A small team consisting five of us were on a curious mission to watch and experience this year’s Sree Vikranandhapuram temple theyyam at Taliparamba, Kannur. None of us had experienced Theyyam before. We had heard bits and pieces of information and seen photographic images of Theyyam before reaching Taliparamba.

We reached the temple ground during the afternoon just before the Theyyam night. This gave us opportunities to talk with many at the temple who could provide us valuable facts on Theyyam. Theyyam has been abbreviated from Theyattam. Theyyam in Malayalam means God and attam means dance. Read together, Theyattam means ‘Dance of Gods’. Theyyam is one of the oldest temple rituals of Northern Kerala. It has evolved to the modern Theyyam form through its transformations for over 1500 years. The art form of Theyyam over the years went through changes to take up characteristics of both religious and spiritual traditions. Theyyam has now become a leading cultural symbol of North Kerala symbolizing various deities and displaying more than 450 different forms throughout venues at North Kerala; mostly temples. A few Theyyams are conducted in Tharavadus (traditional families) in the presence of all family members. It is believed that conducting Theyyam will generally improve the well-being of the people. Some believe that it will increase the wealth, improve the job potential, eradicate certain diseases and can even help deliver them from their sins. Theyyams are chosen from Dalits or the lower caste. It is an honor which has been shared among members of the same family. It is also a cultural enigma that a lower caste individual becomes God on that day and the entire congregation bows down in front of him irrespective of their social standing.

After our interaction with the organizers at the temple, our attention focused on a huge pile of carefully arranged pieces of wood formed to make a cone shape. This will be lit later-on to form the red hot cinder where ‘Theechamundi’ will be dipped-in several times to demonstrate the ultimate faith. People have started flowing-in around the ground in front of the temple to find a good seating to see as well as to interact with the Theyyam. They are all eagerly waiting for the moment when Gods come down to earth, and dance in their midst. The young, the old, children; even toddlers holding their milk bottles are gathering to partake in this grand ritual. We then walked over to a small palm-leaf thatched shed, action filled with the elaborate make-up of Theyyam characters. Expert artists are painting the face and body of Theyyam to-be individuals, as some others are busy with the tedious work of costume making. I got the distinct feeling that this is a room filled with patience and artistry.

All of a sudden we started hearing a symphony of drums (known in Kerala as ‘Chenda’). It started slowly, and then the tempo and the volume began to peak as we walked towards the temple foreground where it was all happening. We saw the high priests lighting lamps, breaking coconut on the hard rock, spreading the air with camphor smoke and some youngsters indulging in fireworks. There also was a priest chanting prayers. With all that happening, there came the first Theyyam unsheathing sword in one hand, bow and a quiver of arrows in the other. The Theyyam kept on dancing to the rhythm of the drums all around the temple foreground greeting eager crowds, blessing them and handing them the specially blessed rice grains. Theyyams kept appearing in different costumes, displayed different sets of dances as well as different energy levels. They come close to the crowd and individuals express their concerns and personal problems. Theyyams give them advice and blessings. The crowd receives them with great respect and contentment. Theyyam season is during the months from December to February every year. During this period Theyyams take a break from their regular jobs or activities and concentrate completely on the godly transformation they are about to go through as Theyyam artists. Their daily routine, food habits and even their worldly pleasures are sacrificed, as they are on the verge of performing their Godly duties. During this entire period they don’t eat meat, fish and they are forbidden to sleep with their wives. This increases their power of concentration and prepares their body and mind for the transformation into Gods.  With such sacrifices they bring blessings to the village and the villagers and exorcise evil spirits. Theyyams become the vehicle through which people can thank the Gods for fulfilling their prayers and granting their wishes. Even though Theyyam artists are chosen from the lower class or ‘Dalits’, the entire village including the higher classes of people queue up to touch their feet and receive their blessings.

While this is all going on systematically, something important is about to happen on the right side of the temple compound.  That is the lighting of the cone shaped wood pile which is to be prepared for the ‘Theechamundi’ to display his ultimate faith and devotion. At first it was a small flame, but eventually the flame rose high and the heat was unbearable even from a distance of 15 to 20 feet. It takes close to 10 hours for the flame to subside and completely char the large pieces of hard wood. Throughout that period Theyyams come and go after performing their dances and Godly functions for the crowd. The char was ready by about 5 am; the early dawn hours. Time for the ‘Theechamundi’ to appear. A huge crowd was waiting.

Fireworks started. Drummers peaked to full volume with their rhythmic and   deafening sound. Coconuts were broken. All of a sudden from the side of the temple 4 people came one after the other in safe intervals and run on the top of the still red hot cinder. We were told that they were the official temple dancers. They were all bare footed and they all came out unruffled after such a scorching run. This was a prelude to the Theechamundi climax.

In a few minutes Theechamundi appeared all dressed up for the mighty feat ahead. We realized soon that the Theechamundi demonstration is a team effort. He was clothed in a sheath skillfully woven out of green coconut palm leaves. He was roped at his wait acting like leashes. There were 2 ropes and as many as 2 people controlling each rope. Theechamundi falls on top of the red hot wood ashes and then he is pulled back by the men controlling the leashes. This is a huge demonstration of faith and will. The idea is to jump into this almost fire like ash as many times as possible. Even after being smudged hard against the hot cinder for close to 100 times; in rare cases more than hundred times and to the dismay of hundreds of on-looking devotees ‘Theechamundi’ comes out harmless due to divine intervention and absolute faith.