When I witnessed a dancing deity: Theyyam 2019 !

Tripoto
25th Jan 2019
Photo of When I witnessed a dancing deity: Theyyam 2019 ! by Raj Abhishek

Visions of dancers dressed up in all their ‘red-orange’ finery had intrigued me ever since I saw their pictures taken by my fellow photographers. So colorful and so lively was how I had always perceived them. Dancing and swaying to the tunes of accompanying music, they assume the very stature of the deity that they seek to emulate; a channel to the God itself.

And so, this January, around when the performances begin, I was on the look-out to grab my opportunity to view and click this ‘very ancient’ ritual form of worship in the North Kerala region ( and to some extent in the Coorg/Mangalore belt of Karnataka as well ). My chance presented itself towards the end of Jan, and thereafter I did not leave room for any uncertainties to jeopardize this trip of mine. January is one of the best times to visit Kerala as well, so I hopped on to my overnight bus as soon as I could plan it !

Kuthuparamba presented itself as a small sleepy town early in the morning when we were jolted out of our bus, half asleep ourselves ! A rickshaw guy came up sensing his opportunity, and we were dropped off at our hotel a further 500 meters thence. We, on our part, jolted up folks fast asleep at the hotel reception, and made our way to the room soon thereafter.

Some rest and a hearty breakfast later, we were out and about, inquiring about the Kavu ( temple ) that we wished to seek, The KolaKavu Muchilot Bhagavathi at Kottayampoyil. Another short rickshaw ride later, we were in it’s environs where preparations were underway for festivities to start up soon. We could see some people moving about hastily and with purpose, while many were seen seated in the arena surrounding the temple. It was going be an open theater after all, just like many other theyyams. I have read somewhere about there being around 400 types of such performances in all. It’s a cultural feast in North Kerala during these times ! A place and time of your choosing is all you need.

Day 1

The Kavu seen here with offerings from devotees; offerings that keep pouring in and which would feed many during the 3 day festivity. That traditional Kerala architecture !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Talking about the feast, we were loitering around trying to take in the feel of the place and of the people there, when much to our surprise, we were invited to have lunch. It was basic but very fresh Kerala meal that we partook of along with many others; something that I would recommend highly as it’s a great feeling eating out with the entire village ! The food is an experience in itself for the occasional visitor, and is served both times of the day. The whole arrangement functions around the requirement that not one among the audience must go back home on an empty stomach when the performance ends, else the entire theyyam has to be repeated again for their sake. Such a community-inclusive rule is so unheard of elsewhere in these times !

Our tummies full, we loitered around a bit more before finally settling down in the arena, waiting for the performance to begin. We were busy trying to converse in English with few among the audience, when suddenly the drummers started warming up. And so did the others with musical instruments ( I can recall a saxophone look-alike, or probably it was a saxophone after all ! ). It was not long before the performer took to the arena and started circumnavigating the temple, finally finding himself face to face with the Goddess inside. Thottam was to begin !

This is how it all starts.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

No fancy make-up this time. Only a red headdress.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The drummers play an important part in building up the tempo.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Seeking permission from the Goddess, and thereby assuming her mantle for the performance. This is the Thottam, which involves singing ritualistic songs in the process.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Thottam then gives way to Koodiyattam, so I was told. The main performer has now meta-morphed into the particular deity of the shrine, The Muchilot Amma. He is to circumnavigate the shrine multiple times, accompanied by the ‘Thamburatti Komarams’, the ones who are allowed to perform rituals for the ‘Thamburatti’, or the Goddess. For an outsider like me, they seemed more like warrior dancers as they circumnavigated the shrine along with the main performer, performing ritual dance steps in the process.

A ‘warrior’ dancer prepping up with the shield and the kadthala ( sword ).

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

In the process, the dancer circumambulates the shrine himself at first.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The main performer then circumambulates the shrine along with the ‘Thamburatti Komarams’.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The ‘Warrior’ dancer – a closer portrait.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

With drummers in tow all the while !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

This whole process was repeated a couple of times. All the while I was busy trying to capture the same through my lenses, circumnavigating the shrine along with the performers and trying to find a vantage point from where to shoot them. Prayers were performed at the end thereafter, and all the performers retired to their respective stations. We retired to our room as well, to relax as well as to recover. There was now going to be a break for a couple of hours before performances would begin again.

We were back within the confines of the shrine just as the sun set; the music growing louder and louder just as we approached it. The temple was lit-up brilliantly and there were many more people sitting in the arena now, more than were there in the afternoon. As is the case during many such occasions, shops selling sweetmeats, ice-creams, toys and more had come up to entice the little ones !

I, on my part, was a little disappointed with the bright lights that the temple bathed in. I had expected more traditional and warm lighting, much like when ‘diyas’ are lit. What a glow would be on the performers, had they performed with such lights falling on them. My visions, however ( blamed on the pics of Theyyam that I had chanced upon before ), were set aside in due time even as we took our seats in the arena. Puliyoor Kannan Vellattam began soon thereafter; quite a game between a male tiger and the kids. This tiger cub, according to legends, had been born to Shiva and Parvati in their tiger ( puli ) avatars in the forest.

