Theyyam: When Gods Descend on earth

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 21 June 2019

India has rich religious traditions during which the Gods are supposed to come down to the earth and express themselves through some persons. Examples of similar traditions can be found in different parts of India.

Theyyam ceremony, Kunnur, India - image by Sunil Deepak

This post focuses on one such tradition called Theyyam, which is celebrated in northern Kerala in south India.

Gods Speaking Through Humans

Hindus believe that the Divine is present in each living being as universal consciousness. At the same time, they have a pantheon of 33 million Gods and Goddesses, one for each of life’s different forms. The Gods, animals and plants are all inter-linked through the sacred stories and myths.

The descent of Gods into humans has 2 main functions – (i) as a part of celebration of specific religious and social events; and, (ii) to answer questions and to give blessings to people.

Theyyam ceremony, Kunnur, India - image by Sunil Deepak

All over India, especially in small towns and villages, there are persons who are known in the communities as “carriers of God”, who can invoke a God spirit to come and speak through them. In north India this process is called “Devi ka aana” (arrival of the Goddess). Usually they do it by sitting down in meditation with their eyes closed and then go into trance. The arrival of the God in their bodies is marked by signs like convulsive shaking while their voices turn rough. After that others can ask questions or ask for blessings and make an offering.

In many parts of India, there are also elaborate make-up, costumes and rituals linked with this tradition. For example, in North Dinajpur district of West Bengal, persons manifesting the Gods wear colourful wooden masks during the sowing of fields – this tradition is known as Gomira. In East Burdwan district of West Bengal, the men invoking the Gods, paint their bodies with blue colour and transform into Shiva – this tradition is known as Shiva Gajan.

While God-manifestation roles are mostly enacted only by men, usually they are about Goddesses, the different forms of Shakti. In some places, persons of other religions, especially Muslims & Christians, are given specific roles to play during these ceremonies, which could be linked with specific historical events and indicate processes of religious inclusion.

Theyyam ceremony, Kannur, India - image by Sunil Deepak

Theyyam Tradition in North Kerala

The word “Theyyam” probably comes from “Devam” (God). This religious tradition is common in villages of northern Kerala, especially around the district of Kannur and surrounding areas of Kerala and Karnataka. Between October to March, every village holds one annual Theyyam at the village temple. In each temple, there can be different Gods/Theyyams, depending upon the presiding deity and his consorts. Bhagwati is one of the principle deities of the Theyyam.

The persons playing Theyyams usually belong to specific lower castes in villages. The responsibility belongs to specific families and is hereditary, so that male children watch and learn from their fathers and uncles putting on the make-up, making specific ritualistic dance movements and conducting specific rituals in the temple. For the duration of the Theyyam, persons of all castes, bow in front of Theyyams.

Theyyam ceremony, Kannur, India - image by Sunil Deepak

The ceremonies continue day and night for 3-4 days and are usually carried out in the open courtyards around the temple. During the celebration, sometimes there can be an occasional animal sacrifice, especially a hen. After their rituals and dances, each Theyyam receives devotees who pay obeisance, and ask questions or their blessings.

Visiting Theyyam ceremonies

I had seen a few Theyyam dancers in a cultural festival in Guwahati some years ago and had been struck by their elaborate make-up and costumes. Then, a few years ago, in a museum near Fort Kochi, I had seen the masks showing specific make-up face-patterns for different Theyyams, which had greatly intrigued me.

It is easier to see Theyyam performances as part of cultural shows, but I was interested in seeing them as a part of a living religious tradition of a village.

In February 2018, during a visit in Kerala, I had gone to Kunnur, where I had hired a local Theyyam guide. You can find online the calendar of Theyyam celebrations in different villages. However, more specific information is available only in Malayalam. Finding and reaching specific villages where the celebrations are being held is not very easy unless you know the local areas. Thus, a local guide can make things easier.

With my guide Chandran, I had visited Theyyam ceremonies in 2 different villages and seen different Theyyams, each with their special make-up and costume. As you can see from the pictures, both were colourful ceremonies filled with beautiful rituals, dances and faithful. Even elderly persons touched their feet and asked for their blessings.

Theyyam ceremony, Kannur, India - image by Sunil Deepak

In my opinion, they are not just a rich and colourful tradition, they are an expression of people’s faith. I found the ceremonies emotionally moving. Unfortunately, with changing times, some young persons feel that these are just old superstitions and are dismissive towards them. Though the Government is supporting some of the families engaged in Theyyam by making them a part of cultural festivals, I feel that to see them as part of people’s living traditions and faith, is a completely different experience.

Conclusions

In one of the villages I visited, I watched a young man patiently lying on the ground for a couple of hours, while the make-up of God Narsimha was being put on his face. While he was getting ready, his uncle, Mr. Narayan, who was one of the drummers and had come home from Delhi, especially for this ceremony, had explained to me the significance of different steps of his preparation.

Theyyam ceremony, Kannur, India - image by Sunil Deepak

The most beautiful moment for me had come when after getting ready, the young man had moved away from the group and walked up to a small hill. There he had bent down to touch the ground and then stood there with his eyes closed in a silent prayer. When he had opened his eyes and turned towards people, there was a subtle difference in him – he had transformed into Theyyam. Moving with a feline grace, he had walked to the courtyard of the temple, a God descended on earth.

That transformation had touched me deeply. Gods and humans, together and separate, are bound together in the sacred stories of human imagination - Theyyam is an illustration of this bond.

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This is a trilingual blog, it also has some posts in Italian and Hindi. Each section is independent, which means that the majority of the posts in Italian and Hindi are not translations of the English language posts, they are on different subjects.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com