Few are aware that though Theyyam is a traditional Hindu ritualistic art form, by including Muslim characters it has been celebrating communal harmony.
In north Kerala the Muslims are generally addressed as Mappla (colloquial of Mappila). Thus the Muslim Theyyams are generally known as Mappila Theyyam. The word Mappila probably derived from the polysemous Arabic word Mawla, which means a friend and was also used to designate non-Arab Muslims among others.
There are about fifteen Mappila Theyyams. While most of them are deified in Kasaragod district and performed by members of the Mavilan and Koppalan communities, in Kannur district it is mainly performed by the Vannans. “They are the spirit of someone virtuous and devout or somebody wicked and hence got killed by God’s will,” opines Theyyam exponent Manoharan Peruvannan. Aali, Aandi, Mukri, Poker, Bappiriyan, Kunhali, Mammu, Mammad (all male) and Ummachi and Naithiyar (Muslim women in Northern Kerala are addressed so) are among the individual names attributed to them under the common parlance of Mappila Theyyam.
None of the Mappila Theyyams has captivating attire or facial drawing like that in a regular Theyyam performance, except Ummachi performed at two venues in Kanhangad in a conventional Theyyam attire but the headgear and face (partly) covered with a while. The costume of Naithiyar, performed at Ramanthali in Payyanur is red in colour and the mask is made of coconut leaves. “They are seen as holy spirits by the people,” says Theyyam and Bhootha scholar Dr. Kamalaksha.
In a few Mappila Theyyams such as Bappiriyan performed at Azhikode in Kannur the artistes even climb the nearby coconut trees and pluck coconuts. (In 2017, while performing as Bappiriyan, Sumesh Peruvannan fell down from a coconut tree and was injured. After a few months, he resumed his performance.)
Two of the Mappila Theyyams are highly regarded — Kalanthan Mukri, performed at Kamballoore (in October last week, the beginning of the Theyyam season) and Aali at Kumbala (March end-April first week), both in Kasaragod district.
Both of them got killed; Kalanthan by an evil force and Aali by the spirit of the Goddess Parvathy.
“Kalanthan, a sanctimonious Muslim worked sincerely as the Mukri at the Pulingom mosque. After his death, the Kamballoore Kottayil family elevated him as Theyyam to perform along with our Karimchamunti,” pointed out octogenarian Kunhikrishnan Nambiar, the present head of the family. “Aaliwas innovative but misbehaved with women. He was exalted as Theyyam because of being annihilated by the Goddess,” says Lakshmanan Velichappat, the oracle of the Kumbala Arikkadysthana (today more popularly known as Sri Bhagavaty Aali Chamunti temple), where Aali is performed. As a prelude to their appearance, some of the Muslim Theyyams perform the Namaz.
Mostly in the villages, Muslims, both men and women atten Theyyam performances, make offerings and seek blessings.
At the Kalyal Muchilotkavu in Kanhangad, the local Muslim family named Kalyal has to provide new pot and rope to fetch water from the well. The Hindu temple gets its name from the Muslim family. For the urus (annual festival) of the 12th century Pulingom mosque, the Kamballoor Kottayil Nambiars have been the patrons from time immemorial. The neighbouring Muslim families are hereditarily entitled to a share of the offerings that Koyi Mammad Theyyam at Mouveni Kovilakam in Kanhangad receives from the devotees. At the Manikkakkavu in Thana of Kannur, where 16th century Kalarippayattu warrior Payyamballi Chandu is deified as Payyamballi Gurunadhan Theyyam, a substantial number of devotees are Muslims. These are only a few examples.
During their dialogue with the Muslim devotees, the Theyyams talk about the origin of Muslims in Kerala by addressing them as “ente Madayi nagare”, meaning, ‘Oh, the residents of my Madayi town’; the first mosque of north Kerala is at Madayi in Kannur, built during the 7th century. While blessing the Muslim devotees the Theyyams customarily proclaim , “I will protect you to perform the five namaz, nombu (the month-long Ramadan fasting) and your livelihood with little difficulty.” The Mappla Theyyams address the Hindu devotees as both “ente odappirannone and ente koodappirappe”(my own siblings).
The story of Muslim Theyyams as revealed through their dialogue unveil the history of Islamic migration to Kerala and the communal harmony in north Kerala.