Theyyam: The dance where men embody gods.

Have you ever heard of the ritual dance performed in north Kerala and parts of Karnataka state? It’s known as the Theyyam, it’s when men go into a trance and become gods.


My guests and I visited a very small but unique temple in Thalasseri, Kerala. It is the only temple that I know of where the intricate performance called Theyyam takes place every day. We arrived just in time to watch the men apply their makeup and put on their costumes. The makeup is made of turmeric powder, both in its yellow form, and with lime water added to turn it into a dark red colour. White is produced by grinding rice into flour and black by grinding burnt rice with coconut oil.


The men mix the turmeric and rice powders with water and apply thick layers to their faces and bodies, using paintbrushes to create patterns on their backs and chests. The makeup process takes a lot of time, up to half an hour per person. They then dress in costumes composed of many layers of fabric, mainly red. By the time they have finished putting on their costumes, it is very difficult to recognise them as the person they were prior, they have become the gods that they seek to embody.


The Theyyam is an ancient art form that actually predates Hinduism, meaning it is thousands of years old. I can honestly say that it is one of the most mesmerising performances that I have seen in South India, a place where there is no shortage of religious festivals and performances. The performance starts with live drumming, a captivating staccato sound and soon afterwards, the performers enter the front of the temple.

The dance starts slowly, and one performer takes his place seated at the front, the tempo then increases and the second dancer performes in a trance as he circles the area and blesses the devotees with flowers.  

I wondered how he could perform such an intricate dance with a heavy costume and headdress in the Indian heat, but he truly seemed to be in a trance where he embodied the god he represented. He made offerings of coconut toddy at the altar (fermented coconut nectar) and had a little before being seated for people to come and talk to him. Some asked for advice and others for blessings. I had the opportunity to speak to him and the words he spoke and the expression in his eyes made it hard for me to believe that he was the young man I had seen putting on his costume a couple of hours prior. The lines between humanity and the divine become truly blurry.


I was told that the only people permitted to perform the Theyyam were males from 15 of the lower castes. It was very interesting to see that the Dalit performers were treated with respect, and even reverence by the higher caste people.


It was a privilege to see an ancient legend come to life through the performance.


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