Theyyam or Theyyaattam is a pattern of hero worship performed in Kolathunaad, a territory comprising the present Cannanore District and Badagara Taluk of Kerala State. It is a ritual and a folk-dance form supported by a vast literature of folk songs. Theyyam is a corruption for Deyvam ‘God’. 'Aattam' means dance. Thus 'Theyyaattam' means the God’s Dance.In Kolathunaad and other places (Southern portion of Kolathunaad), Theyyam is known as Thira or Thirayaattam. There, the performance is conducted on a masonry stage called Thara and the word Tharayaattam was probably changed into Thirayaattam in course of time. The term Thirayaattam itself may mean beautiful dance.  

Mythical Origins
The person who plays and personifies the deity is generally called ‘Kolam’. The word Kolam means figure or shape or make-up in Tamil and Malayalam. In Tulunad, north of Kolathunaad, the custom of Kolam dance is widely prevalent as a form of worship of the Bhootas or spirits. There, the dance was conducted before the sthaanams, where the Bhoothas or the spirits used to reside.
As the result of Aryan colonization of Thuluva and Kolathunaad, the Brahmanical religion became deep rooted in this territory. The Brahminic concepts of Gods and deities were accepted by the indigenous people of Kolathunaad. But even then the old folk-cult of Velan Veriyat and spirit worship remained as a system of worship for the native. The rituals remained unchanged and the tradition was not abandoned by the people. Vishnumoorthi, Pottan, Chaamundi, Rakteshwari and Bhagavathi became new deities for the village folk of Kolathunaad along with their primitive deities of spirits and heroes.   The cult of Bhagavathi became so dominant in the social life of Kolathunaad that no village of this area could be found without a shrine or kaavu of a Bhagavathi. The Bhagavathi at Maappiticheri was known as Maappiticheri Bhagavathi and the Bhagavathi at Kannangot was known as Kannangot Bhagavathi. Many of these Bhagavathis have their own Theyyaattam or Thirayaattam at their shrines as annual festivals. Some of these Bhagavathis have big temples and daily offerings strictly conforming to the Brahmanical ritualism. 

Castes Involved
Velan is one of the castes that performs Thirayaattam or Theyyaattam in Kolathunaad. The term Vellaattam which denotes the introductory performance of the deity in the evening without ceremonial make-up and dress, represents the combination of the words Velan and Attam. Thus Velan is a noted authority of this folk dance. In Kolathunaad and other areas the Velan is known by the term Munnutton and northern areas of Kolathunaad by the term Anjutton.   Besides the communities of Velan, Malayan and Vannan are the predominant communities that perform Theyyams in Kolathunaad. Both these castes are the indigenous tribes of Kerala. Among them there are good traditional physicians and good folk-dancers. The tradition of folk-dance in Kerala was kept alive by these people. Even though they are untouchable to the Brahmins, the Theyyams performed by them were worshipped by Brahmins also. This native tradition, caused the cultural integration of the migrated Brahmins with the native people.The other communities which perform Theyyaattams are Mavilan, Vettuvan, Pulayan and Koppalan. These tribes used to perform Theyyaattams in memory of their deceased ancestors. But these Theyyaattams are not so colourful and artistic in comparison to those of other castes like Velan, Vannaan and Malayan. The Theyyaattam by Pulayar and Vettuvar remain good examples of the spirit worship done by these tribal people. 

