Theyyam: the ritual dance in Kerala, India

Kerala in South India has many popular traditional dance forms like Kathakali, Kutiyattam or Theyyam. Kathakali is an impressive form of classical dance and a wonderful combination of dance, drama, music and religious theme. The presentation is usually based on the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu poem about the divine prince Rama and his wife Sita. Kutiyattam (or Koodiyattam) is a form of Sanskrit theatre and one of India’s oldest living theatrical traditions. It represents a synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and reflects the local traditions of Kerala. Both art forms, Kathakali and Kutiyattam, are performed all over Kerala, but mostly in and around Kochi.

Theyyam dancer, India

Theyyam on the other hand is only found in the northern part of Kerala. The performers of Theyyam always belong to the lower caste. Like Kathakali and Kutiyattam, Theyyam is also a traditional ritual dance form. However, in Theyyam the dancers and performers not only play the deities, during the performance they lose their physical identity and finally impersonate the god and receive magical power. Therefore the blessing of the devotees is an important part at the end of a Theyyam ceremony.

There are over 450 forms of Theyyam, each being unique in style, music and distinct costumes, Theyyam is generally performed in kavus (sacred groves) or small village temples. The main attractions of Theyyam are the vibrant costumes and the elaborate headgear of the artists. The face-painting, the costumes and the headwear help the performers to personify the gods, goddesses and spirits. The make-up and the headgear demand long hours of preparation prior to the performance. Only men are allowed to perform, and only men are allowed to enter the center place around the temple shrine, where the Theyyam dance is performed in form of an open theatre.

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The peak season of the Theyyam ceremonies is during December and February. The best place to see the ceremonies is in a village temple in the region around Kannur. Often the performances start early in the morning before dawn. The dancers are illuminated by several bonfires and accompanied by wild drumming. A whole ceremony continues usually up to 10 or 12 hours with a break and blessings after each dance performance. The best way to attend a Theyyam is to hire a guide with an auto rickshaw because the small village temples are not easy to find. Most guesthouses or hotels know the date of Theyyams ceremonies and can connect the tourists to trusted guides. Foreigners are always welcome to attend the religious rituals and photography is permitted. Unlike many Kathakali dances in Kochi only for tourists, the religious Theyyam ceremonies are always authentic and usually only few tourists attend the dances.

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