Theyyams of Kerala

Theyyams are the traditional art forms of the Kolathunadu. The Kolathunadu or the Kolathunadu kingdom was one of the most dominant and powerful kingdoms on the North Malabar coast of Kerala. Kolathunadu or todays the Kannur district is one of the culturally rich districts of Kerala filled with many kind of traditional art forms which are mesmerizing and sometimes beyond belief.

And one such traditional art form is the Theyyams of Kannur.

The artists who perform the art of Theyyam are referred to as the ‘Theyyakolams’. The Theyyakolams are usually tied and danced in Kavus (a sacred space created in the vicinity of a huge traditional household or under a huge tree for spiritual purposes), forts and backyards of big ancestral properties in Kerala. 

This prominent art form of North Kerala narrates the stories of the ancestors of Kerala through a dance, mime and music. It praises the beliefs and actions of the ancient tribal who gave immense importance to spirituality.

Theyyam is a religious practise in which man takes on the form of a deity in order to please the goddess and bring prosperity and peace to the goddess community.

Theyyams are mother gods, magicians, legendary characters, forest goddesses, serpent maidens, heroes, and martyrs who fought against society’s evils. The most common theyyakolams are Vannan, Malayan, Mavilan, Velan, Munnutan, Anjuttan, Pulayar, and Koppalar. Certain theyyams are only performed by specific sects.

There are numerous rituals associated with Theyyam. One of the first ceremonies before theyyam is signing. This is an arrangement in which the theyyam date is set and the kolakaran, i.e. the person tying the theyyam, is assigned to tie the kolam.

The Kolakaran observes a fast for a period of 7 days before tying the Theyyam. Before the full- fledged Theyyam is performed, an introductory performance is showcased which is known as the ‘ThottamVellattam.’

The ThottamVellattam is the part of the Theyyam ritual that defines the story of the Theyyam’s origin. This is performed by the Kolakaran and his associates and the music for the ThottamVellattam is referred to as the ‘ThottamPattu’.

Chenda, veekuchenda, elathalam, and kuzhal are the main musical instruments used in the performance of a Theyyam. The Pulayar community of Kerala also uses an instrument called ‘Tudi’ during the performance. Thottam songs describe the origin and other characteristics of the relevant Theyyam.

After the ThottamPattu, the full-fledged theyyam appears donned in colorful costumes, makeup and hair. The Theyyam’s face paint incorporates a variety of colors that are in tandem with the nature.

The facial dyes made for the artists makeup are made from rice powder, soot  and many other natural materials. Each Theyyam makeup has unique names such as ‘Olikannu’, ‘ShankumVairiddalam’, ‘Kuriyezhathu’, ‘TheppamKuri’ etc.

The makeup specialist for a Theyyam needs to maintain a strict discipline while face painting. There are various types of face painting that uses primary and secondary colors, so it is mandatory for the makeup artist to have first- hand knowledge on the makeup combinations due to the strict rules of the tradition.

As each Theyyam has a different combination of makeup, it can take hours to paint their faces for the performance.

Even the hair wigs that are donned by the Theyyamscomes in different forms and are known by different names. Some of them are ‘Vattamudi’, ‘Poomudi’, ‘Thirumudi’, ‘Chattamudi’, ‘Purathattumudi’, etc.

Certain Theyyams also perform dangerous acts during their performance such as jumping into fire, walking on hot coal etc. It totally depends on the story and the culture represented by the respective Theyyam.

There are over 400 distinct Theyyams, each with its own music, style and choreography. Some of the famous Theyyams are RakthaChamundi, Kari Chamundi, MuchilottuBhagavathi, WayanaduKulavan, VettakoruMakan, KadankkottuMakkam, Makkam etc.

The Theyyam performances are usually held in many of the temples in Kannur, Kasargod, Kurumathoor, Nileswarametc in the months from December to April every year.

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