Theyyam-Ritual Art of Kerala


Theyyam are Hindu ritualistic dance forms practiced in northern Kerala and some parts of Karnataka. Theyyam is also known as Kaḷiyāṭṭaṁ or Tiṟa. Theyyam consists of traditions, rituals, and customs associated with the temples and sacred groves of Malabar. The people of the region consider Theyyam itself as a channel to a god and they thus seek blessings from Theyyam.

In Kasaragod and Kannur districts, this ritual art is mainly performed in the kavus (sacred groves) or ancestral houses of Nambiar, Thiyyar, Vaniyar, and Maniyani communities.

Raktheshwari Theyyam

Theyyam is typically performed by people from castes and tribes like Pulayar, Vannan, Malayan, Anhoottan, Munnoottan, Mavilan, Koppalan, Velan, Chingathan, Kalanaadi, Paravan, Nalikeyavar, etc. Of these Kalanaadi people perform only in the Wayanad district, while Parava, Pampatha, and Nalikeyavar perform in places north of Kerala like Udupi, Krishnapuram, etc.

There are about 456 types of Theyyams documented. Theyyam is mainly performed by males, except for the Devakoothu theyyam; the Devakoothu is the only Theyyam ritual performed by women. Devakoothu is performed only in the Thekkumbad Kulom temple.

In Kerala, Theyyam is performed predominantly in the North Malabar region (consisting of present-day Kasargod, Kannur Districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad and Vadakara and Koyilandy Taluks of Kozhikode). A similar custom is followed in the Tulunadu region of neighboring Karnataka known as Bhuta Kola.

Nagakalli Theyyam

Theyyam season starts from the tenth day of the Malayalam month of Thulam (usually falls during October, and is known as paththaam-udayam) and lasts up to seven months till the middle of Edavam month (typically around May end, June). The last Kaliyaattam for the season is performed at Madayi Kavu and Kalarivathukkal Bhagavathy Temple, Both being the family shrines of the Kolathiri royal family.

It encompasses dance, mime and music. It exalts the beliefs of the ancient tribals who gave a lot of importance to the worship of heroes and the spirits of their ancestors. The ceremonious dance is accompanied by the chorus of such musical instruments as Chenda, Elathalam, Kurumkuzal and Veekkuchenda.

There are over 400 separate Theyyams, each with their own music, style and choreography. The most prominent among these are Raktha Chamundi, Kari Chamundi, Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Wayanadu Kulaven, Gulikan and Pottan.

Each artist represents a hero with great power. Performers wear heavy make-up and adorn flamboyant costumes. The headgear and ornaments are truly majestic and fill one with a sense of awe and wonder. From December to April, there are Theyyam performances in many temples of Kannur and Kasaragod. Karivalloor, Nileswaram, Kurumathoor, Cherukunnu, Ezhom and Kunnathoorpadi in North Malabar are places where Theyyams are performed annually (Kaliyattam) and draw huge crowds.

Bhagavathi Theyyam

Classification of sub-cults

According to K. K. N. Kurup, it can be said that all the prominent characteristics of primitive, tribal, religious worship had widened the stream of Theyyam, where “even the followers of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspect” and made it a deep-rooted folk religion of millions. For instance, Bhagavathi, the mother Goddesses had and still has an important place in Theyyam. Besides this, the practices like spirit worship, ancestor worship, hero worship, masathi worship, tree worship, animal worship, serpent worship, the worship of the goddesses of disease, and the worship of Gramadevata (Village-Deity) are included in the mainstream of the Theyyam. Along with these gods and goddesses there exist innumerable folk gods and goddesses. Most of these goddesses are known as Bhagavathy.

Different branches of mainstream Hindu religion such as Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism now dominate Theyyam. However, the forms of propitiation and other rituals are continuations of a very ancient tradition. In several cult centers, blood offering is seen, which is forbidden in Buddhism and Jainism. In such centers, separate places outside the precincts of the shrine are selected for blood offerings and for the preparation of the traditional Kalam (Square made for this sacrifice occasion) known as Vadakkan Vathil. The Theyyam deities propitiated through cock-sacrifice will not enter such shrines. This religious cockfight over blood sacrifice, which does also include the cockfight as a blood sacrifice, is a prime example of the “cultural synthesis of ‘little’ and ‘great’ cultures”.

