Travels Kannur to Experience Theyyam, A Ritual Dance of Kerala

My alarm clock rings at 4 am. We want to see the Theyyam. Theyyam is a prehistoric ritual theater that has existed for at least 1500 years. It has elements of dance and music.

Ten minutes later I run with the other guests of the small homestay in Kerala in the north coast in Malabar. I cannot see the sea in the dark of night, but I can hear the noise and smell its saltiness in the air. A light flash before us which is one of our booked rickshaw drivers.

With flashlights, we light up the way to the three waiting rickshaws and get in. Rattling, we rumble through the night. The driving force makes me scrap my scarf out of my pocket. The air is cool.

Different dancers slip into one of more than 450 roles and recount the stories. During the performance, the dancers reach a kind of trance state. And so they accept the role of the God worshiped in the moment. At this moment, the dancer is the godhead.

The Theyyam dancers are the proud original citizens of the land. The Theyyam tradition is popular in the area of North Kerala and a little of South Karnataka. I understand this evening as a unique opportunity to experience this tradition. The rickshaws stop in front of a wooden temple and we get out.

The Theyyam has been around for hours and I see a dancer in the forecourt. I had viewed pictures on the Internet. I get speechless watching the costume and the make-up are exactly the same as I have seen there. Next to the dancer are musicians, several drums, and a shawl fill the court with loud, rhythmic music.

In the first moment, it seems as if the Schalmei player leads the dancer. At the second glance, I realize that it is exactly the other way round. The initiative always goes from the dancer and drums and shawls follow a heartbeat later.

The dancer sits down. The night is cool, but the costume looks heavy and warm. Around the corner at the side of the temple is a camp fire. The other visitors of the Theyyam, all the inhabitants of the area gather there. As I have experienced in religious contexts, men and women sit on opposite sides of the fire.

Because I have learned that it is always smart to do what the locals are doing, I sit near the men's group. Behind me is a large tent. Men have now become active on the fire. They remove the burning pieces of wood so that only glowing coal remains. The dancer, who was behind me, enters the courtyard.

Guided by a little man, he runs around, and begins to dance, always behind a priest. The music is loud, the fire warm and my eyes burn with fatigue and also with the fascinated looks. I'm losing my sense of time. At some point, a meter-high head-dress gets placed on the dancer. Then an oversized head mask gets put over his face.

The effect is fascinating, as the dancer get dehumanized in a way. I begin to understand how the dancer becomes a deity for a few hours.The ritual continues. After minutes or half an hour, the dancer sits behind the women. Separating or in small groups, women approach him and whisper something in his ear. I imagine that he interprets the future to them.

The floodlight goes out. On the horizon is already the sunrise, but still, the sky is dark. The only light comes from the glow of the fire and the lamps that illuminate the temple. From the tent behind me, another dancer comes out. The little priest from before led him with an oil lamp round the yard.

He swings it back and forth, following the dancer. Two more men support him. The little priest already sways with his whole body, and cannot stand on his feet. He begins to twitch. The two men take him on their arm and carry into the background. The dancer grows wild, rushes toward the coal heap, and jumps in the middle.

He kicks the coal far away, in the middle of the men's group. The men give a collective outcry, only then to return to the edge as a wave. Helpers turn the coal back together, and the dancer jumps back into it. This gets repeated several times. The group of men moves back and forth, a bit like the sea I've heard hours before.

The day begins and the sky colors in preparation for the sun. I felt the adrenaline pumping through my body every time I jump into the fire.

The Theyyam changes. The dancer now leads one man to the next around the remains of the embers. He can not see well, and sometimes he or his companions enter the fire. My pulse calms down, and the adrenaline gets replaced by fatigue. I look to the others with whom I have come. I see in their faces that they have been thinking the same way as I did in the last few hours. Even as I have not paid attention to the time.

For us, the Theyyam is over and we go on the way back. I imagine how the rest of the visitors eat together in the dining tent, where we pass by leaving the terrain. The tradition lives here.