According to Indian mythology, Parshurama, a Priest-Warrior and the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu, following a bloody campaign to annihilate the ruling Kshatriyas, flung his mighty battle-axe into the ocean. The waters drew back, thus enabling him to reclaim land for the creation of the land now called Kerala. The same legend informs us that this act was carried out at the behest of an assembly of learned men who had advised him to expiate for his sins, accumulated in the carnage of battle, by handing over his newly carved empire to 64 Brahmin families. They are acknowledged as the progenitors of the present day Namboodiri clan.
In a purely historical context, the Malabar Coast refers to India’s southwestern coast and is comprised of the narrow coastal plane of Karnataka and Kerala states, lying between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. It has a long history of being remarkably receptive to remote influences, going back to 3000 BC when spices, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, silks, fragrances and gold from the region were famous throughout the ancient trading world, extending across the Arabian Sea to major ports in the Red Sea and Mediterranean as well as the Far East. It was insular, self sufficient and abundantly endowed with natural resources for internal consumption and trade.
This lush and verdant land, had many admirers—Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Romans, Egyptians, and later the Arabs, French and British—all of who came over at some point, with the thought of settling for good, or at the very least establishing a permanent outpost. The Gospel of Saint Thomas, though regarded as apocrypha by the Vatican, actually mentions the passage of St. Thomas across the old silk route to Asia and India to set up the region’s very first Christian outpost, as far back as 52 AD. The port of Kozhikode (Calicut), famously known as Muziris by classical Greeks and Romans, became an important hub of commerce and Kerala soon developed a unique identity of its own.
In keeping with seafarers of old, I made Calicut my first port of call in Kerala. I had come to conduct field research for a documentary film on lost and forgotten cultures, for which Kerala was eminently suitable. This teeming and fecund cauldron had given birth to a uniquely indigenous practice, which over time had coalesced into a complex and self-referencing epistemology called “Theyyam.”
The term Theyyam is a colloquial form of the word “Daivam” or God and represents a vibrant, living offshoot of Malabar culture that has been practiced by tribal communities since at least 2000 BC. It came from a time when the cognitive borders between humans and their phenomenal environment were blurred and indistinct. The physical and the metaphysical worlds collided on different levels, to create a complex, multilayered universe in which the governing principles of cause and effect ceased to operate with temporal linearity. These spontaneous acts of communion with the Oversoul are a universal phenomenon and generically referred to as “spirit possession.”
The phenomenon of spirit possession exists in many cultural traditions, including Buddhism, Haitian Voudou, Wicca, South-East Asian and African traditions. Depending on the specific variant, possession may be either voluntary or involuntary and could be either invasive and malevolent, or divine.
Theyyam is a uniquely Malabari variant of a universal Shamanic worldview, in which transcendental expressions of higher dimensional entities are conveyed to a believer through a flesh and blood template, i.e. the “performer,” who for the designated period of time becomes a living deity from whom blessings are sought. It posits the notion of a parallel, co-existing universe and that a human being after appropriate metaphysical initiation, can mount the physical or external effects of a specific entity, deity or being and then “become” that entity. In this exalted state he takes on divine powers, and is able to bless and heal as a God or Goddess.
In India, Theyyam is performed mainly in the northern Malabar districts of Kasargod, Kannur, Wayanad and Kozhikode. This form of worship, often involving liquor and meat as offerings to all major deities of the Hindu pantheon—Bhagawathi, Shiva, Vishnu, was distinct from, though complementary to the Sattvic rituals performed by Namboodiri Brahmins in temples. It is widely accepted that Vedic cosmology was adapted to a pre-existing tribal weltanschaung, which absorbed the concept of the Hindu trinity and eventually fused with it.
My host Valsan Kolleri, a well-known artist and sculptor, was based in Pattiam, a quaint green hamlet midway between Calicut and Kannur. He ran a self-designed art school called “Shilpapaddiam” in the interiors of Kerala that was entirely constructed from local laterite stone and boasted of cutting edge sustainable and eco-friendly architecture, blending seamlessly with the landscape.
After a long, bone-jarring ride across pothole-infested roads, we arrived at a “Mutthappan” performance that was taking place a few hours away. SRI MUTTHAPPAN is a popular type of Theyyam, which typically begins early in October and continues until May. I could not have hoped for a better guide than Valsan, who knew every nook and cranny of the area as intimately as his own backyard.