Prayers before the game would begin !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The coconut is thrown on the peedham, the sacred wooden stool, and broken soon after.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek
Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

There was quite some frenzy when the games finally began, more like hide and seek, wherein the performer would try to catch up with a batch of kids who would equally try to evade him, both competing with each other in the arena. If a child got caught, a few scary moments would transpire for him, after which he would be let out from the grasp of the performer. This was interspersed with dances, and the whole performance went on for well over an hour.

Caught as if in a noose !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

In communication with the deity ? Children can be seen waiting in anticipation in the background.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Finally, the performer gets tired running behind kids. They then lend him a helping hand. How touchy !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek
Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

A second dancer in a similar attire soon joined the first, and together, they enthralled us all.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The dancer up close, when both of them had sat down, a bit tired after their performance.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

It was soon time for dinner, which was being served at the venue again for the benefit of all us attendees. Food was as fresh as was served in the afternoon, although rice was on the menu at all times. We were in Kerala after all ! We were pretty tried by now to even attempt dinner elsewhere, and it was a bit late for this small town. 9 p.m. is the general deadline for shops to start closing up, so we were told. Nevertheless, every one at the venue was having the same food, and we did not want the experience to be any different for us.

A tiring day past us, and with two more such days ahead, we then retired for the night on our cozy beds. Thankfully, performances would begin only in the second half the next day, or so I remember being told. Every Theyyam has it’s own timing, which differs from one venue to another. No schedule should be considered fixed.

Morning was a relaxed one as we had to catch up on some sleep that we had lost the last night. A decent breakfast and a much needed clean-up later, we returned back to the kavu . And oh yes, this day’s lunch was tried at the hotel we were in as well. I think it’s restaurant can be considered as one of the fine ones in town, going by the food as well as the ambiance. A vegetarian thali was what we had; a fare that was quite delectable and filling as well.

This day, again, was that of Thottam/Koodiyattam as well as that of the ‘Puliyoor Kannan Vellattam’. I savored capturing them yet again through my lenses. This time, however, we also got our chance to capture a few shots of the performers getting ready with their face paints in the so called green-room. I relished the experience.

Day 2

Thottam continues from the day past.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

That moment when one of the ‘Thamburatti Komarams’ stares into my cam. Koodiyattam continues.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

I reckon these were offerings to be used later for our meals.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Preparations begin for the evening performance; the vellattam.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The master and his muse !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

and when he was all set to enthrall !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The drummers were all upbeat !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Busy with the kids yet again, crouching and baring teeth !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The games continued till well into the night, wherein once again the performer was joined by yet another of his kind. Together, they continued swaying and dancing to the drummers’ beats, leaving us all mesmerized ! The performers would, occasionally, climb up the temple compound wall and a nearby tree branch as well, posing magnificently for all of us to gawk at. At times they would run through the crowd who would willingly give way, baring teeth and snarling after children who would squeak and start running helter-skelter at every single provocation. Such a ritual with the animal deities was something I had never seen before. So unique, so culturally rich !

Dinner was once again had at the venue, and then the day drew to a close. We were now looking forward to the mega performance of the next day, when the main deity would emerge from her shrine and bless us all !

It was a late next morning yet again, thanks to the tiring sessions in the arena during the previous day. We were, however, in time just as the Kannankatt Bhagavathy Theyyam was still on. This deity’s story relates with Lord Krishna; she was the girl child exchanged for the latter so he could be shipped out from Kans’ prison for safety ( http://www.pernekshetra.com/aboutdeities ) . Soon, I could see people seeking blessings from the deity just as I was beginning to fire up my cam !

This was the day of most elaborate dress-ups and make-ups as well, and we clicked as much as we could !

Day 3

Blessings amidst a small dose of the kuri. A mixture of rice powder and turmeric. Quite dry to the palate.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

These get-ups take hours to accomplish.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Couldn’t have enough of the close-ups !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The hugely elaborate getup of the performer. Must be heavy I’m sure !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

A brief pause, and then this was followed by the Puliyoor Kali Theyyam. This, along with Puliyoor Kannan, is the tiger Theyyam once again. Puliyoor Kali was the daughter of the tiger avatars of Shiva and Parvati, just as Puliyoor Kannan was the son. The performer’s movements were quite feminine, quite evidently ! Feminine but fierce; after all he was the tigress as well.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek
Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek
Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

And then the VishnuMoorthy Theyyam followed. This, as the name suggests, is for the worship and pacification of Lord Vishnu, when he gets angry after one of his ardent devotees is killed. A detailed story can be read by following the link down below.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek
Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The drummers building up the frenzy yet again before the main act !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

All fell silent for a while before the main act, and we treated ourselves to our last lunch in Kuthuparamba, the last one that was served in the temple premises as well. It would all end this very evening, only to be held again only next year. For this, devotees here might be a bit lucky as there are certain Theyyams which one can see only 3 or 4 times in their entire lifetime !

