Theyyam ceremony

Written by Jane Harris No Gravatar

Tonight the host of our homestay took us to a local Theyyam ceremony in which a dancer invites a god to possess his body in order to bless a temple and purify it for the coming year. This is considered vital for the spiritual and physical well-being of the local community.

Theyyam predates Hinduism. It was originally practised in southern India’s central mountains. When tribes people were brought down from mountains to work in the coastal areas the practice persisted in just a few families within the lowest of four castes. Theyyam is thought to have links with voodoo and other forms of shamanism.

Theyyam is not entertainment or theatre, and may never be performed on a stage, but typically takes place during an annual festival running from end December to May. During festival season the ceremonies start at four in the afternoon and end at around eight the following morning – with the dancer making a number of scheduled appearances throughout that time. It can take up to eight hours to apply the dancer’s elaborate make-up – comprising patterns in yellow (turmeric); red (turmeric with limestone); white (rice powder); and black (burnt chaff from rice fields blended with coconut oil). The dancer typically sleeps throughout the make-up process.

Our visit fell outside of festival season so we saw one of the smaller ceremonies commissioned and funded by private individuals in thanks for the answering of a prayer. Typically prayers are made by women and relate to family matters such as the need to marry off a daughter or to build a new house. We were advised that it might be appropriate for us to to make a donation and although this was in no way obligatory the small temple office was more than equipped to take our money.

The ceremony was attended by maybe 25 local people and half as many Westerners again. In contrast to Hindu ceremonies, where offertories comprise flowers or fruit, the Theyyam ‘god’ is brought gifts of fish and alcohol – typically brandy. The ‘god’ will often take only a small sip of the alcohol himself then hand it back for consumption by the person who donated it as part of their devotion. A huge pile of empties at the back of the temple evidenced quite how devout the local community was.

Drummers signalled the start of the ceremony – with such ferocity that I worried about slight tinnitus for the rest of the evening. The dance featured the son of Shiva (born of Shiva and a Brahman but banished from the Brahman community and forced to live the life of a hunter). It lasted about an hour. Although the trance-like state required for the god to enter the dancer’s body was less than evident, the dancer and those supporting him displayed a precision of gesture that was captivating to watch. After the dance there were several hours of blessings. I am always unsure whether or not to move forward at such points. Is a matter of courtesy to do so or is it hypocrisy to imply a level of spiritual engagement that just isn’t there? Tonight I took the latter view, hailed a rickshaw and made my way back to the homestay.

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