Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragons”. Updated in November 2017.
I met the fierce god Muthappan for the first time in a poem in 2004. It opened a door to the shadowy world of the Theyyam, a ritual performance that originated in the North Malabar region of Kerala. Eight years of information gathering and an evocative piece by William Dalrymple later, I finally boarded a train from Bengaluru to Kannur one balmy December night, intent on finding the men who go into trances and transform themselves into forest and ancestor spirits, mythical heroes and flamboyant toddy-consuming gods who leap through fire, roll on burning coal, and accept blood sacrifices of live chickens. I was intrigued by and determined to witness this transformation from man to deity. And while the pantheon of Theyyam gods is infinitely large, I was particularly fascinated by the terrifying Bhagavathy, an embodiment of the primal feminine energy that manifests itself in the bodies of men.
I soon found myself on a midnight drive deep into the heart of Payyanur, in north Kerala, my head brimming with contradictory information. There I sat with silent villagers, in a sacred grove surrounded by areca nut trees, till the early hours of the morning. We watched a Muthappan Vellattam, an invocation to the hunter God that precedes an actual Theyyam, as oil lamps flickered under a full moon. But information about other performances was difficult to find and the language barrier proved insurmountable. The dancing gods of the Malabar eluded me.
Two months later, I am back in Kannur. While this booming textile hub is now the gateway to much of north Malabar, its well-kept secrets—the ancient Lokarnavu temple, the Thodikulam temple with its striking mural art, the Thalaserry biryani and bakeries, pristine beaches, and Theyyams—are still largely unknown to tourists.
The local newspapers offer a rudimentary listing of Theyyams, but no guarantee of authenticity. A visit to the District Tourism Promotion Council office draws a blank. I arrive at the Kerala Folklore Academy, only to find it shut for the day. Finally a friendly local points me towards the Parassini Kadavu Temple on the banks of the palm-fringed Vallapattanam River where, 16 km from Kannur, I watch yet another Muthappan Vellattam, standing beside bare-chested men in mundus and dusky women in white-and-gold saris.
Inside the temple, the air is thick with the fragrance of flowers, incense, and coconut oil. The priests hover near the sacred wooden stool (peedham), and present the turmeric-coloured deity a silver bow and arrow. The 15-foot-high brass lamps flicker, casting long shadows. Offerings of boiled rice, grated coconut, black pepper, and grilled fish are placed on a banana leaf along with a little pot filled with fermented toddy. As Muthappan’s companion, the sacred dog lying in the corner of the temple, saunters up to lick the offerings, the chenda drums fall silent. The crowd moves into line, waiting to ask for favours—health, prosperity, and fertility. This is Sri Muthappan after all, and the god is known to be protective of his devotees, fulfilling wishes, uttering prophecies, even arbitrating during local disputes. I find this concept of a living god comforting. Soon, I’m standing face to face with him. “You wanted to meet me” he says, kohl-rimmed eyes looking deep into mine as he hands me the blessing kuri—a mixture of rice powder and turmeric. It is a statement, not a question. My skin prickles. But I am quickly pushed past. I have now seen two Muthappans, but no Bhagavathy.
The next day, in the dim light of dawn, the lithe, oiled bodies of the novices at the Kerala Kalaripayattu Academy near Azhikode twist themselves into impossible physical postures (vadivus) that are said to embody the primal essence of animals. The secrets of Kalaripayattu, Kerala’s ancient martial art form, are said to have been handed down by Sage Parasurama and taken to the Far East by the Pallava prince, Bodhidharma. As students leap high, sparring with swords and short wooden sticks on the red earth floor, KPA Kader, the academy’s general secretary, tells me that many Theyyam artistes incorporate the physically demanding martial art form into their training, which often begins as early as the age of six or seven. The mental, physical, and spiritual preparations before a Theyyam are also intense. The performers follow a strict code of conduct, including celibacy and abstinence from alcohol and non-vegetarian food for 41 days before a performance, purifying themselves for the consecration of the deity within their body.
Kader gives me the address of a temple where a Theyyam may be performed that evening. I drive back with a fervent prayer to find a god or two. As I cross the village of Azhikode, the pea green of the paddy fields is broken by a sudden splash of red. Over the wall of a terracotta-tiled Nair home, I spot a figure with a magnificent crown (mudi) and a spliced bamboo skirt (arayota). His face and body paint indicate that he is the majestic Vayanattu Kulavan, a powerful forest deity. I stop to watch and the family invites me in.
