The performer runs and jumps into a huge pile of ember. His assistants swiftly pull him back before the fire gets a chance to burn his costume and the act is repeated over a hundred times! The performance of Theechamundi, an extended ritual of Vishnumoorthy Theyyam, is one of its kind and requires a considerable amount of effort, not only from the performer but also from the team of supporting members.
Madhu Panicker, who has experience doing this ‘ottakkolam’ (another name, hinting that it is a single kolam) a couple of times before, did it again, on the concluding day of the annual Kaliyattam festival of Sree Neeliyar Bhagavathi Temple, Mathamangalam, Kannur.
The presiding deity of the kottam (shrine) is Neeliyar Bhagavathi and the Theyyam was performed by Balan Peruvannan during this year’s festival. He also did the thottam (singing songs in praise of the goddess prior to the actual performance in minimal make-up and decorations) of the same in the evenings.
Vellattam (ritualistic act in partial costume, mostly done for male deities) and Theyyam of Vettakkorumakan and Oorpazhachi, were also presented, the koladharis (performers) being Krishnan Peruvannan and Vinu Peruvannan respectively.
Female members of the community, young and old, came together during these days to prepare garlands of ripe areca nut. Men decorated the pillars with these garlands and made them into ‘pazhuthadakkathoonu’ for the final day.
“Other than the use of plastics and some other modern elements, which I do not really appreciate, these decorations are mostly done using flowers, leaves and fruits that are locally available. Also, as long as I could remember, there is hardly any change in the traditions and rituals over the years,” says octogenarian Krishnan Nair.
Making of ‘meleri’, the pile of ember for Theechamundi, was done by a team of volunteers. It has to be done with care, as even minor mistakes could cause casualties during the performance. The thottam and subsequent manoeuvres by the Theechamundi performer also need support and assistance from spectators.
While Kaliyattam is organised annually in every kottam, ‘Perunkaliyattam’ happens with a gap of 10, 12, 14 or even 20 years or more depending on the place. Though it happens after a hiatus, since there are a number of shrines, there is a chance of having at least one Perunkaliyattam every year in Kerala.
For instance, there are more than a hundred shrines where the chief goddess is Muchilot Bhagavathi, thus creating the possibility of a Perunkaliyattam in one of the shrines every year. This year, it was the turn of Thayineri Sree Muchilot Temple, which celebrated the festival in the first week of February, after a gap of 14 years.
While the chief goddess in this particular shrine is Muchilot Bhagavathi, there are other deities too. Kannankattu Bhagavathi, Rakthachamundi, Madayil Chamundi, Kundora Chamundi, Vishnumoorthi, Puliyoor Kannan and Puliyoor Kali are a few commonly seen associated deities in Muchilot shrines.
“Each deity in every shrine could have a story of its own. But the underlying myths are mostly the same. For instance, Theyyams falling under the Chamundi category are the incarnations of the goddess connected with the mythological stories of demons such as Chanda and Munda, Rakthabeeja and the likes,” explains T.V. Murali Krishnan, an avid Theyyam follower.
Each Theyyam has its own unique make-up, costumes, headgear and series of ritual practices. From place to place, there could be slight variations in all/any of these, making it hard for a novice viewer to familiarise himself/herself with the subtle differences and varieties.
Though the number of major deities are only close to 40, as of now, the total count of all Theyyams could be more than 400. Once in a while, new ones are added to the list. It could be also noted that the right to perform each deity is often reserved for specific communities, and each major deity has a primary shrine.
“Theyyam was purely ritualistic and was performed as an offering. It was a serious affair. But nowadays, it has become more like performances and many people are seeing it also as a means of entertainment,” says an enthusiast of the art form who wishes to remain anonymous. Scholar R.C. Karippath in his much-acclaimed text Theyyaprapancham observes, “Nowadays, it is becoming a practice to call these shrines temples (instead of kavu or kottam), having rituals similar to that of temples. The new generation should understand that this is completely against the basic principles of Theyyam, and worshipping these deities in the form of idols doesn’t make sense.”