Theyyam (Malayalam: തെയ്യം) or Theyyattam or Thira is a popular Hindu ritual form of worship of North Malabar in Kerala state, India, predominant in the Kolathunadu area (consisting of present-day Kasargod, Kannur Districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad and Vadakara & Koyilandy Taluks of Kozhikode of Kerala state. As a living cult with several thousand-year-old traditions, rituals and customs, it embraces almost all the castes and classes of the Hindu religion in this region. The performers of Theyyam belong to the lower class community, and have an important position in Theyyam. This is unique, since only in Kerala, do both the upper-caste Brahmins and lower-caste tribals share an important position in a major form of worship. The term Theyyam is a corrupt form of Devam or God. 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.
The chendamelam, by the local drummers accompanying the Theyyam.
According to the legendary Keralolpathi, Parasurama sanctioned festivals like Kaliyattam, Puravela and Daivattam or Theyyattam to the people of the North Malabar region. He also assigned the responsibility of performing the Theyyam dance to the indigenous tribal communities like Malayar, Panan, Vannan and Velan. "There can be no doubt", say Bridget and Raymond Alchin, "that a very large part of this modern folk religion is extremely ancient and contains traits which originated during the earliest periods of Neolithic, Chalcolithic settlement and expression" and, indeed, Theyyam is representative of a form of Hinduism (albeit non-Brahminical) having been practised by tribal communities since time immemorial. This form of worship, often involving liquor and meat as offerings to Bhagawathi, Shiva, Vishnu, co-existed with the Sattvic rituals practised by Nambudiri Brahmins in temples. In fact, Theyyam was nearly always sponsored by members of the ruling class, such as Nair feudal chiefs, and achieved much prominence, therefore Theyyam festivals and Temple festivals were celebrated with equal vigour. Theyyam is an art form of the Dravidians. And it has a revolutionary concept behind it since the Theyyam artists are from low-caste communities such as Malayan or Vanaan. Even the high-caste people will have to worship the gods came in the form of Theyyam, so it subverts the caste system in Kerala.
The ruling landlord communities like the Nambiars and the Thiyya(ezhava) community were patrons of Theyyam, and it was not uncommon for every Tharavadu to have its own Theyyam. However, the Nairs, like Brahmins, did not have the right to directly take part in the performance of Theyyam, as this privilege belonged only to the tribal communities. Despite this, out of devotion, ruling clans established their own shrines and Kavus for Theyyam deities where non-sattvic rituals and customs are observed. The Goddesses like Rakteshwari, Chamundi, Someshwari, Kurathi, and the Gods like Vishnumoorthi are propitiated in these house-hold shrines. There, the Theyyam dancers appear during the annual festivals of Gods and Goddesses. The rituals in such shrines are different from those of the Brahminical temples. The impact of this cultural fusion could be traced to the social organization based on the caste system and in the agrarian relations. Once the cult was patronized by the Brahmins, the intermediate and lower castes also took it as a major religious practice. In fact the cult has become the religion of the masses.
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 or other such arrangements for the performance. The devotees would be standing or some of them would be sitting on a sacred tree 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 would not eat anything for the remainder of that day (again possibly on account of a legacy of Jainism). His make-up 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 make-up or any decorative costume. Only a small, red headdress 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. Again after a short interval he appears with proper make-up and costumes. There are different patterns of face-painting. Some of these patterns are called vairadelam, kattaram, kozhipuspam, kotumpurikam, and prakkezhuthu. Mostly primary and secondary colours are applied with contrast for face painting. It helps in effecting certain stylization in the dances. Then the dancer comes in front of the shrine and gradually “metamorphoses” into the particular deity of the shrine. He, after observation of certain rituals places the head-dress on his head and starts dancing. In the background, folk musical instruments like chenda, tuti, kuzhal and veekni are played in a certain rhythm. All the dancers take a shield and kadthala (sword) in their hands as continuation of the cult of weapons. Then the dancer circumambulates the shrine, runs in the courtyard and continues dancing there. The Theyyam dance has different steps known as Kalaasams. Each Kalaasam is repeated systematically from the first to the eighth step of footwork. A performance is a combination of playing of musical instruments, vocal recitations, dance, and peculiar makeup and costumes. The stage-practices of Theyyam and its ritualistic observations make it one of the most fascinating theatrical arts of India.
Text Courtesy : Wikipedia