Ironically, the Theyyam finds its origins not just in the worship of ancestors and forest spirits, but also in a polarised society which once allowed only higher castes to enter temples. This forced people of the lower castes to employ other means with which to engage with their gods. Since participating in a Theyyam is open to all, it created an egalitarian space for the oppressed. They discovered a powerful voice with which to narrate to their feudal persecutors stories of injustice and exploitation. This transformation from man to god that began during the post-paddy sowing month of Thulam (October) also initiated a dramatic status reversal within prevailing social hierarchies.
Most Theyyams are commissioned for household or community shrines. Even today, only speciﬁc castes have the right to perform speciﬁc Theyyams at speciﬁc shrines. In the matrilineal culture, the rights are inherited from the mother’s family. As my hosts tell me about a Theyyam in the neighbouring village, the deity turns to me. “Enne kanun undo?” (“Can you see me?”), he asks in Malayalam. I reply in English that I can indeed. He takes my wallet from my hand. “Will you give me everything there is to give?” he asks and returns it. I grapple with this existential question for the rest of the day.
Later that day, over a meal of fried masala pomfret, mussels, and spicy squid served with Kerala rice and sambar at the famous Othen’s Restaurant on Onden Road, I am directed to Edakkad village. The Bhagavathy Kshetram there is consecrating its new temple precinct. Even though it is 10 p.m. when I get there, the narrow road is blocked with vehicles. The drumbeats get louder as we approach the shrine on foot. I step into the precinct, tense with anticipation, and unexpectedly ﬁnd myself right near the green room tent where a young man lies motionless with his eyes closed. Delicate ﬁsh symbols are being drawn on his face with a coconut stem quill. Soot from an oil lamp is used to deﬁne his eyes while spliced coconut leaf skirts and ornaments are being woven nearby. Around him are glittering crowns decorated with silver serpent diadems and layers of ﬂowers. The skirts are the same hue as the blood red ﬂower, the chekipoo or jungle geranium. Theyyams reﬂect man’s intricate relationship with nature. Not only are most performances conducted deep within the forest, but the face paint and costumes are derived from ﬂowers, seeds, coconut leaves and bamboo. Many deities are also associated with speciﬁc ﬂowers or plants.
The young man suddenly springs to attention. He puts on his skirt, ornaments, tail, and headdress in stages so he can slowly absorb the divine energy, or shakti. His pupils dilate as he turns and looks not at me, but through me. The drumbeats intensify, the conch blows and the kurumkuzhal (a wind instrument) lets out an elongated wail. He rushes from the tent. In an instant he is everywhere—paying respect to the deity, climbing up pillars, leaping into the frenzied crowd which parts to make way for him. He scatters the powder in four directions and breaks a coconut. His back arches and he growls loudly, crouching in corners. He bares his teeth, snarling at the children, who run from him squealing. Srijith from Mattanoor has vanished and in his place is Puliyoorkannan, the tiger cub born from the tiger avatars of Shiva and Parvati. He brushes past and only the turmeric smear on my arm proves that a god has just passed by.
The gods manifest themselves one by one through the night. Dawn emerges along with Narambil Bhagavathy, who steps out with flaming torches tied dangerously close to her coconut leaf skirt. In the Theyyam, fire indicates the angry roudra form of the deity. A woman sitting beside me tells me the story of Narambil Bhagavathy’s anger against a husband who beats his wife. I am told that she protects the weak from oppression. Every deity has his or her own story and often there are many violent versions of the tale.
Hours later, as the sun moves high overhead, a hush descends on the crowd. A young man carries in a rooster and kneels, offering it to the goddess. By daylight, Srijith is ordinary, bearing no resemblance to the growling god of the night before. The crowd watches transfixed. One vicious slash of the blade and the bird is beheaded. Blood gushes into a bowl. The goddess’s feet are anointed and her anger is appeased.
The crowd is curious because my companions and I are the only non-Malayalis in the audience. They eagerly share information and we are invited to Theyyams in their villages. As the drum beats intensify, one of the most powerful goddesses in the pantheon, the beautiful but militant Kannangatu Bhagavathy, swings into view with sharp silver fangs, sword, and shield. She inspires not just reverence, but fear as well, due to her fiery, unpredictable nature.
The deities continue to appear. The elegant Vishnumurthy and the sensuous Puliyoor Kali are magnificent. While the former dispenses advice, the latter walks seductively, feline grace evident in each line of her body. Even though I know that all Theyyam goddesses are men, she still casts a spell. The Bhagavathys appear, each more magnificent than the other, but the grandest of them all, the fascinating but rare Muchilottu Bhagavathy eludes me. She is said to manifest herself in each sacred grove only once every 12 to 14 years. With just two hours left in Kannur, I may never get a chance to see her.
