ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY travel deep into the Malabar hinterland of North Kerala to experience its celebrated art forms Theyyam and Kalaripayattu
Somewhere on the fringes of Pallikunnu, a remote village near Kannur in North Kerala, we waited with bated breath to watch the magical transformation of a mere mortal into a god. In the orange glow of an olachottu, an indigenous torch made of dried coconut leaves, flames danced on the somber face of the performer, who recited an invocation. A crowd had assembled in the dead of the night to witness a theyyam performance.
Theyyam is a ritualistic dance form performed in Kerala’s erstwhile Kolathunad region (present day Kasargod and Kannur districts and parts of Wayanad, Malappuram and Kozhikode). The word is derived from devam or thaivam (god) and is as much art as it is ritual. While classical art forms like Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Kalaripayattu flourished in palaces, mansions and temples as exclusive domains of the elite and upper caste Brahmins and Kshatriyas, folklore ran parallel to the mainstream. It represented the hopes and aspirations of the marginalized segment of society and found a platform at sthanams (village shrines) and kavus (sacred groves).
It is believed theyyam originated from various cults prevalent in ancient Kerala – from totemism to worship of trees, serpents, tigers, ancestors, spirits, heroes, mother goddesses and divinities that ruled diseases. Traditionally held between the Malayalam months of Thulappathu (mid-October) and Edavappathy (mid-May), theyyam is performed mainly by the Ezhavas and Thiyas, traditionally toddy-tappers, besides Hindu sub-castes like Vannan, Malayan, Anjutton, Mannatton, Karimbalan, Pulayan and tribes like Koppalan, Velan, Mayilon and Chungathan.
There are nearly 400 different kinds of theyyam – Vishnu-murti is most commonly performed with some rare ones called Perumkaliyattam that are performed every 12 years. Vayanattukulavan traces the journey of Shiva’s attendant through the forests of Wayanad after he was blinded for drinking from the lord’s cache of toddy. A Brahmin virgin committed suicide to prove her chastity and was deified in the form of Muchilottu Bhagavathi.
We were witnessing the thottam (preliminary ritual) of Kunnavu Muchilotu Bhagavathy with minimal make-up and costume. Accompanied by singers and musicians, the performer sang the myth or tale of the divinity. In the background, the chenda drummed up a haunting rhythm as folk instruments like tuti (hourglass-shaped drum), kuzhal (double-reed flute) and veekni gave company. The performer received naithiri (lighted wick) in the nakkila (plantain leaf) from the priest of the shrine, who invokes the deity into the wick. Thereafter, god resides with the performer and is ritually returned after the theyyam.
We watched guardian attendants clad in red clothes with swords and shield in hand accompanying the theyyam. They were the komaram or velachipad, who swayed to the hypnotic rhythm, moving in synchronized steps in a group dance is called Kudiyattam. The performer then retired to the aniyara (makeshift green room) to complete his make-up and costume, which took a few hours.
Make up is done with locally available materials – tender coconut fronds for tasseled frocks or headgear and natural dyes like chayilyam (vermillion), manjal (turmeric powder), arichanthu (rice powder paste) and lamp black are used. The spine of a coconut leaf was used to apply make up. Red clothes, masks, eyepieces, breastplates and tusks are typical accessories of theyyam performances.
After final touches of make-up, the headgear is fixed, usually in front of the shrine. Only then does the performer look into a mirror to perceive the deity for the first time. This ritual, called mukhadarshanam, helps him forget his individuality and become one with his character. It is a moment that sends frissons of excitement through the crowd.
To perform the theyyam, a person has to undergo tremendous preparation, both physically and mentally. He is supposed to concentrate on the deity and often takes on peculiar vows. Some stay in the premises of the shrine, some prepare their own food while others abstain from meat and alcohol or do not mingle with women. Then, on the big night, all this built up energy is unleashed…
There were gasps in the audience as the theyyam was led out into the arena in full regalia, accompanied by attendants holding the kuthuvilakku (metal lamp with iron rod). The theyyam bore a shield and kadthala (sword) in his hand. He circumambulated the shrine thrice and walked to the family members. A theyyam is usually performed as an offering to a particular deity, to fulfill prayers, after getting a serious problem solved or winning a court case. The person conducting it must bear all the expenses.
As the clan members sprinkled sacred rice, the theyyam heard their supplications. The theyyam becomes an oracle through which the divinity offers anuvada or solutions to various problems. He then walked rhythmically to the crowds to bless them and continued dancing in the courtyard. Theyyam has different steps known as kalaasams, repeated systematically from the first to the eighth step of footwork. Sometimes, a performance can stretch over hours.
