Theyyam has many ironies and they emerge as soon as you start asking a question. These moments are what I think of as the ‘here we go again’ factors since however basic and simple the question the answer’s opening words will hurl you into a whirlpool of confusion. For instance you can spend an entire day with a knowledgeable theyyakkaran trying to get precise information on the identity of a particular deity. Yet it’s worth the struggle since, several hours later you have a precise answer: it all depends. I once spent three days learning about how a particular deity came down from heaven. As far as what actually happens is concerned she simply walks 9 times round the shrine, 9 times that take one into another mindset, into other worlds, each step spinning the mind off into a series of complex tangents and concepts. The mistake is to then think that it’s always like that since the exact opposite often applies: some things cannot be moved or changed, since they are set in stone and that’s it. No compromise. Yet nothing is ever quite what it seems. At one time I thought I would call the book ‘Sangalpam’ since what you see is not what you see but a stand in for something you cannot see.
I have chosen the four photographs that follow based both on an arbitrary waywardness and because I know both the people and the relevant deities, their seriousness and, above all, that they belong to the universe Theyyam encompasses.
While Theyyam is known for its spectacular makeup there are also deities who wear masks; one of them being the mercurial and uneasy Gulikan. Although his mask is now generally made of painted hardboard this one, belonging to the Ukkummal Chamundi shrine, is a rare exception. Yet it follows the rules, suggesting Gulikan’s larger than life appearance, highlighting his huge eyes and sharp teeth while the snakes rimming his mask remind us he is not to be trifled with. While it might seem that the size of the great ‘ears’ fashioned from tender coconut leaves will ensure that he hears everything, the real reason is to demonstrate his indefinable vastness. Lastly his body is smeared with rice paste, hinting at his connection with death, reminding us that it is Gulikan who takes life at the appointed time. On another level it also shows how urgency and team work accompany the dressing of even the simplest Theyyam: here no less than five people are involved in settling the mask that is already concealing the young man who, for the next few hours will manifest as one of Theyyam’s most popular deities. The man on the left is Murali Panikkar, a senior theyyakkaran, the uncle of the youth behind the mask and the son of the watching woman. At the same time, and from a personal standpoint, they are collectively the family who have not only guided me through Theyyam’s labyrinths but inducted me into their world.
The Vellatam of Thekkan Gulikan
This photograph is also of Gulikan, specifically his vellattam, the initial stage that precedes the Theyyam of Thekkan Gulikan, the so-called Southern version. The major difference is that, unlike the terrestrial Gulikans, he walks and jumps and runs on stilts. At a more down to earth level he is Prakashan Panikkar and the brother of Murali Panikkar’s wife, part of a large extended family. Yet what draws me to the image is the sense of certainty, not only giving us the assurance that this is Gulikan but suggesting his power and dignity.
Thondachan, sometimes called Vynada Kuluvan is a deity whose story began when Parvathy, annoyed by Shiva’s drinking, decided to have the date palm’s fruit shifted from the base of the trees to their topmost branches. Shiva’s anger was such that he slapped a hand hard down on his thigh, the sound so loud that a pregnant Thiyya lady immediately gave birth, 2 months early. Although Shiva then decided to employ her son—Kuluvan—to climb the trees and collect toddy for him he stressed that he was never to drink it or take any honey from the forest. As in all such stories he did both.
Punishment was immediate: he was thrown down to earth, landing in the forest, not only alone but deaf and blind. Yet since his birth had been caused by Shiva he possessed Shiva-amsham, an aspect of his divinity and, despite being born prematurely and therefore said to be ‘just like us but not so smart’, could see an ant at midnight on a black stone and hear a leaf fall in the midday sun.
Here the theyyakkaran, Suresh—Sura—Peruvannan, is Kulavan wandering blind in the forest, even though he carries a flaming pandam. The gift of a fortuitous photographic moment hides his eyes from us which are actually already hidden, covered by small silver eye-shields known as poykannu, false eyes. The two men closest to this beautiful Theyyam are both from its world, the others belonging to the shrine family.
The Thottams of the three Bhagavathis
Almost invariably once a Theyyam is made up and dressed it can sometimes be difficult to recognise the theyyakkaran. Only in the early rituals, specifically the thottam stage that precedes some Theyyams does the effect of the process they are undergoing become visible. Nowhere have I seen this so clearly as at the Mavicheri Sree Bhagavathi shrine in Payyanur where, despite each Bhagavathi manifesting separately as a Theyyam, they collectively conduct their thottams. As a result there is no way that the power of the three Theyyams can be questioned or, perhaps more importantly, that the focus of the three men can be doubted. They may look like people we know and recognise but at this point this is no longer the case. The essence of what a theyyakkaran does is to call a deity down from heaven. The power, concentration and intensity of these three men is enough for us to recognize that they possess that power.
(Cover pic: Ukkummal Chamundi/Prakashan Panikkar. All pictures by author Pepita Seth. Those who wish to contribute to her upcoming book In God's Mirror - The Theyyam Universe can mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org)