Hotline to God

Kerala Tradition: It’s the season of Theyyam, a transcendental artistic celebration of the legends gifted to Kerala by the landscape of North Malabar,

Makkam's daughter

Geography is neither a mere fact nor a material artefact. It is a significant ingredient in shaping culture and cultural identity.

Theyyam is the gift that the landscape of North Malabar gave to Kerala. North Malabar, comprising Kannur and Kasargod, is locked in from the Deccan Plateau by the Western Ghats, on the eastern side. On the west, there is the Arabian Sea. With such landscaping, the region has been open to seafaring foreign influences but has had much limited interaction with the rest of the country. The scope for penetration of dominant religious practices from other parts of India into this region has been far less. As a result, this part of Kerala has evolved a distinctive culture and traditions that have retained their character over centuries. Theyyam is a case in point.

Facing it

The root word for Theyyam is devam, which means god or deity. Theyyam refers to both the art and the artiste. It is a spellbinding artistic expression of religious worship. Once the artiste has donned his make-up, costume and headdress, he is no longer just a performer, but he is god. When he looks in the mirror, he sees the Theyyam that he is then onwards. This custom of looking into the mirror is known as mukha-darshan, and is highly symbolic.

Each year, the Theyyam season begins around late-November or early-December, depending on the Malayalam calendar, and lasts until May. The final and much-anticipated Theyyam is performed in June in the temple of Kalarivathukkal Bhagavathy in Valapattanam, Kannur.

There are over 400 Theyyams, and each one celebrates a legend. They could be a celebration of gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, animals, spirits and/or other aspects of nature. The first two categories, namely gods & goddesses and ancestors, are most popular.

One such Theyyam that attracts massive numbers is Makkam. Let us take a look at her story.

Makkam belonged to the Kadangot family of Kunhimangalam near Payyanur in Kannur. She had 12 brothers and they absolutely doted on her. However, much like the soap operas we see on television, their wives disliked her every bit. They were on a mission to taint her image in the eyes of her brothers.

One fine evening, their opportunity came in the form of an oil seller, Vaniyan Emman. The warriors were not at home. The women hid and watched an unsuspecting Makkam interact with Vaniyan. Being her time of the month, she did not want to touch the oil that would be used in worship. She looked around for her sisters-in-law and when she could not find them, she asked the young man to place the jar of oil in her room by himself. Just as he was about to exit, the women appeared before him and Makkam and accused them of wrongdoing. They told the same to the men of the house, upon their return.

All the brothers, except the youngest one, believed the tale and decided to kill their only sister to save family honour. Under the pretext of visiting a temple far away, they took Makkam and her children on a long journey. During the journey, they would not help Makkam carry her son and her daughter, nor would they get her water to drink. By the time they reached a place called Chalavayal, the woman was tired. She stopped at a small house asking for water. The family was so kind as to give her water and offer milk to her children. Makkam felt grateful and promised to see them again on her way back from the temple. With that, the warriors, Makkam and her children continued to travel and reached Kayalode.

A cruel kill

Except for a well, there was nothing or nobody in sight. One of the brothers took the innocent woman close to the well saying he would show her the reflection of a star in the water, and another beheaded her that moment. The children were also killed and thrown into the well.

When the brothers got home, they shared the news of Makkam’s death with their wives and the latter were overjoyed. But, their happiness did not last long as their house caught fire and everyone died, except the youngest brother and his wife.

There, in Chalavayal, the family that gave water and milk to Makkam became prosperous.

This is a Theyyam that reveres and worships a heroine of tragedy and the story is relatable with familiar elements and emotions of love, hate, jealousy, conspiracy, trust and betrayal.

We must also take note that there are Theyyams that are reincarnations of Hindu gods such as Shiva and Kali, indicating how Theyyam has borrowed from mainstream Hinduism over the years. Different Theyyams are performed as per the need of the hour. For instance, Makkam is worshipped when families desire offspring. Uchitta, another popular Theyyam, for safe delivery. Others such as Agnikandakarnan and Vasoorimala are invited to cure or prevent smallpox. Finally, along with the geography of the region, the other single most important factor that has helped Malabar keep its cultural identity and tradition alive is the people. Theyyam appeals to young and old alike.

The fact that it has had this continuity over centuries and held its own in the face of modernity is because Theyyam has been taken seriously by every generation and youngsters have been eagerly carrying their legacy forward.

The artistes live and breathe Theyyam, and that is reflected in their preparation. They master all aspects and nuances of the art — dancing, singing, beating the drums, make-up, even preparing their costumes.

Over and beyond all of this, they learn and internalise the nature of the deity they would be.

We can only imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of the artiste and feel what they feel — that state of transcendence.

In the case of Theyyam, seeing it is actually living it. Being a part of Theyyam is like being in a temple and being in a one-on-one communication with God.

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