The weapons brandished by the performers hark back to the martial traditions of ancient Kerala society. And there’s no better example of it than kalaripayattu, considered to be one of the oldest forms of combat in existence and a precursor to other martial traditions around the world. The art of payattu (fight) was disseminated through kalari (schools), which served as centres of learning before the modern education system.
Though Kerala’s culture is rich with several artistic traditions, kalaripayattu blends together various disciplines like yoga, dance, performing arts and Ayurveda with martial art. It is suggested that the art developed during the Sangam Age between 3rd century BC and 2nd century AD, with elements of shastra vidya of warrior sage Parasurama, siddha vaidya of Sage Agastya and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It was codified into its present form only by 11th century, during an extended period of conflict between the Chera and Chola dynasties. The art was widely practiced by the Pada Nairs and Chekavas, a sub group of Ezhavas and gained popularity over time.
Often, to save on the loss of lives and material in a full-scale war, disputes were resolved with ankam, a one-on-one combat between the best fighters from the two sides. It was like ‘Olympics meets Mortal Kombat’. The stakes were high and nothing was left to chance. Every warrior received regular training in target practice, riding horses and elephants and the use of different weapons – vel (spear), val (sword), kedaham (shield), vil-ambu (bow and arrow), neduvadi (sticks), katthi (daggers) and the deadly urumi (long, flexible sword).
Kalaripayattu bears an uncanny resemblance to kung fu and some conjecture it migrated from India to the Far East with the dispersal of Buddhism. While on the one hand you have Shaolin monks; on the other, are Brahmin warrior sages. Like Kung Fu, kalaripayattu too, borrows a lot from animal movement for vadivu (postures) and combat techniques – asva (horse), sarpa (serpent), simha (lion), gaja (elephant), kukkuta (rooster), mayura (peacock), marjara (cat) and varaha (boar). For all you know, Crouching Tiger and Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow might be more Indian than you think!
To the untrained eye, it may all seem the same but there are three distinct styles of the martial art. Vadakkan (Northern) Kalari, practiced in North Malabar, focuses on weapons rather than empty hands and lays emphasis on meippayattu (physical training and oil massages). Madhya (Central) Kalari, practiced in North Kerala, lays emphasis on application and lower body strength. Thekkan (Southern) Kalari has its roots in Siddha medicine and marma (vital points) techniques.
After the Portuguese and the Dutch, when the British came to Kerala they realized the deadly power of kalaripayattu. To prevent any potential rebellion or anti-colonial movement, they banned the practice and the Nair custom of holding swords. And thus, an ancient art languished till the 1920s when public interest revived the artform and Thalassery became the epicentre of learning. Though there are several cultural platforms where kalaripayattu is demonstrated, a visit to a kalari is the best way to understand the martial art. We dropped by at the renowned CVN Kalari at Kozhikode for a ringside view.
Built as per vastu sastra, the kalari has an east facing entrance and main door to the right of centre. The sunken central training area is 3.5 ft below ground level with a high thatched roof. The typical architecture shields students against winds that could lower body temperature. Even the floor made with wet red clay offers cushioning and prevents injury. In the southwest corner is a puttara (seven tiered platform) with the guardian deity, usually Bhagavathi, Kali or Shiva. Students offer flowers, incense and water in veneration before every training session. The guru’s stern voice cracked through the chamber like a whip as well-oiled pupils practiced their squats, kicks, jumps and fighting techniques, the way their forefathers did centuries ago. We watched in awe as they flew through the air, swinging swords that set off sparks. In Kerala, the old traditions are well and truly alive…
Kerala is well connected by air with international airports at Trivandrum, Kochi and Kozhikode. Thalassery is 70 km north of Kozhikode.
When to go
October to March is a pleasant time to visit, though theyyam season goes on till May, which can get quite warm.
Those who can’t catch a performance during theyyam season, there’s an early morning ritual performed in the Muthappan Temple at Parassinikkadavu every day. Local dailies and roadside posters list out theyyams taking place in the area. A detailed list is available at www.theyyamcalendar.com
Where to stay
Gitanjali Hermitage at Bekal, Kannur Beach House at Thottada, Ayesha Manzil in Thalassery and Hari Vihar in Kozhikode are excellent host-run properties that serve as excellent bases for culinary and culture tours.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August-September 2015 issue of India Now magazine.