Karinkaali Theyyam – An evocation to Mother Goddess

On account of the supposedly late revival of the Vaishnavism movement in Kerala, it does not have a deep impact on Theyyam . Only a few deities are available under this category. Two major Theyyam deities of Vaishnavism are Vishnumoorthi and Daivathar. Vaishnavism was very popular in the Tuluva region in the 13th century when it came under the rule of Vishnuvardhana of the Hoysala dynasty. He was a great champion of Vaishnavism. Most probably he was initially deified as Vishnumoorthi and incorporated into the Bhoota cult of the Tuluvas and then further incorporated as a prominent folk deity into the Theyyam as well. To some, the legend of Vishnumoorthi symbolizes the god’s migration from Mangalore to Kolathunadu.

All other categories of Theyyam deities can be classified under Shaivism or Shaktism. Even spirits, ancestors, heroes, and animals are deified and included in those categories. Briefly, Theyyam provides a good example of the religious evolution of, and the subsequent different stages in modern Hinduism, with the overall understanding, that within Hindu syncretism lay propitiation as ancient practices and rituals of ancient worship intended for the blessings of the supernatural not unlike, “in Indus Valley and other ancient civilizations, mother goddess had been invoked for fertility and prosperity”

Kuttichathan theyyam is associated with the Brahmin Family of Kalakatt Illam situated in Payyannur. It is believed that Kalakattachan, angry on him being a threat to his respect in the society, tore Kuttichathan into 396 pieces. There emerged 396 Chathans from the torn pieces and set the Namboothiri’s house to fire, and burnt nearby Brahmin houses. This is the myth behind Kuttichathan.
Pookutti Theyyam 
Thiruvappana Theyyam at Parassinikkadavu Muthappan Temple, Kannur
Veerabhadran Theyyam at Rayaramangalam Kottapuram Temple
Nagaraja and Nagakanni Theyyam


Out of devotion, ruling clans established their own shrines and Kavus for Theyyam deities where non-sattvic rituals and customs are observed. The goddesses like Rakteshwari, Chamundi, Someshwari, Kurathi, and the gods like Vishnumoorthi are propitiated in these household shrines. There, the Theyyam dancers appear during the annual festivals of gods and goddesses. The rituals in such shrines are different from those of the Brahmanical temples. The impact of this cultural fusion could be traced to the social organization based on the caste system and in agrarian relations. The inviting of Brahmin Thanthri to consecrate the idols of Kavu is a recent development.

Gulikan Theyyam

Ritual performance

The dance or invocation is generally performed in front of the village shrine. It is also performed in the houses as ancestor worships with elaborate rites and rituals.

There is no stage or curtain or other such arrangements for the performance. The devotees would be standing or some of them would be sitting on a sacred tree in front of the shrine. In short, it is an open theatre. The performance of a particular deity according to its significance and hierarchy in the shrine continues for 12 to 24 hours with intervals. The chief dancer who propitiates the central deity of the shrine has to reside in the rituals. Further, after the sun sets, this particular dancer would not eat anything for the remainder of that day. His make-up is done by specialists and other dancers. The first part of the performance is usually known as Vellattam or Thottam. It is performed without proper makeup or any decorative costume. Only a small, red headdress is worn on this occasion.

Thai Paradevatha Theyyam, Elanjikkal Sree Bhagavathy Temple, Kannur

The dancer along with the drummers recites the particular ritual song, which describes the myths and legends, of the deity of the shrine or the folk deity to be propitiated. This is accompanied by the playing of folk musical instruments. After finishing this primary ritualistic part of the invocation, the dancer returns to the green room. Again after a short interval, he appears with proper makeup and costume. There are different patterns of face painting. Some of these patterns are called vairadelam, kattaram, kozhipuspam, kottumpurikam, and prakkezhuthu. Mostly primary and secondary colours are applied with contrast for face painting. It helps in effecting certain stylizations in the dances. Then the dancer comes in front of the shrine and gradually “metamorphoses” into the particular deity of the shrine. The performance signifies the transitional inversion, reversal, and elevation of status denoting the anti-structural homogeneity of Theyyam. He, after observation of certain rituals, places the head-dress on his head and starts dancing. In the background, folk musical instruments like chenda, tudi, kuzhal and veekni are played in a certain rhythm. All the dancers take a shield and kadthala (sword) in their hands as the continuation of the weapons. Then the dancer circumambulates the shrine, runs into the courtyard, and continues dancing there. The Theyyam dance has different steps known as Kalaasams. Each Kalasam is repeated systematically from the first to the eighth step of footwork. The performance is a combination of playing musical instruments, vocal recitations, dance, and peculiar makeup (usually predominantly orange) and costumes. The Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam is one of the famous theyyam in Kerala.


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