06.03.2014 - 07.07.2014
Last night we awoke at 3 AM to attend a Theyyam, a local religious ceremony, native to this area of northern Kerala. There are many different kinds of Theyyam's, and each one held in a different community is somewhat unique. The custom of ritual worship appears to go back thousands of years. It is rather difficult to figure out the meaning , at least for outsiders, but the one we attended seemed to have aspects related to fertility, coming of age, and even house warming.
Wikipedia says the following:
It can be said that all the prominent characteristics of primitive, tribal, and religious worship has widened the stream of the Theyyam cult, where "even the followers of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspect," and made it a deep-rooted folk religion of millions. For instance, the cult of Bhagawathi, the Mother Goddesses, had and still has, an important place in Theyyam. Besides this, the practices of spirit-worship, ancestor-worship, hero-worship, masathi-worship, tree-worship, animal worship, serpent-worship, the worship of the Goddesses of disease, and the worship of Graamadevataa, (Village-Deity) are included in the main stream of the Theyyam cult. Along with these Gods and Goddesses, there exist innumerable folk Gods and Goddesses. Most of these Goddesses are known as Bhagavathy (the Mother-Goddess that is the Divine and United form of the three principal Goddesses namely, Brahmani (Saraswati), Vaishnavi (Lakshmi), and Shivani (Durga).
Unfortunately, our driver showed up almost an hour late. Just when we had given up and gone back to bed, the other couple who was going with us knocked on our door to tell us he was here. We piled into his Tata Nano, a lot like a smart car, but cheaper, and we drove the 15K over very pot holed roads to the village where the ceremony was taking place. There were several hundred onlookers, men, women, and children, but we appeared to be the only foreigners This was clearly the real deal, and not something being done for the benefit of tourists.
It seemed we were not that late, as the first of three avatar Gods was being fitted out with an enormous headdress and face mask just as we arrived. After a short while, he began to dance around, accompanied by a cadre of furious drummers, conch shell blowers, as well as the occasional blast of what sounded like a renaissance sackbut (an elongated trumpet).
After a time, he was joined by some other man, also with an enormous headdress, rather large artificial breasts, and a face mask with several flaming torches set about three feet from his face and attached somehow to his costume. His headdress was also set aflame in various places. There was more drumming while he went around blessing everyone with yellow powder.
At odd moments, there were earth shaking booms of what sounded like cherry bombs, and then some actual fireworks.
A young teenage boy was then dressed in palm leaves and face mask. He danced to even more rapid drumming, and proceeded to gather the village elders, all men of course, and then blessed each one in turn. One of them became so emotional over this that he started to cry. Perhaps this was the boy's father?
After a time, the teenager was fitted out with even longer palm leaves which covered most of his body. In the meantime, a bonfire had been started in the back, and by now, had died down to a large and very hot bed of coals. After much preparation and blessings by the head Brahmin, he was led back to the coals and placed on top of them face up, but head resting on the coals. He was there for several minutes until his palm leaves started to catch fire, at which time he was lifted out and the flames tamped down, although his head and back were still smoking This happened repeatedly, perhaps a half dozen times. This was clearly the culmination of the ceremony.
Several hours had gone by since we arrived, and by now it was 8 AM and the sun was fully out. Finally, not wanting to miss breakfast back at the guesthouse, we decided to leave, although it was unclear whether or not the boy was finished with his ordeal.
It was quite an evening.