When Gods Walk the Earth

If you think god wears elaborate jewelry, you may be right. If you think god is a benevolent entity imbibing aspects of all cultures, you may yet be right. For that is what happens in this part of South India.

Theyyam is an ancient art whose origins are unknown. Image courtesy of Ajeesh.Valliyot/Wikimedia Commons

Kolathunadu, a region in South India encompassing Kasaragod, Kannur and Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad, is home to an art form that is as mystical, intriguing and emblematic as our own mythology; Theyyam.

Theyyam is a several thousand-year old art; so ancient it is difficult to pinpoint its origins. Several legends of origin exist; Parashurama (Bhargavarama) stemming the advancing sea; Velan exorcising malignant spirits; Mannappan who single-handedly destroyed an army; and my personal favourite; Shiva creating a divine entity to fetch madhu, who eventually becomes a Theyyam.

The earliest known reference of Theyyam lies in Kerala Mahatmayam as a representative art form. Modern studies suggest Theyyam’s origins from the earliest periods of the Neolithic age.

Theyyam imbibes aspects of all primitive, tribal and religious worship in a way that even followers of Islam are associated with it in a functional manner.

Bhagawathi, the Mother Goddess, has a prominent place. Forms of worship also include spirit, ancestral, hero, animal and serpent worship. A rare form of worship is that of the goddesses of disease and Graamadhevataa (god of a village).

People worship these Theyyams as gods. Image courtesy of Jasinth M V/Wikimedia Commons

Branches of Shaktism, Shaivism and Vaishnavism also feature prominently in Theyyam. Despite influences from middle historical era, the methods of propitiation are continuations of traditions from eras unknown. The large Brahminic influences notwithstanding, several rituals incorporate blood offerings and even cockfights. In Malom, deep in Kasaragod, a Muslim version of Theyyam is performed.

The earlier Sattvic rituals practiced in temples coexist with tribal forms of worship that involve liquor and meat offerings. As the region was dominated by local clans, these clans established their own shrines to observe non-Sattvic customs.

So why is this millennial art form so intriguing?

An important aspect of Theyyattam is the manifestation of the divine spirit. The belief goes that the spirit of a deity passes on through the medium of the performer. The ‘possessed’ performer throws rice and distributes turmeric as symbols of god’s blessings. Some believe that Theyyam has curative properties.

The ritualistic practice is eponymous in that Theyyam performers are not merely performers but represent the deities themselves. People of this region consider Theyyam itself as God and seek blessings from it.

What makes Theyyam more interesting is that it makes for an excellent study in cultural diffusion. The assimilation of multiple cultures and forms of worship sets Theyyam apart from any other art.

A performer in course of his temporary ascension to godhood. Image courtesy of Navaneeth Krishnan S

Historically, even though the rituals were sponsored by ruling clans, the artists have always been from lower-caste communities. However, even the upper-class communities worship the ‘gods’ as they perform, a practice opposite to the hierarchical division of castes.

While the origins may be Dravidian, the Aryan influence drastically added different subcultures to the region’s tribal character. This all-inclusive trait incorporates the characteristics of primitive worship and the propitiations brought forth by Aryan, Islamic and Carnatic cultures.

Instead of differentiating between cultures, religion and gods, this art form imbues characteristics of every culture with its own mystic exuberance. Theyyam brings forth the gods to people in a highly animated and visceral manner.

Some people try to find god all their lives, but here the gods find you.
Theyyam is symbolic of the religious evolution of man through the ages. Image courtesy of Bobinson/Flickr

Theyyam is not just an art but a symbolic representation of cultural evolution of the region. It is a characterisation of the different stages of modern Hinduism, Islam and the syncretism of indigenous subcultures. The stream of Theyyam cult is a deeply embedded cultural phenomenon of the millions and a great example of a synthesis between ‘little’ and ‘great’ cultures.

Theyyam occupies a substantial place in the region’s culture. Perhaps there is as much to learn from this art form as scholarly literature on human studies.