Just then the kurumkuzhal wails again. A decorated umbrella slowly appears around the corner of the shrine, shimmering red and gold. Underneath it is another silver-fanged goddess who walks slowly as embers fall from the two burning torches in her hands. She has silver masks over her eyes for fear that her naked gaze could set the world on fire. She circumambulates the shrine, oblivious to the afternoon heat or the weight of her headdress, her silver bracelets clinking. The musicians and drummers follow her, as do the priests of the temple. The crowd watches her mesmerised and I cannot believe my eyes as the queen of all the Bhagavathys, Muchilottu Bhagavathy, glides solemnly past me, on the way to her wedding. “I come here every year from my college in the city to watch this,” says a young girl sitting next to me. She tells me that Muchilottu was once a scholarly Namboodri girl, who was accused of improper behaviour due to her bold answers during a debate. She calls upon Lord Shiva to prove her innocence and when he does so after 41 days, she vanishes in a ball of fire. “So who is she really?” I ask. “No one knows,” the girl shrugs. “It does not matter”.
I turn to look at this grim goddess and as the afternoon sun glints off her bejewelled silver crown, I realise that some questions must remain unanswered. Finding the Theyyam gods is not easy. But perhaps it is better this way. I am in the presence of something beyond my limited comprehension. Something that must remain sacrosanct.
Kannur (or Cannanore) is a large city in northern Kerala. The closest airport is Kozhikode (Calicut) about 100 km to the south.
Distance by train Kozhikode (3 hours/100 km), Mangalore (3 hours/160 km), Kochi (6 hours/300 km), Bengaluru (12.5 hours/330 km), Trivandrum (11.5 hours/499 km).
Distance by bus Overnight buses to Kannur are available from Kozhikode (93 km), Mangalore (160 km), Kochi (317 km), Bangalore (330 km) and other parts of Kerala.
Buses are available from the Kannur Municipal Bus stand to neighbouring villages. Local cabs and auto-rickshaws are also available but there are no fixed rates. Prices for trips to different towns will need to be negotiated.
Season While the Theyyam season is from October to May, the best time to visit is between early January and mid-March.
Palmgrove Heritage Retreat, Mill road (0497-2703182/2702816; www.palmgroveheritageretreat.com; doubles from ₹1,500).
Kannur Beach House, Thottada (98471 84535, 0497-2708360; www.kannurbeachhouse.com; doubles from ₹3,000).
Costa Malabari Homestay, near Adikadalayi Temple (04842371761, 094477 75696 doubles from ₹4,300; Kurian at this homestay knows a lot about Theyyams).
Ashokam Beach Resort, Beach Road (94460 70373; www.ayurvedaresort.co.in; doubles ₹1,800, excluding tax).
Ayisha Manzil Homestay, Thalassery (0487-2420556, 94961 89296; www.ayishamanzil.com; doubles from ₹16,000, includes all meals).
District Tourism Promotion Council Office is near the Collector’s Office (0497- 2706336; DTPC Complex, Taluka Office Complex, Kannur 670001).
Kerala Folklore Academy (0497 2778090; Kizhakke Kovilakam, Chirakkal, Kannur 670 011; keralafolkloreakademy.com).
Kerala Kalaripayattu Academy (Kalari Gramam, Azhikode, Kannur 670 009).
Railway Muthappan Temple’s Vellattam (invocative ritual) is often held in the afternoon (Next to the Railway Station, Kannur 670007).
Parassini Kadavu Temple’s Vellattam (invocative ritual) is held around 6 p.m. (16 km from Kannur en route to Thaliparamba).
• Puliyoor Kali
• Pottan Theyyam
• All the Bhagavathys, including Narambil, Kannangattu, Muchilottu, Chooliyar, Tottinkara
• All the chamundis, including Rakthaand Madayil
• Dress modestly.
• Take along a Malayalam-speaking guide to increase your chances of success.
• Hotel, taxi drivers, popular shops and locals in town are often valuable sources of information.
• Start by locating one kshetram, kavu (sacred grove) or kottam and enquire there for other Theyyams in the area.
• Information is unpredictable. Plans made using online sources can change on the ground.
• Find a trusted taxi to hire for the day and night. Research your route in advance and negotiate accordingly.
• Travelling alone at night or in small groups of women only is not advisable.
• Connecting services from village bus stations to the kavus may not be available.
• Try and plan a linear route to save time as distances can be long and tiring.
• Most sacred groves do not allow video and still photography.
Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragons”. Updated in November 2017.