The Spellbinding World of Theyyam in Kerala

Colours, Myths, and Mystique: The Spellbinding World of Theyyam in Kerala (2024)

When we think of a dance form of Kerala, we always think of Kathakali and not Theyyam. But did you know that Theyyam has a long history in Kerala and is one of the ritual dance forms? It is as vibrant as Kathakali and has many stories to tell and is an integral part of Kerala’s customs and traditions.

Consisting of thousand year old traditions that have been passed on through generations, Theyyam is a spiritual experience you need to have when you are in Kerala. And the dancers perform with beautiful costumes and folk music.

I have been blessed to have witnessed this amazing dance ritual twice, one as a performance part of Pre-Mart tour 2022, in collaboration with Kerala Travel Mart and Kerala Tourism, and two as a family customs in the midst of a forest. Not just witnessing this performance, I have had an opportunity to get blessing from Theyyam.

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Colours, Myths, and Mystique: The Spellbinding World of Theyyam in Kerala (2024)
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About Theyyam

Also spelt as Teyyam, Theyam and Theyyattam, Theyyam is Kerala’s ritual dance form that consists of thousands of years of traditions, customs and rituals. Meaning God in Malayalam language, the locals of Kerala consider Theyyam as a channel to god and seek blessings from Theyyam.


History of Theyyam

Theyyam has been referenced in many old literatures and historical documents such as Keralolpathi and Sangam. It is believed that Parashurama, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu granted the land of Kerala some of the festivals such as Kaliyattam, Puravela, Daivattam and Theyyattam. Theyyam originated from Kaliyattam which lasts for 3 to 11 days and the indigenous tribal people were given the responsibility of performing the Theyyam dance form.

Also read | Yakshagana, Karnataka’s dance form.

The Sangam literature talks about Velan, one of the Theyyam dancers, who was employed by the mothers of love rejected girls to drive out the malignant spirits from their daughters. There are also evidences that prove that Theyyam may have originated during the earliest period of Neolithic, Chalcolithic settlement and expression.

Types of Theyyam

In Kerala, there are more than 400 types of Theyyam. All of the types are performed by males except the Devakoothu Theyyam, which is performed by women. The Devakoothu Theyyam is performed only at Thekkumbad Kulom temple that is located in Kannur region of Kerala.

With the Theyyam statue
With the Theyyam statue in Folklore Museum (Kannur)

Out of 400 Theyyams, among 112 are the most famous ones and are performed even today at various shrines and festivals. Some of the famous types are:

  • Vishnumoorthi – The most popular is the Vishnumoorthi Theyyam and it narrates the story of Hiranyakashipu’s death by Lord Narasimha, who was one of the Lord Vishnu’s avatars.
  • Muthappan – The Muthappan Theyyam consists of two divine figures, Thiruvappana Muttapan (Vishnu) and Vellatom Muttapan (Shiva).
  • Padikutti Amma – The Padikutti Amma Theyyam narrates the story of Padikutti Amma, the mother of Muthappan.
  • Gulikan – The Gulikan Theyyam represents Yama, the Hindu God for death.
  • Padamadakki Bhagavathy – The Padamadakki Bhagavathy Theyyam tells the story of the goddess who helped Nileswarr Raja against an invading army from Karnataka. Upon seeing Padamadakki Bhagavathy, the attacking army fainted and hence the war was averted.
  • Kathivanur Veeran – The Kathivanur Veeran Theyyam narrates the story of a warrior Mandhappan.
  • Manakkott Amma – The Manakkott Amma Theyyam narrates a story of Manakkott, who was killed by the head of the family as she broke one of the caste rules. At that time, she was pregnant and her murder caused a lot of problems for the family later destroying it completely. Manakkott later emerged as a goddess.
  • Kuttichattan – The Kuttichattan Theyyam is associated with a deity from the Brahmin family Kalakattu illam. There are many myths and stories associated with Kuttichattan.
  • Chamundi – The Chamundi Theyyam narrates the stories of Chamundi slaying daemons. Chamundi is the form of Goddess Kali or Durga. The Chamundi form representing Kali is immersed in colour of blood and is also known as Rakta Chamundi or Rakteshwari.
Theyyam in Folklore Museum

Tradition of Theyyam

Part of the religion and region of Kerala’s culture and traditions, the Theyyam in natural setting (not a stage) can be seen in Kannur and Kasargod districts. The tradition has been living among the locals from past 1500 years and embraces all kinds of communities within Hindu religion.

Theyyam is usually sponsored by family so they could seek blessings from Theyyam. The families worship one or more Theyyams and have the performance of Theyyam in the natural settings such as forests or sacred places or corners in the house. In such setting, Theyyam dances and takes over a demi-God and listens to the problems / prayers of the family members. After which Theyyam gives solutions and speaks encouraging words to provide morale to the family.

These experiences are special and you will need to be invited by the family sponsoring Theyyam. I had this special experience in Kannur where I not only saw the demi-God Neeliyar Kottam but also got her blessings. Even though she spoke to me in Malayalam language, the translation of those words were “I know that your soul respects me and that’s why you are here. I can see in your soul. Keep your spirit high and keep going“. It has been one of the most spectacular and nail-biting experiences of my life.

