theyyam ritual, Kannur India

I recently spent three colorful, delicious, and comfort-zone-stretching weeks in India, mostly in the states of Goa and Kerala. In the northern part of Kerala is a coastal city called Kannur, which is the beating heart of the Northern Malabar theyyam rituals. About every other day, you can find a Hindu temple in or around Kannur holding a theyyam.

The idea behind theyyam is that a dancer (who is trained from an early age) adorns himself with body paint, brightly colored clothes, and an elaborate headdress and performs a dance and some offerings to invite a Hindu god to enter his body. Once the god has occupied the dancer’s body, the dancer — now believed to be the god incarnate — then gives audience to the people in attendance, who present him with questions or problems they have for which they seek the god’s advice, help, or blessing.

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Though the ritual — which has a history going back several thousand years and is practiced in several branches of Hinduism — involves colorful costumes and dancing, it is a form of worship, not a performance, so it’s important for foreigners to fully respect it. Some temples don’t allow non-Hindu women inside the walls of the temple (though you can observe from outside), but in any case, all attendees should dress conservatively: Cover your shoulders and your knees, and women should avoid low-cut shirts.

We took a rickshaw and arrived early to the temple, which was on the side of the road on the outskirts of Kannur, surrounded by a low concrete wall and covered with a sloped corrugated metal roof. A small, square temple, which couldn’t have been more than 3-by-3 inside, stood in the center of the space. Many candles were burning both inside the temple and outside it. Two alters sat in front, one permanent and cemented to the ground, and one small, square table.

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We sat in the back, but after a few minutes, we were ushered to seats at the front by the man who we later found out was hosting the theyyam. He seemed very keen on helping us understand what was going on, so we spent the last few minutes before the ritual began chatting with him and asking questions.

He told us he paid 800 rupees (about US$13 in 2013) to the temple for the honor of hosting the theyyam that day, which meant he was the first man to receive the blessings at each point during the ritual when they were offered. He was hosting the theyyam because his wife, also present, had a blood clot in her brain, and he wanted to appeal to the gods on her behalf. The god invoked that day was Shiva, “the Destroyer,” who accepts offerings of certain kinds of tea leaves, fish, and alcohol, among other things.

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But let’s start at the beginning.

It began with drums, and the drums were the one constant throughout the entire ritual. Three bare-chested men wearing white dhotis and some face paint set the rhythm, and the drumming didn’t stop until the dance was over.

There were two dancers. One wore a colorful dhoti with some markings in paint on his face and chest, and he seemed to serve the other dancer, who wore bright red and yellow body paint from head to toe, including on his face, lots of bells on his ankles, colorful bangles on his arms and around his neck, and an elaborate headdress. Everything was red, yellow, or gold, and all of the men, including the musicians, were barefoot.

Both men danced, but the man in the headdress was the one who received the god, Shiva. He moved around the two alters in a series of circles and figure eights, dancing with a bow and arrow. With each purposeful step, the bells on his ankles jingled and added to the music the drummers were producing. He paused occasionally to present offerings and bless the men in attendance.

One offering consistent of boiled rice, pepper, and shredded coconut piled onto banana leaves — with everything arranged just so. A coconut was added to the mix, which the dancer later rolled across the floor, the path of which would tell him — the host explained to us in a whisper — if the god looked favorably on what the dancers had done in the ritual that day.

At the end, the host, who had just received the final blessing, a banana leaf with a smear of turmeric powder on it, turned around to share it with us. We followed his lead, dipping one finger in the paste and dragging it solemnly across our own foreheads.

When the dancing, the blessings, and the offerings were complete, the dancer in the headdress, now believed to be embodied by the god Shiva, sat down. Everyone in attendance — a few men, but lots of women and some children — lined up to speak with him, tell him their problems, and receive advice from the god.

Before we left, even though we aren’t Hindu, we received the blessing kuri: a bag of coconut shavings and dried chickpeas. When we get back to our home stay that evening, we gave the bag to our host, who took it to the kitchen so it could be incorporated into our dinner that evening.

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India is country of color, sound, and flavor, and spirituality is everywhere. No matter your personal religion, it’s hard not to get caught up in the passion Indians have for their own rich culture, customs, and rituals. I’m not a person who prays, but later that evening as I prepared for bed, I thought about the host and his wife, and I hoped the theyyam we witnessed together had granted them some peace.

This Yodel by Abbie Redmon

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