top of page


Thayyam, in Malayalam, refers to dawning of an immortal spirit, believed to be divine, into a mortal body. The festival, which celebrates this marvel, is thus called Thayyam too! Theyyam also recognized as Kaliyattam or Thirayattam, is one of the most awe-inspiring folk arts of Kerala.

As the name Kaliyattam signifies, it is a sacred ritual dance performed to venerate the goddess Kaali; the fierce looking dark-complexioned Hindu Goddess. The term 'Theyyam' is believed to be the corrupted form of the Malayalam word 'Daivam', meaning Divine person (or God). According to a legend, Parasuram, the creator of Kerala, sanctioned the festival Kaliyattam to the people of Kerala. It earned the name Thirayattam as every thira or village stages this ritualistic art at the village temple recognized as kaavu. The festival of Theyyam begins from the 10th day of the Malayalam month Thulam (October/November) and concludes by the end of June.

Theyyam is a prevalent ritual dance form of North Kerala, especially in Kannur and Kasargod districts. Typically, Theyyam narrates a mythological lore involving a divine or heroic character. The art has only men performs, who also play female roles, wearing exotic make up and colourful costumes.

There are around 400 kinds of Theyyams performed in northern Kerala. Unlike other dance forms of Kerala which are mostly theatrical, Theyyam is always performed in front of village temples, without any stage or curtains.


Costume of the Theyyam is what lends grandiosity to this spectacular dance form. The costume includes leaf dress, headdress, breast plates, arm ornaments, bangles, garland and additional body decorations are prepared by the artists for performance. Some part of these costumes are made up using tender coconut leaves and hence can only be used for a single performance. Making these ornaments and accessories involves high level of skill and expertise.

Make up of Theyyams performers are done by the traditional make-up experts; most of whom learnt the skill from their elders. Face painting is done in various ways, using primarily and secondary colours, obtained from natural substance only. Hence it is important that the makeup artist has vast knowledge of creating combinations of primary and secondary colours using natural pigments. Since the face painting is done with strict adherence to the traditional rules, it takes about 4-6 hours to complete the face painting. No brushes are used. Hands, twigs and coconuts leaves are the only tools for the make-up artist.


First element of the performance is known as 'Thottam' (the invocation). It is performed at night devoid of any proper make up or decorative costume. Merely a small red head dress is worn on this occasion.

The second stage is the performance of various ceremonies before the actual manifestation. The last stage is the most serious and crucial part of the Theyyam. It is the actual manifestation of the divine spirit. Here, the dancer resurfaces in the proper make up and costumes; representing a mythological or divine character. The spirit of that Theyyam migrates into the artist who has accepted that spirit. It is believed that the god or goddess arrives in the midst of the gathering through the medium of the possessed dancer. The dancer throws rice on the audience and distributes mixture of rice and turmeric powder as symbols of blessings. It is believed that the Theyyam has curative powers.


There are various kinds of Thayyam. The difference is based on the deity and the hero whose tale is being spoken. One of the themes is Kandanar Kelan. The story goes like this. A person called Kelan, hailing from Theeya caste, came to a hilly area in search of his employment through farming. One day, a bit intoxicated, he set fire to shrubs in the farmland to clean up the place for cultivation. The fire broke out of control and Kelan got stuck. Unable to find a way out, Kelan climbed a tree, as the last resort. Unfortunately, there was a snake on the tree. Following a struggle, both Kelan and snake fell into the fire and died. Vayanatt kulavan; a village deity, on seeing the burnt body of Kandanar Kelan, touched Kelan’s body with his bow. Kelan’s life was revived. Kandanar Kelan after resurrection, befriended Wayanatt Kulavan. Thus, Kandanar Kelan also become divine and started being performed as Theyyam. As Kelan was found in the forest fire, he became known Kandanar Kelan. Before the Vellattom of Kandanar Kelan, the hunters would go to the forest and return back with their catch. One of the catches is burnt in the fire and theyyam performance includes an act of partaking the meat.

