Theyyam Dance - Ritualistic Art Form of Kerala

By : Neha Dhyani

Updated : Apr 22, 2022, 5:05

When talking about the many art and dance forms originating in India, Kerala is one state that has a diverse and rich culture and traditions that are still prevalent.

One of the famous but relatively lesser-known dance forms that originate in this land is Theyyam, a ceremonial dance performed in small temples, shrines, and community homes in the northern region of Kerala.

This unique art form has a great cultural significance since the dancers or artists, who are usually from marginalized communities, are elevated to the stature of living Gods. This unique dance form, unique to the cultural tradition of Kerala, is now being promoted to help promote tourism in Kerala.

What is Theyyam?

Theyyam originates from Kaliyattam, and instances of the Theyyam dance form originate from Sangam literature.

As per the traditions, when Shree Sankaracharya was on this journey towards the pinnacle of wisdom (Sarvajna Peetham), Lord Shiva appeared to him disguised as a Chandala (a backward or untouchable tribe). Recognizing the Lord in the form of the Chandala, Shankaracharya fell to his feet.

Even today, the practice continues, and this story is retold through the dance form, where members of the marginalized communities take up the role of Lord Shiva himself.

However, despite the popular myths surrounding Theyyam, the dance form is said to predate Hinduism and has many elements of local tribal culture. It combines dance, music, and mime, showcasing the excellent amalgamation of local traditions in the greater religious fold.

Features of Theyyam

  • Theyyam is also known as God's Dance since the dancers are said to embody or be possessed by the spirits of the ancestors and Gods.
  • The objective of Theyyam is to appease the spirits of the ancestors, folk heroes, and Gods.
  • Theyyam performers feature exquisite makeup and costumes, along with bright body paints. They represent Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, demons, and other mythical characters exhibited through dance.
  • Theyyam dancers also feature the headwear called 'Mudi'. In Kshetrapalan Theyyam and Sum Bhagavathis, the dancers wear 50-60 feet high crowns crafted with bamboo and areca tree branches.
  • The many musical instruments used as part of Theyyam include Chenda, Elathalam, Kurumkuzal, and Vekkuchenda.
  • Mudi is the crucial feature of Theyyam and is a sacred crown crafted using coconut and areca nut spices dyed in various colours.
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Types of Theyyam

Depending on the storytelling and the theme, there are 456 theyyakkolams. Of these, 112 are considered to be the most important. The key Theyyam forms include:

  • Vishnumoorthi - which narrates the story of Palanthai Kannan, an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu
  • Sree Muthappan Theyyam - an annual Theyyam that is performed in Muthappan temples across North Malabar like Kunnathur Padi, Parassini Kadavu, and other temples
  • Guligan - which features the Hindu God of Death and Lord Shiva. This Theyyam is famous for its fascinating dance steps that depict the story of Lord Shiva and Yamaraj.
  • Padukutti Amma - a Theyyam that celebrates Padikuttiyamma, the mother of God Muthappan
  • Muthappan Anthithira - performed only once a year at the temples of God Mutthappan in North Malabar
  • Puthiya Bhagavathy - performed in many shrines across the Kannur district

India's diverse art and dance forms are important, especially in modern times, as they help preserve and retell local myths and tales of yesteryears. It allows us to connect with our ancestors and pass on India's cultural heritage from one generation to the next.

Today, these dance forms and traditions are great tourist attractions and help showcase our grand and diverse culture.

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FAQs on Theyyam

Q.1. How many forms of Theyyam are there?

There are 456 Theyyam forms, each having its own variation and theme. For example, while some Theyyam forms celebrate Shiva, others also include Lord Muttapan (Vishnu) in the Vishnumoorthi or Daivatar tradition, Yama in the Gulikan tradition, and forms of Goddess Shakti (Raktha Chamundi) in other traditions. Both men and women can take up forms of Theyyam, as per the tradition and story behind it.

Q.2. Where and when are Theyyam ceremonies performed?

The Theyyam dance form is celebrated between December to April in districts of North Malabar like Karivallor, Kurumathoor, Nileswaram, Ezhom, and Cherukunnu. It is also performed at the Parassini Kadava Sri Muthappan Temple in Kannur.

Q.3. From which state does the dance form Theyyam originate?

Theyyam is a dance form that originated in the Northern regions of Kerala.

Q.4. Which district is popularly known as Theyyam?

The regions in north Kerala are known as the Theyyam regions, with the significant Theyyam places being Kannur and Kasargod.

Q.5. Which castes perform Theyyam?

The major castes that perform the Theyyam dance form are historically marginalized communities such as Vanna, Malayan, Velan, and Mavilan tribes. However, the ritual is held in ancestral homes or sacred shrines of upper caste communities, like the Nambuthiri, Nair, Thaiyya, and other castes.