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PHOTOS: ‘Theyyam’ Festival of Gods in India's Kerala

Vishnumoorthi at Narikode. Image by Shaji Mullookkaran, used with permission

Vishnumoorthi at Narikode. Image by Shaji Mullookkaran, used with permission

As India's coastal region of Kerala settles into winter in November, the festival of Theyyam, a folklore ritual in Kerala's north as well as in bordering regions, begins. Performed in more than a thousand temples, its known for its wild drum beats, its indigenous dances and enchanting narratives. 

The lower castes of society normally participate in Theyyam and therefore all the stories and songs depict the cruelty of the system and the upper castes. Theyyam ritual is the manifestation of God in an ordinary human being when every other door has been shut, so he or she is empowered with divine status.

In William Dalrymple’s compelling book “Nine Lives“, he writes extensively about when men turn into part-time gods as the season of Theyyam begins:

It’s only during the Theyyam season—from December to February. We give up our jobs and become Theyyam artists. For those months we become gods. Everything changes. We never eat meat or fish and are forbidden to sleep with our wives. We bring blessings to the village and the villagers, and exorcise evil spirits. We are the vehicle through which people can thank the gods for fulfilling their prayers and granting their wishes. Though we are all Dalits (untouchables) even the most bigoted and casteist Namboodiri Brahmins worship us, and queue up to touch our feet.

There have been extensive stories and research about the Theyyam festivals, but the ritual remains a mystery to many who do not belong to the region. Most of the rituals are performed at night and some even have restrictions on women watching them.

Despite this, the festival has a presence on social media. On Facebook, people are adding photographs of Theyyam under the hastag NarikodeTheyyam2014Animesh Xavier, an artist and google plusser (Google+), wrote a review of the event for a TV station's website and sketched scenes from the Theyyam festivities.

Shaji Mullookkaran, an avid photographer and blogger, posted an invite on his Google Plus inviting everybody to join him at his home town at Narikode, Kannur in Kerala, for a Theyyam Photowalk this year, as he has been doing for the past years.

Picture by Shaji Mullookkaran, used with permission

A Theyyam performs as a goddess. Image by Shaji Mullookkaran, used with permission

Around twenty or more people, who are active on social media took up the invitation and accompanied Shaji to some of the major performances with cameras in hand. The result was some exquisite photographs of this intriguing world, where Gods descend to earth.

Kumar Upasana, who lives in Kuwait and made a short visit to Kerala, documented the Puthiya Bagavathy Theyyam in a short video:

Seena Viovin, a software engineer, took a collection of photographs from a woman's perspective:

Picture by Seena Viovin, used with permission

A Theyyam blessing a devotee. Image by Seena Viovin, used with permission

Photograph by Seena Viovin, used with permission

Helpers readying the head dress for the Theyyam. Image by Seena Viovin, used with permission

Photograph by Seena Viovin, used with permission

Two Theyyams perform at the temple premises. Image by Seena Viovin, used with permission

  • oxlaey

    Wonderful perspectives – One additional, intimate aspect is the highly personal interaction between the gods and the villagers – after the dance! Here a peak: http://youtu.be/vi6zHEMw2k0

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