Hisotry: THEYYAM, TRIBAL WORSHIP 🙏 in KERALA, India
Which is the realm of reality? Which is the world of fantasy, or the world of the gods?
Here, I would like to share with you some of the historical facts of THEYYAM, an otherworldly tribal worship ritual from Kerala.
Kerala is called Keralam in Malayalam language, it is a state in South India on the Malabar Coast. A legend tells that the land was a gift from god Parasurama.
Worship and reverence for the Supreme are manifest in different practices in Kerala.
These practices can be classified into four groups- Padayani, Mudieyettu, Thirayattam & Theyyam. Each one is associated with a geographical space and they reflect in varying degree, the influence of pre-Aryan and Brahminical rituals.
The Theyyam is for me personally the most interesting part of the Indian culture.
This ancient ritualistic art form is practiced in the village temples of the North Malabar area of Kerala.
Each of the about 400-odd characters of the form varies in their look, makeup, body painting, costumes, the performance of the ritual, the goal of the ritual. Each one of them is connected with a god or a goddess. If a particularly sacred deity is to be honored, the performer may have to undergo a period of a strict abstinence.
Prayers are offered to invoke the deity of a particular temple. The temples are not always real buildings. Sometimes they can be a sacred tree or a cluster of trees that have a small structure or a raised platform, where idols and carved stones are installed.
Theyyam as a ritual performance of dance, music and religious worship has an impact on all one’s senses at once. It seems to have its origins in the bhootaradhane (spirit-worship) of the Tulu people.
Theyyam, is a synthesis of tribal, Dravidian and Aryan cultural practices. The Indian pantheon of 33 Gods was not enough for Northern Kerala. They added ancestors, heroes to the list and gave them special space in Theyyam.
They do not fit into the definition of God. They are a combination of the celestial and the earthly and take on forms that are distinct from the icon installed in the sanctum of temples.
Theyyam is performed by men whose traditional, inherited calling gives them the right, when required, to ritually exchange their human characteristics for a deity’s power and strength. The word used fort he performer is actually kolokaran, kolam-form or image, karan-man.
Every deity’s physical appearance conforms to an image originally envisaged centuries ago in the dream or a vision of a respected guru.
A Theyyam artist must know how to make the headdresses and costumes of all the deities his particular community is allowed to perform. He must know how to apply the face and body makeup (known as face-writing or body-writing), and know oft he different designs and styles. He also hast o know how to sing, play the drums, the stories, songs and characters of each and every deity.
The most sacred and powerful element of the costume, the mudi-headdress, is put on once the artist has been seated on a sacred stool in front of the sanctum. After this comes the actual moment of “becoming” the deity, the moment of crossing the line to another world, as he stares into a small mirror. At this moment he slips into another state of being, his eyes widening as they focus not on his own reflection but of the features of a divine being. He does not find his own eyes in the mirror but those of the god, goddess or spirit. This is the exact moment of fusion known as mukhadarshanam, “the seeing of the face”. A mortal becomes a god, the human is no longer present, only the god is there.
The Theyyam deities can loosely be divided into various categories. There are gods and goddesses who’s origins are purely divine and belong to more mythical traditions. A big part of Theyyam has evolved out of the land, lives, social customs and traditions of the devotees. Many of the spirits are ancestral warrior heroes, people who’s charisma and bravery transcended death, their lives were seen to be evidence of divine power. Among the goddesses there are many who once lived and suffered as mortal women.
Caste also plays an important role among the gods and goddesses. Most of them, who were originally born as mortals and then elevated to the divine after their death, belong to a particular caste.
Only the caste with the “right” to perform Theyyam may do so. It is not a profession or a calling, which can be adopted. Each caste holds the right to perform a certain deity. When a man marries he also acquires the shrine rights on his wife’s family.
Theyyam artists share a common training and tradition, one in which the process of becoming a deity is only achieved after intense mental, physical, and spiritual preparation.
The red color is associated with the earth, fertility, war and revenge. They use herbal or natural extracts to create the paint.
Some Theyyam use a painted face, others a painted mask.
Fire has a major presence in many Theyyam myths.
Symbolising the power of omnipotent Gods, most Theyyams carry swords of different sizes, shields, bows and arrows. They give the appearance of an all-powerful God. Held parallel to the earth the weapon indicates blessings for worshippers.
The rituals are performed between May and October. There is an online calendar with the locations and dates of the coming rituals.
I have collected a lot information in the archives of the History Museum in New Delhi, I also bought all the books I could find. The information I have is very detailed. I did my best to take out the most important facts for you.
The information and photos in this article come from following books I brought from India:
-Reflections of the Spirit /The Theyyams of Malabar/ by Pepita Seth
-Dances of India by Alka Raghuvanshi
-Theyyam: The Other Gods
With love & light
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