The very first thing to hit me was the incredibly rich texture and vivid, explosive colors that covered the two performers from head to toe. The makeup and costumes were exquisitely detailed and unlike anything I had seen before and the performers were clearly at home in their avatars.
The performance had two main “actors”: Thiruvappan and Vellatom. I had read up a bit and knew they were considered to be manifestations of Shiva and Vishnu, respectively. Therefore Sri Mutthappan as an integrated whole, unifying the two deities, represented the idea of Brahman, the unity of manifested creation with the totality of the cosmos as expressed in the Vedas.
Theyyam does not follow the traditional Bhakti model of “Prana Pratishtana” or the installation of the deity within an anthropomorphic template. Rather, the spirit is invoked to enter the physical body of its chosen vehicle, which can then act as a medium between devotees and the deity. It is performed in the “Kaavu” or courtyard of a house or village temple, as the artist prepares for his nocturnal ritual trance during which the spirit of the deity is evoked.
Traditionally, the spirit enters a Theyyam performer when, after completing the make-up, he sits ceremonially in front of the village shrine and gazes into a mirror. This is the ecstatic moment—the point of total immersion, after which all links with his previous life are erased for the duration of the trance, which can last up to three days.
During the performance we observed Mutthappan drinking from a bottle, accompanied by a number of frisky canines. He then passed on the libation to gathered devotees and spectators. Valsan explained that toddy, the liquor fermented from coconut sap, was a staple at Theyyam events, as were the dogs. A local anecdote tells of an incident in which temple authorities decided to remove the numerous dogs that had made their home on the premises. Strangely enough, Sri Mutthappan was unable to perform and sat listlessly in the preparation area. Apparently, the spirit of the deity was not willing to enter the chosen vehicle on this occasion. After mulling over the problem, one of the priests had an idea and had the dogs brought back on the temple premises. Within a few hours, Mutthappan was charged and rearing to go. Needless to say, he gave the performance of a lifetime.
Theyyam costumes are fashioned from cutting and painting coconut sheaths in primarily black, white and red patterns. The richly textured and intricate facial designs are age-old symbolic visual codes handed down over several generations through the same family lineage. The hood, headdress, face paint, breastplate, bracelets, garlands and fabric of attire of each Theyyam are distinct and painstakingly crafted over long hours prior to the performance, using coconut and palm leaves, dyes and natural inks, twigs, string, mirrors and embroidery. Costumes, make-up and music from Theyyam have had a major influence on Kathakali, one of India’s classical forms of dance.
There are supposedly more than 400 types of Theyyam, mostly spirits of heroic ancestors, deadly warriors, cosmic tricksters, wrathful and unpredictable, though ultimately benevolent, female deities. Some of the more popular deities are Mutthappan, Pottan, Vishnumoorthy, Pulikandan, Theyya Chamundi, Chembilot Bhagawathy, Muchilottu Bhagawathy, Gulikan, and Bhadrakali, among others. The performers lead normal lives during the off-seasonal period, with many often being employed in physically demanding professions like well-digging, construction and farming.
Theyyam lore has an abundance of intriguing tales and striking anecdotes. The performances can be visceral and spectacular. In one such variation, Pottan Theyyam, the daredevil performer runs, jumps and walks through a series a gauntlets that include a bed of coals and raging bonfires. He has merged so completely with his avatar that the physical body seems oblivious to normal threshold of pain tolerance. He is known to lay supine on the fire long enough for people to feel genuinely alarmed for his well being. Remarkably, his flowing straw skirt that should light up like dry kindling shows no sign of being affected.
As the Muthhappan ritual went on and the honeyed light of late afternoon turned into star encrusted velvety darkness, the spell was cast on both sides, affecting deity and worshipper alike. The deity was the cynosure of all eyes and one could not help being in awe of this living God. The adoring masses approached him warily, only too aware of his volatile temperament. He spoke to each one in turn, in a mysterious tongue that seemed to be designed specifically for the worshipper alone. We were in perfect communion for the brief interlude until the next devotee came along to be in his presence and partake of the sacrament.