Theyyam : A Ritual Art Form of North Kerala

Villagers playing Chenda Drums for Theyyam


My thirst for adventure, food and culture took me to Kerala where I spent more than nine months. I explored the coffee plantations, tasted finger-licking food and witnessed one my favourite dance forms – Theyyam. Each region of Kerala has its own unique dance form and I could spend a lifetime knowing about all of them. After spending few months to understand ‘Theyyam’, I realised that this art form runs really deep. North Kerala (Malabar) is known for some of the unique and colourful dance forms like Theyyam and Kalaripayattu. They also have many native Muslim dance forms like Duffmuttu, Kolkali, and Oppana.

Theyyam: Depiction of Ancient Folk Tales

Theyyam, which is also known as ‘Kaliyattam’ or ‘Thirayattam’, is celebrated each year with much pomp and rigour. I walked across Kannur in the wee hours to see this dance being performed live. The performance starts in afternoon and continues till next morning. The experts are of the opinion that Indian classical dance forms do not have a beginning or an end. They can be performed as long as the artist chooses to.

Theyyam is a sacred ritual that is performed to worship the Hindu Goddess ‘Kali’. Theyyam performance includes a mix of dance and mime over music with depiction of ancient folk tales that enshrine the rudiments of tribal culture. It is a way of reciting stories of the Gods and celestial spirits from Kerala. Theyyam is based on the belief that immortal spirits enter into mortal bodies to perform a ritual dance in front of the shrines for the well-being of the society and the family.

Different Forms of Theyyam

There are various forms of Theyyam, and each can be distinguished through the use of facial make-up, captivating headgear, distinct colourful costume, body decoration with natural resources, and unique ornaments. Most variations of Theyyam are performed by men, however, only one of the forms called ‘Devakkooth Theyyam’ is performed by women. An important part of Theyyam is the resonant beat created by Chenda, which is a cylindrical wooden drum having loud and rigid sound. Each form of Theyyam is attached to a different beat on a Chenda. It starts with a soft beat and then elevates to end with faster and louder beats.

There are more than 200 forms of Theyyam performed across North Kerala. I am sharing with you the stories behind the select few that I could manage to grasp during the course of my stay in Kerala.

Villagers playing Chenda Drums for Theyyam
Chenda drums churn out loud yet soulful music during the performance

  “There are more than 200 forms of Theyyam dance in Kerala”

1. Gulikan Theyyam

‘Gulikan Theyyam’ is an enthralling performance. The dancing mortal body of the artist projects ‘Yama’, the Hindu God of Death. According to Hindu scriptures, Gulikan was created by Lord Shiva. During the act, they showcase how Lord Shiva threw Gulikan on the ground in rage after his wife Parvati expressed her fear of Gulikan. During the performance, I looked straight into the eyes of the artist and had a spine-chilling experience. Gulikan Theyyam is usually performed early morning for more than an hour.

The performer wears a typical mask, which has Lord Shiva‘s ‘trishul’ (trident) marked on the head. He has round and fiery eyes, teeth resembling chisel, bamboo leaves as hair, and legs decorated with coconut barks. A unique mix of coconut leaves is used as ornaments to decorate the area around the clothes. Tender coconut leaves are used at waist and various places, which make it an integral part of Gulikan.

The most innovative and creative ornament is the headgear made of bamboo decorated with tender leaves, which looked like huge ladder on the head. Gulikan is unique.On one hand, it is known for its fearsome performances (especially when the artists doe aerobatics on fire), and on other hand it is known for its comical behaviour and indulgence in frivolity.


Makeup of Gulikan for Theyyam
Getting Gulikar Theyyam performer dressed
Gulikan Theyyam performance
Gulikan Theyyam performer does entertaining acts for kids
Gulikan Theyyam performing headgear
Gulikan Theyyam performer’s main attraction is the headgear

2. Sree Muthappan Theyyam

‘Lord Muthappan’ is the local deity of Parassinikadavu temple in Kannur district. Muthappan Theyyam is performed throughout the year whereas other Theyyams are performed only from October to May. Human incarnation of Lord Muthappan is dressed very intricately and characteristically. Like other forms, it is believed that while performing this Theyyam, Muthappan enters the performer’s body and the performer becomes God until the ritual is complete. During the ritual, fish and toddy (palm wine) are offered to Muthappan.

The devotees sing songs to keep the act going. There are different acts in Muthappan Theyyam that depict the life of a young boy as well as an old man. The costume is adorned with armlets, upper armbands, breast pieces and jazzy waistbands with mirror work, all of which combine to create an gaudy apparel. The makeup takes more than four to five hours, and the performer is treated with dignity. The headgear is unique and remarkable with several layers of plaited straw decorated with Tulasi – the holy Basil Sanctum – and decorative mirror work, which replicates Lord Shiva’s matted locks. The mouthgear depicts Lord Muthappan as an old man.

Sree Muthappan Theyyam blessing devotees
Sree Muthappan Theyyam blesses the devotees while chanting
Sree Muthappan Theyyam performer
Sree Muthappan Theyyam performer with lovely make-up
Eye make up of Gulikan Theyyam
Facial make-up of Theyyam performer where each line has significance
Facial make up of Gulikan Theyyam
Facial make-up is very charismatic and creative

3. Puthiya Bhagavathi Theyyam

In ‘Puthiya Bhagavathy Theyyam’, the performer wears a very bright and big headgear, which is sometimes even lit by fire. The reason for fire is that Lord Mahadeva sent his two daughters to earth to conduct a ritual called ‘homan’ (sacrificial fire) to eradicate all evils from the society and the neighbourhood. The ritual of offering fresh blood of hen to Goddess Bhagavathi is still practised today. The costume of the performer is studded with various chisels; the face has loud colours and the head gear is a mix of mirror work. The performer wears beautiful head-dress has a halo of palm spines that look like a giant circular saw blade, coconut shell breasts, and the wool based hand ornaments. Red is the prominent colour.

Puthiya Bhagavathy Theyyam performer
Puthiya Bhagavathy Theyyam performer’s main attraction is headgear
Puthiya Bhagavathy Theyyam Listening to devotees
Puthiya Bhagavathy Theyyam listens to the miseries of the devotees

“Theyyam is a social and magical-religious observance”

While I am passionate about Indian dance, I think it would be worth studying the various dance forms and unique folk stories behind each of them. So, which one are you going to

explore next?