her. Little by little new items were added to the god’s appearance and then at last the elaborate headdress was attached and the torches surrounding the god’s body were lit as were the candles on top of the headdress, and the drumming began again.

The god aflame

Bhaghavathy in her splendor

Now, the god began her dance, alternately jumping and spinning to the sounds of drums and cymbals. The bells on her ankles kept furious time as Baghavathy swirled and traced the margins of the performance area with her footsteps. The fire on the torches and the drumming and the movement of the god were overwhelming. I remember crying out in emotion until someone tapped me on the shoulder to remind me of the decorum demanded of this sacred event. The torch fires ate away at the grass skirt of the god so a retainer continually walked near the dancing god to sprinkle water on its arms and on the grass skirt to keep down the flames. The dancing and drumming went on without stopping for close to half an hour. All of the fifty or so of us observing I think, were overcome with awe. Then as the torches died out one by one, the transfigured god ceased her dance and began to wish blessings on those of us who had witnessed her transformation. People lined up to deposit a few rupees in the god’s hand, who then shouted out more formulaic blessings on us and our houses. Most of the CCSU group came to be personally blessed by the transfigured god, and the success of our trip was further assured by the power of the transfigured deity.

As the ceremony ended Shaji Varkey said a few words of thanks to the Theyyam group for their activities on our behalf and also thanked CCSU for sponsoring the event. It turns out that this was the first time ever that Theyyam had been held at the Kariavattom campus, so that made us particularly proud. With the performance over, we walked a back path on campus to the front gate, crossed the still-busy street and waited together with Shaji and Arun for the bus to Trivandrum. We were fortunate to catch a “Fast Passenger” that had empty seats for most of us, and we travelled largely in silence back to the Thampanoor bus stand. None of us who witnessed this incredible ceremony are likely to be the same again.