Performance of Theyyam

The performance of Theyyam consists of dance, cultural drama and expression, vocal recitations, peculiar makeup, costumes and music, and is generally performed in front of a village shrine. These performances last for 12 to 24 hours with intervals.

The dancers perform the ancient tribal beliefs worshipping the heroes and spirits of the ancestors. Dances are accompanied with folk music played using the folk musical instruments. Traditional dance performers wear exotic dresses with face paintings and perform ritualistic dances in an open theatre.

Theyyam in Kerala

Theyyam is usually performed in North Kerala, especially in Kannur and Kasargod districts. But some of the traditional and cultural performances in the other parts of Kerala also include Theyyam performances and I was fortunate to see a live performance in Munnar.

Theyyam Festival

The best and the only time to see Theyyam in Kerala between the months of October and May every year. There is also a festival that is held between these months. There are no Theyyam held during the monsoon season (June to September).

Kerala Folklore Academy in Kannur

Established by Kerala government in 1995, the Kerala Folklore Academy in Kannur is a great place to see and learn about Kerala’s rich folk traditions, especially Theyyam. There are rooms within the museum dedicated to types of Theyyam, including the costumes, face masks, and history.

  • The museum is open every day between 10 AM and 4:30 PM. On Sundays, the museum is open only till 4 PM.
  • There is an entrance fee of Rupees 30 per person and an additional charge of Rupees 200 per person.
Folklore Museum Academy in Kannur
Folklore Museum Academy in Kannur

Where to see Theyyam?

Even though Theyyam is mainly part of Kolathu nadu region that includes Kannur and Kasaragod, there are still many places across Kerala where you can see the performances. These days the performances are held in Wayanad, Kozhikode and also stretching to Kodagu and Tulu nadu regions of Karnataka.

Performances in Kannur

The regular performances of Theyyam in Kannur happen at Parassini Madappura Sree Muthappan temple. Usually, the performances happen twice, first in the morning during the sunrise and second in the evening during the sunset.

There are charges to see the performances that you can get at the entrance of the temple. Also, it is best to check with your hotel staff prior to going for the performance as there are times where the schedule changes and it can be for many reasons like family influence, or the weather.

How to Get to Kannur?

Renowned for its Theyyam rituals, Kannur is a district located in the northern part of the Indian state of Kerala.

  • By Air – Kannur has its own international and domestic airport. The airport is situated around 27 kilometres from the city of Kannur and by road, the journey takes up to 45 minutes. You can take a taxi at the airport to be dropped in the city.
  • By Public Transport – Kannur also has a railway station of its own that is connected to major cities and towns around. The train station is located in the city. Check IRCTC for up-to-date information on trains.
  • By Road – Kannur is around 90 kilometres from Kozhikode and by road, the journey takes up to 3 hours. The route is along the coast and is very beautiful.

Performances in Munnar

The best place to see Theyyam performance in Munnar is at Punarjani traditional village, around 7 kilometres from the town. There are daily shows at 5 PM where visitors can enjoy the fusion of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Theyyam. The ticket prices vary based on the classes such as Platinum, Gold and Silver and they usually range between INR 500 and INR 300 per person. You can purchase tickets at the entrance of the theatre.

How to Get to Munnar?

Munnar is a hill station in Idukki district of Kerala. At an altitude of 1600 metres, Munnar is a town in the Western Ghats mountain range of India. The town is called the Kashmir of South India and is a popular destination.

  • By Air – Munnar does not have an airport of its own and the closest airport is the Kochi International airport. The Kochi international airport is around 110 kilometres from Munnar and the best way to travel from the airport is by hiring a taxi.
  • By Public Transport – There are many buses, operated by government and private operators, that run between Kochi and Munnar. For routes and availability, check Redbus website.
  • By Road – The distance between Kochi and Munnar is around 130 kilometres and the journey by road takes about 3 hours 30 minutes. Note that the roads are very picturesque surrounded by tea estates but are windy and you could have a problem if you have motion sickness.

Closing Notes

Theyyam is surely one of the most amazing dance forms of India and I highly suggest seeing it as a live performance at least once. It is absolutely beautiful and is totally worth spending time watching it. If you are a dance or an art form lover, then the Theyyam performances are surely for you. Have you watched Theyyam? Let me know how you found it in the comments below.

The first witness of Theyyam in Munnar was part of Kerala Travel Mart (KTM) 2022. I was hosted by KTM and partnering hotels and resorts as a media invitee. And my second witness of Theyyam in Kannur was hosted by City Heritage Kannur as a travel influencer. I thank all of them who were involved in making sure that I experience this special and beautiful tradition.

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Colours, Myths, and Mystique: The Spellbinding World of Theyyam in Kerala (2024)
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    Theyyam, Kerala's ritual dance form - PIN for later reference
    Theyyam, Kerala’s ritual dance form – PIN for later reference