Kannur. 3 in the morning. My autorickshaw has arrived. I take a bouncy ride to the ‘kavu’, a small temple in Malayalam. We drive through the dark and narrow streets and looking out, the town seems to be fast asleep. Only until I reach the kavu. At the temple, there is a festival-like atmosphere.
Bright and blinding neon lights welcome us inside. There is already a thick crowd and people are still pouring in, scouting for the best seats for the best views. Some young boys have perched themselves on a tree. Vantage point!
I wade through the crowd and make my way to what appears to be a makeshift green room on one side of the kavu. It is abuzz with activity and everyone is busy and everyone is at work. One man is preparing the headdress.
Another is cutting some tender coconut leaves to make some last-minute alterations to the artist’s outfit. I can also hear someone chanting. On the whole, there is a lot of commotion in the green room. I leave my shoes outside, enter the cramped space and join the excitement.
There he is, at last! I see the artist! He is the highlight. He is Agnikandakarnan tonight. What is the occasion? What brings the night to life? Why has such a huge crowd gathered? What is it that they are waiting for? Who is Agnikandakarnan?
In word, Theyyam. Theyyam is the occasion. Theyyam is the reason the town is up and about. Theyyam is the spectacle.
What is Theyyam?
The word ‘Theyyam’ literally means God and it is used to refer to both the art and artist. Unlike the more commonly heard of dances such as Kathakali and Koodiyattam that are temple arts, Theyyam is a form of worship. Once the artist has donned his makeup, costume and headdress, he is ready to personify god. He looks himself in the mirror, where he no longer sees himself but the reflection of god. He is god from then on. He is Theyyam. The custom of looking in the mirror is known as ‘mukha-darshan’.
Theyyam has a long and enduring history going back nearly 1500 years, when, in a primitive society, it may have possibly existed as a cult form of worship and a pagan practice in south India. Tamil literature produced in the Sangam period provides evidence in support of this argument.
With time, Theyyam borrowed extensively from and integrated with Hinduism and the Theyyams that we see now are manifestations or reincarnations of the holy Hindu trinity – Shiva, Vishnu, Kali. It is said that there are about four hundred Theyyams and each one of them has an interesting folktale.
Agnikandakarnan is one of them. Here is his story briefly.
Kandakarnan was born for a purpose. After a long and fierce battle, Goddess Bhadrakali killed the demon Mahishasura. The demon’s wife Mahishi, both devastated and furious, prayed devoutly to Shiva. Her prayers put him in a stressful predicament – should he or should he not give her audience. He was very worried what the consequences might be.
At Parvati’s behest, Shiva, still reluctant, relented and rushed to see Mahishi. The anxiety of appearing before her made him sweat. Without wasting much time or engaging in a long conversation, He hurriedly gave a few drops of his sweat to Mahishi and disappeared.
As she stood there perplexed looking at the boon she just received from Shiva, her eyes fell on the formidable Bhadrakali with Mahishasura’s head in one hand and a sword in another. Almost like a reflex, she flicked the drops of sweat at the goddess, causing the latter to break out in smallpox.
When Shiva heard about the plight of Bhadrakali, a form took birth in the very enraged and the mighty Shiva’s throat and emerged from his ears. He is Kandakarnan. Shiva sent him to relieve her from the infection.
Kandakarnan cleared the pustules of smallpox from Bhadrakali’s body, and those on her face turned into ornaments. The goddess looked ever more beautiful and this avatar of Bhadrakali is celebrated as Vasoorimala Theyyam. Vasoorimala means a chain of pustules.
Once this purpose was served, Shiva wanted Kandakarnan to go to the earth and said to him, “Go to Idaviloka, reign and flourish there.”
Kandakarnan, however, was not too pleased with himself and he wished for some special talents and gifts from Shiva. So, Shiva gave him turmeric and pepper. Kandakarnan was still disappointed. He wanted something more.
The great Lord gave him fire in his mouth and made him Agnikandakarnan – Agni (fire), Kanda (throat), Karna (ear). He also blessed him with two thousand arms, countless pairs of eyes, three and a half crores of pores in the skin, sixteen flaming torches, a bell and one thousand and one smallpox pustules.
With all the blessings, Agnikandakarnan set out to Idaviloka. On his way, when he stopped his chariot at Kodungalloor Kavu, the king of Kasi saw him but ignored his presence.
The king took ill and the court astrologer was summoned. The latter examined the horoscope of the ruler and said that this was the result of his ignoring a god born of Shiva. Following the advice of the astrologer, the king built a temple for Agnikandakarnan.
The Theyyam is performed in honour of Agnikandakarnan. Agnikandakarnan is a people’s favourite. His makeup is elaborate and utmost attention is paid to detail including the representation of smallpox pustules, which are painted as tiny little polka dots on his face. His outfit is made from coconut leaf and accessories such as bangles and anklets are a must.
He wears sixteen bamboos lit with fire around his waist. These are called ‘panthams’. There are slightly smaller ‘panthams’ in his tall headdress too. The artist moves and dances fast to the beat of the drums and other musical instruments.
The drumming and chanting grow heavier and louder as the Theyyam gathers momentum. The intensity is palpable in the air and impacts the mind deeply. It is difficult not to be overawed and it is twice as hard to imagine what it must be like in that transcendental state. One cannot help but be transported into this other world of magic.
At the end of the performance, the audience queues up to take the Theyyam’s blessings and communicate with God, one-to-one.
Theyyam lends a strong a sense of identity to north Kerala and the tradition has been passed down generations, with its true nature and character intact. The younger generations have been eagerly learning the art and carrying the legacy forward. They want to be in touch with their roots. Children take interest and begin early by accompanying their parent, most often the father, on his Theyyam performances. They learn the mantras by chanting, repeating and memorising them.
I once met a seven-year-old boy in Payyanur, where I went to watch the Theyyam of Vettakkorumakan and I was taken aback by how knowledgeable he was about the subject. He goes to school in Kannur and he never misses a Theyyam.
The little one is a huge fan of Kandanar Kelan and he has learned the entire ‘thottam’, the song in praise of god that is sung at the beginning of Theyyam. He knows the whole song by heart and he can recite it with the exact notes and intonations, just like an expert would. And, this, he mastered by watching the videos of Kandanar Kelan Theyyam on YouTube. One day, he wants to be Kandanar Kelan!
Such is the positive influence of Theyyam on the socio-cultural ethos. It is a powerful binding force that brings people of all ages together and breaks down caste and class barriers, cementing and reinforcing social harmony.
Theyyam is the divine treasure of the Malabar. Richness and endemism are two key attributes reflecting its complexity and uniqueness. For the art to retain its glory, the artists could do with slight governmental intervention where necessary. They give their life and soul to their every performance – rigorously practicing and perfecting the craft, and sometimes, fasting for extended periods of time to achieve the meditative state of mind that Theyyam demands.
By: Indu Chinta is an environmentalist and writer-photographer. Her book ‘Theyyam: Merging with the Divine’ is currently in press