One of the salient features of Theyyaattam is its colourful costume. The typical waist dress of heroes is found in Kativanoor veeran. This is called Arayota or Vattoda or Atukkum Chiraku and made out of splices of bamboos and covered by red cloth. For a few Theyyams, especially the ones played with Malayan, this waist dress is woven out of coconut leaves. The Theyyams like Vishnumoorthi and Pottan require this dress especially as they leap into the fire.
  Above the waist dress the naked body is painted with different native colours. The particular system of painting the body of a Theyyam differs from that of other Theyyams. Parunthuvaal Ezhuthu (eagle’s tail) and Anchupulli Ezhuthu (five dots) are some technical terms for body painting. For painting the faces of the players Praakkezhuthu, Sankezhuthu, Naagam Thathal Ezhuthu, Varezhuthu, Narikurichezhuthu and Kattaramezhuthu are a few well known systems widely adopted. The head-dress or Muti also differs from Theyyam to Theyyam. Some well known Mutis used for Theyyaattams are Pookkatti, Ponmuti, Vattamuti, Chattamuti, Valiyamuti, Kondalmuti, Puthachamuti, Onkaramuti and Peelimuti. These Mutis are made out of bamboo splices and wooden planks which are covered with coloured cloth, flowers and coconut leaves. In new Mutis, peacock feathers are also used. The Theyyams of Kshetrapaalan and a few Bhagavathis use nearly 50 or 60 feet high long crowns or Mutis made out of arecanut tree and bamboo splices. These crowns are supported by long bamboos which are held by several helpers to keep the balance when placed upon the head of the player. According to the local customs, these long crowns are either covered with coloured cloth or thatched with coconut leaves. Some Theyyams of Bhagavathis wear a silver diadem of small serpents heads crowned with red flowers. A huge golden collar elaborately carved of wood and set with fancy jewels is worn in some items. The female deities wear ornaments and a wooden breast called mularu. The Theyyams of Othenan and Baali wear round crowns called kireetam. The same kireetam is used in Kathakali performance. In a few Theyyams like Pottan, masks made out of the leaf sheaths of arecanut and wooden planks are used.   The breasts of goddesses are generally covered with glittering ornaments and make-up known as Ezhutharam (Seven models). All male and female Theyyams wear bangles called Katakam and Chutakam and small anklets on the feet. In the case of Bhagavathis in Roudra mood, (fearful appearance) torches are appended to the waist and the crown produces a terrible appearance

Musical Instruments
Drum, Cymbal, Kuzhal, Perumbara, Conch, Cherututi, Utukku and Chermangalam are well known musical instruments used in Theyyaattam. The rhythm of the playing of these instruments varies from Theyyam to Theyyam. The continuous playing with measured interludes helps to make the performance very interesting. According to the rhythm of the instruments, the same instrumental players recite Thottams also of the particular deity.   The Thottam or the song related to the particular Theyyam deity is recited by the player and by the singers in the background. 


The Theyyam dance is classified as Thaandava or the masculine and Laasya or the feminine. Both styles are adopted in Theyyaattam according to the context and character of the deity. Inward, outward and circular movements with agile and light steps give these dances a more graceful style. The measures and steps of the dances correspond to the words of the song. Chekor Kalasam, Onnaam Kalasam, Eduthu Kalasam, Chavitti Thullal, Parakkam and Thiriyal denote the various processes of the dance.
  Generally, this festival and its performances continue for three days. On the night of the first day, the performance starts at the kaavu with drumbeats. After this, there is the kolam dance and the Thottam which reveal the summary of the rituals that would be performed on the next day.   The pooja is conducted to the deities, who are not only in the temple but also outside the sanctum–sanctorum. As a prelude to the performance, the ilamkolam or vellaattukolam arrive with kotivilakku in their hands. Their make-up is very simple. No formal make-up is made on the face. The player prays for the appearance of the particular deity. The prayer or murmuring is called orayal or prophecy. He recites a few lines and requests for the presence of the deity, which is called Varavili. Each Theyyam has its own separate varavili or praising the deity. On concluding the Varavili, the player begins the dance with its several attractive kalaasams.   Finally, he distributes Adayaalam or Kuri (Powder of turmeric) to his devotees along with rice. While giving adayaalam to his devotees, the player pronounces blessings also. If the performance is in a household shrine, the player would declare that the deity would reside in the house and create prosperity and pleasure for ever. When the Theyyam speaks during the time of bestowing blessings to the persons of different communities, the player addresses them in symbolic terms referring to their castes.At the end of the performance the devotees donate coins to the shrine. Finally the musical instruments are played once again and the devotees throw rice towards the Theyyam and he casts off the crown in front of the shrine.

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