Theyyam or Theyyatom is one of the most outstanding and popular ritual art of northern Kerala particularly now  found in the traditional Kolathunadu of the present Kannur and Kasargod District. As a living cult with centuries old traditions, rituals and customs, it embraces almost all castes and classes of Hindu religion. The term theyyam is a corrupt form of Dhaivam or God. It is a rare combination of dance and music and reflects important features of a tribal culture.

The indigenous Theyyam cult under the influence of the great classical Indian tradition incorporated new ideals and legends. However its form and content did not change very much. The popular folk religion based on Theyyam was influenced by the Brahmanical settlements in Kolathunadu like Payyannur and Taliparamba. According to Keralolpathi, a famous historical book, Parasu Rama sanctioned the festival like Kaliyattam to the people of Kerala. Kaliyattam means Theyyattam or Daivattam, which lasts for 3 to 11 days. He assigned the responsibility of Theyyam dance to the indigenous communities like Panan, Velan, Vannan and Malayan. Velan one of the Theyyam dancers are referred to in the sangam literature. According to sangam traditions, he was employed by the mothers of love born girls to exercise the malignant spirits from their daughters. All rituals described in the sangam works and their commentaries are being observed by Velan and other dancing communities.

Ezhimalai, described in the sangam literature, ruled by Udayan Venmon Nannan , is situated in Kolathunadu near Payyannur. Therefore the Tamil sangam culture with variations still continue in this region. The dance of Velan community had taken new forms and developed in to the present day cult of Theyyam over a period of 1500 years. This uninterrupted continuity of sangam traditions makes theyyam a prominent religious system of north Kerala.  As a religious and social institution, it has significant place in the cultural history of the region.  Under the impact of Aryans the cult of Theyyam had changed substantially incorporating new trends and sub cults along with its tribal character. In short it can be stated that all prominent characteristics of primitive tribal religious worship had widened the stream of Theyyam cult and made it a deep-rooted folk religion of the million. For instance, the cult of mother goddess had an important place in Theyyam. Besides the practice like spirit-worship, hero worship, masathi worship, tree worship, ancestor worship, animal worship, serpent-worship, worship of the goddesses of disease and gramadevatha worship are included in the main stream of Theyyam cult. Under the influence of Aryan myths and legends, a large number of brahmanical gods and goddesses had infiltrated a separate cuts into Theyyam. Along with these gods and goddesses there exists innumerable folk gods and goddesses and most of these goddesses are known as Bhagavathis as a matter of sanskritisation.

Different branches of Brahmanical religion such as Saktism, Vaishnavisam, and Saivism, now dominate the cult of Theyyam. However the forms of propitiation and other rituals are continuation of a historical part. Blood offering is forbidden in several cult centres under the influence of Buddhism,Jainism and Brahmanism. In such centres, separate places outside the outer wall of the shrines are selected for blood offering, preparing traditional (kalam)Kendra as Vadakkemvathil. The Theyyam deities propitiated through cock-sacrifice will not enter inside such shrine walls. On account of the later origin of  Vaishnavism in Kerala, it has no vide-spread influence  on Theyyam cult.  Only a few deities are available under this category.  The  two major  Theyyam deities of Vaishnavism are Vishnumoorthi and Daivathar.  The legend of Vishnumoorthy identified  the God's migration from Managlore to Kolathunadu as Vishnavism was very popular in the Tuluva country during the 13th century.  All other categories of Theyyam  deities can be incorporated in Saivism and Saktism.   Even ancestors, heroes, animals etc. are deified and included in those categories. In brief, the Theyyam provides a good example for the religious evolution and its different stages in Hinduism. When the cult of Theyyam, borrowed liberally from Brahaminism, the brahmins with their social and caste superiority also patronised the Theyyam gods and goddesses.  They established their own Shrines and Kavus(Groves)   for Theyyam deities where non-brahmanical rituals and customs are observed.  The goddesses like Raktheswari, Chamundi, Someshwari and Kurathi and gods like Vishnumoorthy are propitiated in these house hold shrines.  The rituals in such shrines are different  from those of the Brahmanical temples Theyyam cult can be said as the religion of  the masses.  Even the follower of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspects.  Same of the mappila characters like Ali Chamundi of Alichammundi Devasthan of  Kumbla  have found a place in the cult.

