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Theyyam - Divine Dance of Kannur and Kerala from Ancient Times

Theyyam is a popular ritual form of worship in North Malabar in Kerala in southern India. It is predominant in Kolathunadu and also in Kodagu and Tulu Nadu in Karnataka as a living cult. There are thousand-year-old traditions, rituals, and customs. The word Theyyam is derived from Sanskrit deva. Theyyam is also called the dance of the gods.

Teyattam is celebrated in Kerala in the districts of Kozhikode, Kannur, and Wayanad. The district of Kasaragod is also a center for Bhuta Kola. The ancient Velan made a Kolam and sacrificed a goat to get rid of the spirits with the help of Murugan. The ritual ended with a dance known as Velan Veriyattal, where Velan carried a spear in his hand and predicted a happy future for every girl.

Also known as the Malayanmar, the performers of Theyyam are among the lower caste community. They have an important position in Theyyam. People of these districts consider Theyyam as God. They seek blessings from this Theyyam. A similar custom followed in the Tulu Nadu region in neighboring Karnataka is known as Bhuta Kola. Teyyattam belongs to the very ancient tradition of the Bhuta cult, in which a possessive malicious spirit is evoked and appeased until finally, in the end, it transforms into a protective power.


There can be no doubt that a very large part of the modern folk religion and expression is very ancient. It contains characteristics that arose in the earliest times of the Neolithic period during the copper age settlement. These ancient practices and rituals of ancient worship were present in the Indus Valley and other ancient civilizations, where mother goddess had been invoked for fertility and prosperity. Even the followers of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspect. It became a deep-rooted folk religion of millions.

It can be said that all the outstanding features of this primitive and tribal worship had spread the stream of Theyyam. For example, the cult of the Bhagawathi as the mother goddesses still has an important place in Theyyam. Besides, the practices such as spiritual worship, ancestral cult, hero worship, Masathi worship, tree worship, animal worship, serpent worship, worship of the goddesses of the disease and the worship of Graamadevataa in the stream of the Theyyam cult.

Together with these gods and goddesses, there are numerous folk gods and goddesses. Most of these goddesses are called Bhagavathy.

Various branches of the mainstream Hindu religion such as Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism now dominate the cult of the Theyyam. The forms of reconciliation and other rituals, however, are continuations of a very ancient tradition. In several cult centers, blood sacrifice is seen, although it is banned in sattvic Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

In these centers, separate places outside the terrain of the shrine are selected for the blood offerings and for the production of traditional Kalam as Vatakkanvathil. The Theyyam deities are soothed by tail sacrifices. This religious blood sacrifice, which also has the cockfight is a classic example of the cultural synthesis of small and great cultures.

Due to the allegedly late revival of the Vaishnavism movement in Kerala, it does not have a deep influence on the Theyyam cult. Only a few divinities are available in this category. Two great Theyyam deities of Vaishnavism are Vishnumoorthi and Daivathar. Vaishnavism was very popular in the region of Tuluva in the 13th century, when it came under the rule of the Vishnuvardhana of the Hoysala dynasty.

He was a great advocate of the Vaishnavism. Probably he was first adored as Vishnumoorthi and accepted into the Bhoota cult of the Tuluvas and then further integrated as an outstanding folk deity into the Theyyam cult as well. For some, the legend of Vishnumoorthi symbolizes the God's migration from Tulu Nadu to Kolathunadu.

All other categories of Theyyam divinities are classified under Shaivism or Shaktism. Kali is the most revered goddess in Kerala in her form as Bhadrakali. A total of 400 male and female deities, spiritual beings, mythical ancestors and personalized animals are organized according to their rituals. The ghosts, ancestors, heroes, and animals were idolized and fall into the categories mentioned.

In short, Ityam represents a good example of religious development. It then follows various stages in modern Hinduism. The general understanding is that within Hindu syncretism lay reconciliation.

The Thiyyars were patrons of Theyyam, and it was not uncommon for any Tharavadu to celebrate Theyyam. However, the Brahman Thanthri did not have the right to participate directly in Theyyam, since this privilege belonged only to the tribal communities. Despite this, the ruling clans had their own shrines and Kavus for Theyyam deities and the non-sattvic rituals and customs.

