Theyyam is not just a dance form; it is a living cult that works on traditions, rituals and customs that are several thousands of years old.
A ritual form of worship, Theyyam is popular in Kerala and parts of Karnataka. Most of the performers belong to lower caste communities. However, Theyyam is considered as a God in itself so people gather to take their blessings.
Bridget and Raymond Alchin, who have studied Theyyam, say:
“There can be no doubt that a very large part of this modern folk religion is extremely ancient and contains traits which originated during the earliest periods of Neolithic, Chalcolithic settlement and expression.”
Theyyam’s characteristics are primitive and tribal at base. In many cult centers, blood offerings are made to the gods and bloody cockfights are held in their honor.
Though ancient in its roots, Theyyam has incorporated a lot into it over the years, making it a deep-rooted religion of millions. Theyyam includes spirit worship, ancestor worship, animal worship, gods and goddesses, and principles of Shaktiism, Shaivism and Vaishnavism.
Theyyam is like an open theater – taking place outside a shrine or under a sacred tree. The performances continue for 12 or 24 hours with a few breaks. After sunset, the performers don’t eat till the next day.
The ritual involves wearing an elaborate headdress and chanting of ritual songs. The dance steps are known as kalaasams, with each kalaasam lasting eight steps. There are around 400 types of Theyyam.