THEYYAM or THEYYATTAM is a ritual form of worship of North Malabar in Kerala, predominant in the KOLATHUNADA area (consisting of present-day Kasargod, Kannur Districts , Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad & Vadakara & Koyilandy Taluks of Kozhikode of Kerala) and also in Kodagu and Tulu Nadu of Karnataka as a living cult with several 1000 year-old traditions, rituals and customs. The performers of Theyyam belong to the lower caste community and have an important position in Theyyam. They are also known as MALAYANMAR.
People of these districts consider THEYYAM, itself, as a God and they seek blessings from this THEYYAM. A similar custom is followed in the Tulu Nadu region of neighbouring Karnataka known as BHUTA KOLA.
Bridget & Raymond Alchin say, ” There can be no doubt that a very large part of this folk religion is extremely ancient and contains traits which originated during the earliest periods of Neolithic, Chalcolithic settlement and expression.”
It can be said that all the prominent characteristics of primitive, tribal worship had widened the stream of Theyyam cult, and made it a deep-rooted folk religion of millions. For instance, the cult of BHAGAWATHI, the Mother Goddess had and still has an important place in Theyyam. Besides this, the practice, like spirit-worship, ancestor-worship, hero-worship, tree-worship, animal-worship, serpent-worship, the worship of the Goddesses of disease and the worship of GRAAMADEVATAA (Village-Deity) are included in the mainstream of the Theyyam cult. Along with these Gods and Goddesses, there exist innumerable folk Gods and Goddesses. Most of these Goddesses are known as BHAGAWATHI (the Mother-Goddess that is the Divine & United form of the 3 principal Goddesses namely BRAHMANI (Saraswati), VAISHNAVI ( Lakshmi) and SHIVANI (Durga).
Different branches of mainstream Hindu religion such as Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Shaivism now dominate the cult of Theyyam. However, the forms of propitiation and other rituals are continuations of a very ancient tradition. On account of the supposedly late revival of the Vaishnavism movement in Kerala, it does not have a deep impact on the Theyyam cult. Two major Theyyam deities of Vaishnavism are VISHNUMOORTHI & DAIVATHAR. Vaishnavism was very popular in the Tuluva region in the 13th century, when it came under the rule of Vishnuvardhana of the Hoysala Dynast. He was a great champion of Vaishnavism. Most probably he was initially deified as Vishnumoorthi and incorporated into the Bhuta Cult of the Tuluvas and then further incorporated as a prominent folk deity into the Theyyam Cult as well. To some, the legend of Vishnumoorthi symbolizes the God’s migration from Tulu Nadu to Kolathunadu.
Those communities who did not accept the Brahmanical supremacy in temple worship e.g., THIYYAS, were patrons of Theyyam, and it was not uncommon for every Tharavadu to have its own Theyyam. Howeever, the Brahmins did not have the right to directly take part in the performance of Theyyam, as this privilege belonged only to the tribal communities.
The dance or invocation is generally performed in front of the village shrine. It is also performed in the houses as ancestor-worship with elaborate rites and rituals. There is no stage or curtain for the performance. The devotees stand or some of them sit in front of the shrine . In short, it is an “open theatre”. A 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. This may be due to the influence of Jainism and Buddhism. Further after the sun sets, this particular dancer does not eat anything for the rest of that day.
His makeup 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 head-dress is worn on this occasion. 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’, and after a short interval he appears with proper makeup and costumes. Mostly primary and secondary colours are applied with contrast for face-painting. Then the dancer comes in front of the shrine and, gradually, “metamorphoses” into the particular deity of the shrine. Then the dancer goes round the shrine, runs to the courtyard and continues dancing there. The Theyyam dance has different steps known as KALAASAMS and each is repeated systematically from the 1st to the 8th step of foot-work. In some KAVUS, the Theyyam festival is conducted in intervals of 12 or more years.