The goddesses include Rakteshwari Devi, Chamundi Devi, Someshwari Devi, Kurathi, and the gods include Vishnumoorthi. The Theyyam dancers appear during the annual festivals of the gods and goddesses. The rituals in such shrines are different from those of the Vedic temples. The impact of this cultural merging could be traced back to the social organization on the basis of the system in agricultural relations.

To satisfy her lust for blood, Kundor Chamundi killed Brahmans. In the end, it forced the population to raise Chamundi to the rank of a goddess as a kind of appeasement. She is a popular Teyyam in the lower Velan caste, who worship her with the sacrifice of alcohol and blood.

The dance is usually performed in front of the village shrine. It is also performed in the houses as an ancestral cult with elaborate rituals. There is no stage or curtain or other such arrangements for performance. The followers would stand or some of them will sit on a holy tree in front of the shrine. In short, it is an open theater. A performance of a particular divinity according to their importance and hierarchy in the shrine continues for 12 to 24 hours with intervals.

The chief dancer is the one who has reconciled the central deity of the shrine. This can be due to the influence of Jainism and Buddhism. Furthermore, after the sun goes down, this particular dancer would not eat anything for the rest of the day. His makeup is made by specialists and other dancers. The first part of the performance is usually known as Vellattam or Thottam. It is performed without proper makeup or a decorative costume.

The dancer, together with the drummers, recites the special ritual singing. It bears the myths and legends, and the deity of the shrine or the popular deity. This is accompanied by the playing of folk music instruments. Upon completion of the primary ritual part, the dancer returns to the backstage. Again after a short pause, he appears with the right makeup and costumes. There are different patterns of facial remembrance.

Some of these patterns are called Vairadelam, Kattaram, Kozhipuspam, Kotumpurikam, and Prakkezhuthu. Usually, primary and secondary colors are applied with contrasting makeup. It helps in performing certain stylization in the dances. Then the dancer comes before the shrine. After observing certain rituals he places the headdress on his head and begins to dance. In the background, the folk music instruments like Chenda, Tuti, Kuzhal, and Veekni are played in a certain rhythm.

All the dancers take a shield and Kadthala in their hands as a continuation of the cult of the weapons. Then the dancer circumnavigates the shrine, runs in the yard, and dances there. The Theyyam dance has various steps like Kalaasams. Each Kalaasam is systematically repeated from the first to the eighth step of the leg. A performance is a combination of playing musical instruments, singing recitation, dancing and peculiar makeup and costumes.

The body movements are similar to the Kathakali. There are about 400 types of Theyyam, including Pallivettakkorumakan, Vishnumoorthy, and Sree Muthappan Theyyam. Another intermittent state of transition, in which a deity temporarily leaves his place, is one of the annual chariot ceremonies of the Ratha Yatra.

In some Kavus the Theyyam Festival is performed at intervals of 12 or more years. These types of festivals are known as Perumkaliyattam. In 2008 it was celebrated in Perumkaliyattams Ramanthali Muchilot Kavu, Kalayikode Muchilot Kavu, and Mandur Padinjatta Thiruvarkat Bhagavathy Temple. It was held in Kenamangalam Perumkaliyattam Kazhakam, Pallikkera near Nileshwar in Edat Thiruvarkattu Bagavathi Temple.

As a remnant of past tribal rituals, the dancer injures himself in some Teyattams. He leads a knife into his mouth, immerses his hands in boiling oil or in burning torches. In the Teyyams Pottan, Ottakkolam and Kandanar Kelan, he walks barefoot through a fire. A pyramid of logs and branches is burned down until a hill of glowing charcoal is left.

Helpers throw the Teyyam several times into the heat of the fire and grind him off the ground. An ancient human sacrifice to the goddess Kali is the final ritual in the Ummattikuliyan Teyyam, where the arms and legs of the performer are firmly tied together and then stabbed with an iron needle until large quantities of blood flow.

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