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PERFORMANCE
The Theyyam dance is generally performed in front of the village shrines.and Tharavadu House, (Joint family House) as ancestor worship with elaborate rites and rituals. There is no stage or curtain and it is performed in an open theatre. A performance of a particular deity according to its significance and hierarchy in the shrine continues for 12 to 24 hours with intervals. The Chief dancer who propitiates the central deity of the shrine has to reside in the the aniyara( green room) and observe vegetarianism, fasting etc. as a part of rituals. Further, after the sunset, this particular dancer would not eat anything as a legacy of Jainism. His make up is done by specialist and others. First part of the performance is usually known as `Thottam’ or `Vellattam’. It is performed in the night without proper make up or decorative costume. Only a small red head dress is worn on this occasion. The dancer along with the drummers recites the particular ritual song which describes the myths and legends of the particular deity. After finishing this primary ritualistic part of the invocation., the dancer returns to the Aniyara( green room). After the interval, he appears with proper make up and costumes and with face painting. There are different types of face painting for which primarily and secondary colours are used. It had effected certain stylization also. Then the dancer comes in front of the shrine or sthanam, and gradually metamorphises’ as the particular deity of shine. After observation of certain rituals, the helpers places the head dress on his head and then dances. In the background folk musical instruments like chenda, Tuti, Kuzhal and Veekni are played with rhythm. All dancers take a shield and sword in their hands as continuation of the cult of weapon. Then the dancer circumambulates the shrine, runs in the courtyard and dances. The Theyyam dance has different steps known as “Kalasams”. Each Kalasam is repeated systematically from first to eight system of footwork. A performance is a combination of plying of musical instruments, vocal recitation, dance and strange make up and costumes. The stage practice of Theyyam and its ritualistic observations make it one of the fascination theatrical arts of India especially in northern Kerala.

 

MEANING AND SOCIAL CONTENT
As a sacred theatre followed with elaborate rituals the Theyyam performance has a difficult meaning and social content entirely different from other theatrical forms. The village shrines groves and cult spots are maintained by the caste councils or village elders for bringing prosperity to the village. In such places the village goddess or Bhagavathis named after that particular locality are propitiated as an ancient practice. The Theyyam festival of that particular shrine has a meaning and purpose. The elaborate rituals observed in these shrines including the preparation of the Kalan or square are intended for blessing of the super nature. Along with the Kalan or square an earthen decorated vessel with areca flowers containing toddy is placed on a platform. It symbolises the womb of mother goddesses. It is the significant aspect of the fertility cult. Offerings of cereals, cock blood, red flowers, etc are made in front of the Kalasam or Kalan., These rituals are responsible as being believed for the blessings of the super nature for prosperity in men and women, cattle and wealth. The dancer throws rice on the audience and distributes turmeric powder as symbols of blessings. Turmeric powder has high medicinal value, against small pox, etc.

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The entire village folk attend the Theyyam festival in the village shrines and the members of Tharavadu and relatives attend the Theyyam festivals in their Tharavadus. Some of the grand theyyam festivals (Kaliyattoms) of the Vaniya caste, Thiyya caste and Maniyani caste are followed by the common feast for the entire devotees from the cult centre itself such feasts in favour of the mother goddesses and Kaliyattam take place one in 5 years or 25 years. Different castes and communities participate in such festivals.

They share the expenditure by way of donation. Compulsory levy is also imposed up on the members of the particular caste who own the shrine and offerings made by the devotees. The elders settle major disputes and caste conflicts during Theyyam festival. It was an effective way of administration of justice in the medieval period and even continued in the days of British administration.

 

TRAINING
The Theyyam ritual dance is exclusively performed by the male members of the traditional caste groups like Vannan, Malayan, Velan, Mavilan, Pulayan and Koppalan. These sections belong to scheduled caste and tribes. They are the sole custodians of Theyyam dance. These artists belong to the socially degraded group and only at the time of their performance get a social status and they are been respected by the devotees. It is a seasonal occupation to these groups. It is a social obligation on his part to perform the Theyyam dance in their areas as a hereditary right. Now these people get reasonable payment. Cloth, coconut, rice, paddy and coconut oil are also being given.

Like many other performing arts, there are different areas in Theyyam art which are to be specialised by an artist. An eminent artist generally achieves mastery over all these branches. They are recitation of Theyyam song or Thottam, make up, preparation of costumes, playing of instruments and dancing. There are about one hundred thottam songs pertaining to different gods and goddesses. Some of them are lengthy texts including the legends, myths and traditions of their respective folk deities. These songs are to be memorized by the artist. The methods of recitation and oral revelation like `Varavili` are to be mastered. The ragas or melody vary from one context to the other. Thus he must posses some knowledge of musicology.