Vishnumoorthi Theyyam

The extremely popular part of the Vaishnava Theyyam is the portrayal of Vishnumoorthi. It is related with Nileshwar and Jeppu Kudupady - Mangalore. It tells the narrative of Palanthai Kannan, a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. Palanthai Kannan, an autochthonous of Nileshwar village. Trying to pick mangoes from a mango tree possessed by Kuruvat Kurup; without thinking of his age or the thirst for food, Kuruvat Kurup and his security guards trounced him and drove him away from Nileshwar. After that incident, Palanthai Kannan moved to Jeppu Kudupady - Mangalore, Kunchadka - Sullia and took refuge in a Vishnu temple there. During his stay, he acquired the blessings of Lord Vishnu and years later, he reverted to his homeland, Nileshwar. Receiving the news, Kuruvat Kurup and his men came to the Kadalikulam and killed Palanthai Kannan. God Vishnu who accompanied his ardent devotee Palanthai Kannan was provoked and destroyed the everything around Kuruvat Tharavad. Kuruvat Kurup got terrified and called up an astrologer. He identified the presence of God and advised Kurup to a make a Kettikkolam for lord Vishnu and build a shrine for the God.Kuruvat Kurup and his family members build a shrine for the god Vishnu by carrying stones by themselves and also made a Kettikkolam for the God. That time onwards, he became known as the Vishnumoorthi and began to reside in Vaikundeswara Temple, Kottappuram, Nileshwar.


Uchitta Theyyam is known as Adiyeri Madathil Uchitta Bhagavathi. This Theyyam is performed specially in the mystical homes. Uchitta Theyyam is principally performed in the magical homes like Kalakattu, Kattumadam, Puthillam, Poonthottam etc. Uchitta got the name for laughing aloud. A beautiful Devi who is the most important Devi among Manthra Moorthy and Pancha Moorthy.

It is believed that Uchitta Devi is born from God Agni as soon as a piece of the bright shining Agni fell on to the Lotus on which Lord Brahmadeva sits. Brahma Deva sends Uchitta to Mahadeva through Kamadeva and upon the request of Bhoomi Devi Uchitta Devi later went to Earth as human to serve the mankind. Another myth says that Uchitta is Yogamaya, the sister of Sree Krishna. Uchitta loudly announced the birth of Sree Krishna, the killer of Kamsa. Uchitta since being born of Agni Deva performs by sitting and laying on fire and plays with fire. Uchitta Theyyam is a funny Theyyam and favourite among ladies. This Theyyam is performed by people from the caste Malayan and Velan.


Neeliyar Bhagavathi is a Theyyam ritual performed in the northern part of Kerala. The term Neeliyar Bhagavathi describes the goddess of the Mangattuparamba Neeliyar temple; the ritual is mainly performed in this temple.

Corresponding to legend, in Kottiyoor, Kannur, lived a lower-caste woman called Neeli who was exceptionally beautiful and intelligent. She was assassinated by the local ruler. After her death, Neeli became the Goddess Neeliyar Bhagavathi. When alive, Neeli resided near a sandbank; After her death, whenever travellers came near the river next to this place, Neeliyar Bhagavathi would ask if they wanted oil and a Thaali leaf (applied in the place of soap in ancient time) prior to their bath. Whoever said yes and went near her was caught, whereupon the Goddess Neeliyar Bhagavathi would suck their blood. Whoever went near the river would never return home. Once, an individual called Kalakkad Namboothiri went there for a bath and saw Neeliyar Bhagavathi. The Goddess asked him his name; he replied saying he was Kalakkad; and the Goddess told him that she was Kali. She subsequently gave him oil and a thaali leaf. Kalakkad sipped the oil and thaali juice stating that it was Amruthu (nectar) given to him by his mother. On seeing this, the Goddess was very delighted on being referred to as the mother, and so she spared his life. She also accompanied him on his way to the west. Neeliyar Bhagavathi then divulged that she was a Goddess and said she would like to dwell in a temple where the tiger and cow live together peacefully. On their journey, Kalakkad Nambhoothiri saw a cow and tiger co-existing in Mangattuparambu, and so he put down his umbrella (made from the leaves of a palm tree) and rested there. The Goddess was accompanying him by riding on the top of the umbrella and opted to stay at the place. Kalakkad Nambhoothiri subsequently set up a temple for the Goddess at the location.

(* Source of text are various information from web and as per local people information)

100 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page