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Muthappan Theyyam disguised as Lord Vishnu - India

In India, you can attend to a popular Hindu ritual of worship called Theyyam. It is an ancestral cult for Hindu population, which is divided by castes.

The Theyyam worship is special because it involves all the castes and classes of the Hindu people living in the region. Theyyam is performed by male members of particular castes in most cases, but in the north of Kerala, some women do it to embody particular goddesses or heroins. Men from Malayan, Pulayan, Vannan, Anjoottan, Munnutton, Velan, Chungathan, Koppalan and Mayilon are part of the castes who perform Theyyam.

The performers of Theyyam are all members of the indigenous tribal community, and they have an important position in Theyyam. This is unique, since only in Kerala, do both the upper-caste Brahmins and lower-caste tribals share an important position in a major form of worship.

The term Theyyam is a corrupt form of Devam or God. People of the districts in which Theyyam happens consider the performers of the Theyyam itself as a deities and look forward to getting blessed from the Theyyam.

To get the appearance of super-human, original and colourful costume and make-up are used in Theyyam dances. An essential component of the costume of the Theyyam performer are the leaves of coconut tree, cut and made into different shapes and sizes. All the dancers wear a very special massive headgear with a structure that is usually prepared from arecanut tree and bamboo as it is for the « uduthukettu », the waist-dress. It takes hours to make up and prepare the dancers. It is part of the performer's specific skills to be able to craft the pieces of clothing, put the make-up on to another dancer, dance, sing, and know the stories of all the gods.

People from the village attend the metamorphosis. So the performer gets gradually dressed through the whole ceremony and is only fully dressed up at the peak of the ceremony. The face is decorated with red and yellow make up in intricate patterns. To make the costumes more attractive, red colored flowers are also sticked to the fancy dresses. The performance happens in front of the village and all the people can attend it. The devotees stand up or can be sitting on a sacred tree or stool in front of the shrine where the deity they are embodying are supposed to live.

Theyyam tells the story of people who lost their lives in battlefield, pangs of women who committed suicide or persons killed by the local chieftains. Such heroes or gods are honoured through theyyams, the ceremonies performed in front of shrines.


The dancer along with the drummers recites the particular ritual song, which describes the myths and legends of the deity of the shrine or the folk deity to be propitiated. The dancer comes in front of the shrine and gradually “metamorphoses” into the particular deity of the shrine.

There are about 450 known forms of « theyyams » and each has got its own myth and style of costumes, make-up, choreography and songs. After the dance, people also consult the performers because they can see the future. There is a charge for the consultation.


© Eric Lafforgue


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Taken on February 23, 2008