 

COSTUMES
The make up involves face painting a different styles and body decoration. Different costumes like leaf dress or Tazha Adai, headdress or muti, `arayoda’ or Vattoda and other body decorations are to be prepared by the artists for performance. Some of the costumes are made up of tender coconut leaves and they are used only for single performance. Some head crowns and masks are used in different occasions. Preparation of these items requires proper skill and craftsmanship and perfect knowledge of primary and secondary colour combinations

The artist has to master the skill to play the folk musical instruments, which have an important place in the Theyyam performance. Most important item of the performance is dancing. Normally instruction is imported when a boy is 7 or 8 years old. It takes 8 or 10 years to master everything of the performance. The teaching of Theyyam dance is given in a `gurukula model’. The eminent dancer teaches his sons, nephews or relatives and when they learn this they will also assist as make up men or drummers. They appear in minor and unimportant items of deities in the village festivals. In certain dance items a dance has to wear burning wicks around his waist and observe fire walk wearing the heavy headdress. He has to learn the method of weight distribution by moving hands, shoulders and legs. There is every possibilities of an accident for an unskilled artist who perform the Theyyam of Muchilot Bhagavathy, Kannangat Bhagavathy and Patakkathi Baghavathi.

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Morning hours are used for instruction. Oil massage is applied to the body of a young dancer. A good training in Kalaripayattu is a must for the Theyyam artist who performs the role of hero deities like, Kathivannur Veeran, Poomaruthan, Pataveeran and many others.

The Theyyam traditions and arts inherited by a son from his father, or a nephew from his uncle. This practice continued uninterruptedly for centuries. As it was a ritual art without rituals and rites, it has no existence and thus its growth was arrested and restricted.

STYLIZATION
Theyyam is a developed art form and hence systematic stylization had taken place in the course of its development. Most of the Theyyam dances maintain a unique style pertaining to the performance of each deity, within an particular area. In respect of rituals and songs there may be regional variations, but the visual appearance has no much variations. It is believed that one Manakkadan Gurukkal of Karivellur, a great Theyyam artist, had effected the present style in the 16th or 17th century, under the instruction of Kolathiri Raja. Following this tradition the Kolathiri or chieftains used to distribute the title like Manakkadan, Perumalayan, Peruvannan etc. to the distinguished Theyyam artists.


Theyyam is mainly intended to propagate religions, Hindu mythology, and belief even among the uneducated masses. There the art form is considered only as medium of communication and the cult centre where it is performed is a sacred centre of social organisation . The continued patronage of the masses makes it popular ritual art.

 

CASTE AND AGRARIAN RELATIONS
The agrarian society had contributed the cult of theyyam. This society had been organised in a caste hierarchical system. The inferior caste members had patronized their own Theyyam deities. The main deities propitiated by certain castes are given below.

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1. Kammalas or Blacksmith Bali Theyyam

2. Thiyyas or Ezhavas Poomala , Vayanattu Kulavan, Kathivannur Veeran, Poomaruthan, Muthappan etc.

3. Vaniyan (oil monger) Muchilott Bhagavathy

4. Maniyanis Kannangatt Bhagavathy

5. Saliyas Chooliyar Bhagavathy

Apart from the above, many other theyyam deities were propitiated commonly by all castes.

The brahmanical temples and feudal families controlled the affairs of Theyyam. The naduvazhi played an important role in such affairs. One of the rituals of a Theyyam festival is to carry out fire or flame from a local Brahmanical temple to the village shrine. The permission for conducting a festival is necessary from the local landlord or naduvazhi. The landlords and the village elders enjoyed the right to restrict the out castes in their respective shrines. All members of a community were forced to observe traditional caste rules.

 

THEYYAMS AND LOCAL HISTORY
The myths and legends of the Theyyam deities. often relate to the local heroes and heroines. Some of their songs reflect certain episode from the local history. Divinity to these heroes had been attributed by the society. The medieval heroes like Kathivannur veeran, and Thacholi othenan were characters from local history. They were defied and worshipped for their heroism. The goddess Puthiya Bhagavathy (new) and Makkam were heroines of tragic stories. Makkam was considered to be an immoral woman by her beloved brothers. The jealousy of their wives made her a victim of their suspicion. The brothers dropped her and children in a deep well. Later she was elevated as a goddess and she was a chaste woman. This episode from local family history provided the theme for a Theyyam goddesses. A local chieftain wanted to molest a woman who had lost her several children. Her protest against the chieftain resulted in to the punishment by throwing her in a leaky country boat floated on a river. Burning fire wicks were also placed on her head. Later the memory of this woman was kept alive, by the society who elevated her to a goddess named Puthiya Bhagavathy. This Bhagavathy is a disease mother and a goddess of small pox. Many other stories like these could be traced from the myths and legends of several Theyyam gods and goddesses with deep roots in local history.

 

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