I took my position in the arena as soon as the main performer came out to perform his part ( there was hardly any space left ). The first of the rituals involved prayers again, before he would take on the mantle of the goddess. He was soon donned the attire befitting one, and his circumambulations began around the shrine, 2 burning torches in hand. While trying to click, at times I was beside him, while during others I perched myself up on some vantage points that I had somehow succeeded in gaining in spite of all the crowd ! Everybody seemed quite co-operative about it and were equally engrossed in the performance to be perturbed by my maneuvers. I had a busy time !

This was the Muchilottu Amma, the chief goddess of the shrine, and hence such was the Theyyam named too. This Theyyam is about her marriage procession, so I was told. A marriage that could never take place, and hence she returns year on year for the same. Her story is that of a scholarly girl who could outwit even the very learned in her days. There seems to be a conspiracy during one such debate. Her bold answers during the same are used to prove her improper conduct and thereafter she is banished from her own home and society. She wanders around and finds solace with Lord Shiva ultimately. She performs prayers for him and is finally consumed by a ball of fire, wherein she vanishes and becomes divine, and is thereafter worshiped so. Interesting and grim.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Whatever the performer wore on his eyes had small holes to see through, and nothing more. One among the crowd told me that the Goddess’ naked glare could destroy the world, hence the need. A resilient feat for sure !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

Quite a few circumnavigations past, the performer stopped at the shrine’s main door, facing the deity. Hymns were recited and prayers were underway when the music too fell silent. We assumed this to be the end of it all, and were still watching curiously when the music picked up pace once again. The torches in the performer’s hands were lit up once again for the final act.

The deity rose into prominence yet again; that is when I clicked some more.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek
Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

A closer look !

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

The performer, after a while, was moved to assume a higher mantle and tower above all others who surrounded him, so as to project an image of the very deity that he was emulating. People thronged around him seeking his blessings, many of them sharing their problems and sorrows with him too, just as they were doing with the deity Vishnumoorthy in another corner of the shrine. This was the final act in the Theyyam, to listen to people’s problems and offer them blessings, a way for many among the audience to lift some of their baggage. That final solace in the deity, the ultimate reason for the whole performance I believe.

Photo of kolakavu muchilot bagavati temple, Kottayampoyil, Kerala, India by Raj Abhishek

We now left the arena and it’s people to themselves, for this sharing of one’s grief would go on till late in the night if need be. A weekend of Theyyam was past us now, and we were ready to board our return bus from Thalassery, a half hour drive at best.

So we left Kuthuparamba after having that final celebratory dinner at the very place that we had stayed put in these last few days. I am now of the mind to return back sometime soon to witness a Fire Theyyam that I could not do this time. This year’s Theyyams, however, are already drawing to close, and will do so after April, but I still hope to make it in time !

So long yet again !

Points of note:

1) Take the bus to Thalaserry, also known as Tellicherry. Kuthuparamba is a mere half an hour before.

2) Rickshaws are a bit pricey in Kerala, but they are a necessity alright, given that places are spread far and wide, and sometimes quite inside from the main road where the bus would drop you. Don’t haggle too much with the drivers, simply because it won’t work out most of the time.

3) Our place of stay in Kuthuparamba: Vintage Residency. 24 hrs check-in/check-out, even though our travel website mentioned 12pm/11am.

Pros: Vintage residency is one of the best hotels to put up in these parts. Our room was comfortable and spacious enough; bathroom was clean and so was the linen. Service is quite good and fast, while there is a restaurant in the premises where you can savor some good food of the local variety. Location is pretty neat; a mere 500 mts from where the Bangalore bus would drop you, and 10 mins away from the temple. Walk-able from the main market as well, should you need some supplies. Also, we were given another room for a good 1 hour to freshen up even after we checked out, so I’d say service is not something to complain about here.

Cons: We did have a few billing issues when we checked out. However, they were settled quickly. The manager was not adamant.

4) Lindas residency nearby is the next best option; a bit cheaper as well.

5) Theyyam goes on from December till March/April for the most part, after which it becomes quite hot in Kerala. Exact dates with temple details can be had here: http://www.theyyamcalendar.com/theyyam_calendar.html.

6) This particular Theyyam that I have written about, will happen again in the same temple premises at around the same time next year.

7) The stories behind each of the Theyyams are interesting reads in their own right.

http://travelkannur.com/theyyam-kerala/muchilot-bhagavathy-theyyam/ – For the main Theyyam, the Muchilottu Bhagavathy

http://www.pernekshetra.com/aboutdeities – To read about Puliyoor Kannan, Puliyoor Kali, Kannankatt Bhagavathy and Vishnumoorthy Theyyams.

Be the first one to comment