Theyyem (or theyyam) – the dramatic spirit-possession ceremonies held at village shrines throughout the northern Malabar region in the winter – rank among Kerala’s most extraordinary spectacles. More than four hundred different manifestations of this arcane ritual exist in the area around Kannur alone, each with its own distinctive costumes, elaborate jewellery, body paints, face make-up and, above all, gigantic headdresses (mudi).
Unlike in kathakali and kudiyattam, where actors impersonate goddesses or gods, here the performers actually become the deity being invoked, acquiring their magical powers. These allow them to perform superhuman feats, such as rolling in hot ashes or dancing with a crown that rises to the height of a coconut tree. By watching the theyyem, members of the audience believe they can partake of the deity’s powers – to cure illness, conceive a child or get lucky in a business venture.
Traditionally staged in small clearings (kaavus) attached to village shrines, theyyem rituals are always performed by members of the lowest castes; Namboodiri and other high-caste people may attend, but they do so to venerate the deity – a unique inversion of the normal social hierarchy. Performances generally have three distinct phases: the thottam, where the dancer, wearing a small red headdress, recites a simple devotional song accompanied by the temple musicians; the vellattam, in which he runs through a series of more complicated rituals and slower, elegant poses; and the mukhathezhuttu, the main event, when he appears in full costume in front of the shrine. From this point on until the end of the performance, which may last all night, the theyyem is manifest and empowered, dancing around the arena in graceful, rhythmic steps that grow quicker and more energetic as the night progresses, culminating in a frenzied outburst just before dawn, when it isn’t uncommon for the dancer to be struck by a kind of spasm.
Increasing numbers of visitors are making the journey up to Kannur to experience theyyem, but finding rituals requires time, patience and stamina. The best sources of advice are local guesthouse owners, who can check the Malayalai newspapers for notices; websites such as wtheyyemcalendar.com can also point you in the right direction. Anyone pushed for time might consider a trip out to Parassinikadavu, where a form of theyyem is staged daily.