It’s a little past midnight and the courtyard of the Kamballur Kottayil household in Kerala’s northernmost Kasaragod district is gradually filling up. More than a dozen tube-lights, hoisted on wooden poles, have lit up the place. Women, old and young, seat themselves on plastic chairs, or wherever they can find a place. The men prefer to stick around the three sides of the courtyard, but not too far away, so they don’t miss the action. A mini ice-cream truck, set up in the bushes nearby, is making brisk business.
Close to 1 am, a clutch of men begin to beat the chenda, a traditional percussion instrument, to signal the start of the famous Kamballur Mappila Chamundi Theyyam. One of northern Kerala’s ancient dance forms, Theyyam broadly encompasses Hindu ritualistic tenets. But in some places, mythological lore is enmeshed with the area’s social history to introduce Muslim, or Mappila, characters in Theyyam. Kamballur’s is one such fascinating example.
The lore goes that Kalanthan, an Imam or mukri, at the nearby Pulingom mosque, was fishing in the Kollada river using poisonous fish berries. Suddenly, he sees a bright source of light on the other bank. He immediately jumps into the river and swims to that side. But on reaching there, he sees that the divine source of light has moved to the bank where he stood earlier. He once again begins to swim to the other bank. But midway, Kalanthan experiences a force tugging at his feet and pulling him into the depths of the river. Though he desperately tries to stay afloat, he eventually drowns and his body is discovered by the locals floating on the surface the next day.
It’s believed that Kalanthan was slayed by the goddess Chamundi, who also happens to be the chief deity of the Kamballur Kottayil Nair household. In ensuing astrological tests, Chamundi relays the message that Kalanthan has merged into the divine and therefore needs to be worshipped along with her. That’s how, every year at Kamballur Kottayil household, the Mappila Chamundi theyyam becomes a central attraction and a marker of Hindu-Muslim amity.
The theyyam proceedings at Kamballur commence with the Kalanthan mukri offering namaz inside an arched gateway at the northern end of the compound. His eyes bulging out as he scans the area, the mukri shouts, ‘Allahu Akbar’ and sprints to the centre of the courtyard. Meanwhile, the chamundi, with intricate face-paint, ornate headgear and a waist-dress made of finely-sliced tender coconut leaves, makes her entry from the western side of the household.
As the crowds watch on with folded hands, the chamundi and the mukri face-off in a dramatic re-enactment of the mythical tale, their feet tapping in absolute synchronisation to the beats of the chenda.
In the course of the duel, eventually, the goddess wrests mukri’s mace and shield, signalling her victory over him. For the next few minutes, they dance together, indicating that they have become one, and waving their hands in an act of blessing the public. Afterwards, devotees, including Hindus and Muslims, line up to relay their complaints and receive blessings from the duo.
The concept of the Mappila Chamundi theyyam underscores the harmonious relationship that existed between feudal Hindus and Mappilas (Muslims) in the area, that continues to this day. Every year, a senior member of the Kamballur Kottayil Nair household is consulted before the annual schedule of the Makham Urs festivities at the Pulingome mosque is prepared.
Theyyam and its socio-cultural construct
For centuries, theyyam has been a mainstay of socio-cultural life in Kerala’s northern Malabar region, encompassing the present-day districts of Kasaragod, Kannur and a few parts of Kozhikode and Wayanad. Etymologically, the word ‘theyyam’ is believed to be a colloquial derivative of ‘daivam’, meaning God in Malayalam. This could be true, considering how a Theyyam artist, in the course of his performance that lasts a couple of hours, is considered to attain a divine form.
The beauty of theyyam lies in its fluidity and how it embodies different forms of tribal and primitive religion on its canvas, breaking away from the rigid contours of religious worship. So, one can find local spirits and goddesses, family ancestors, village deities, tribal heroes and even Muslim characters from mythical tales finding a spot in the theyyam pantheon.
Each of these forms are to be propitiated in myriad ways, sometimes in bizarre fashion. Some theyyams like to sit on burning hot coals, another one may thrash believers if provoked. There are some like the Uchitta theyyam that even takes a bath in the middle of a performance. Such customs may appear strange to the untrained eye. But for the native community, they are normal and in fact central to its worship of the theyyam.
“In temples normally, you cannot touch the deity. You need an intermediary like the priest. Here (in theyyam), you can touch your God. The interaction is very direct,” explains KK Gopalakrishnan, who is working on a book on theyyams.
In Malabar’s social setting, theyyam occupies a pivotal position due to its treatment of caste. It stands out from other Hindu ritualistic forms of worship by upending the conventional caste hierarchy. It is staged by Dalit men, belonging to different subaltern communities like vannan, peruvannan, malayan, mavilan, velan and many others, mostly in temples, upper-caste households and ‘kavus’ (sacred groves).
For centuries, they remained exploited and oppressed under the yoke of the upper castes, but the few hours of theyyam offer them an opportunity — of being revered and sometimes even feared. For the few hours during which they transform into gods and goddesses, people of all castes and hues line before them, their heads bowed, seeking their blessings. Such subversion of the caste system is what makes theyyam attractive to the masses.
Role of theyyam in present-day political setting
It’s almost paradoxical that a region, exposed to such fascinating cultural strains, has in recent decades become a bloody battleground between the Left and the Right. The hostilities between the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS-BJP) combine, seen as a phenomenon post-Emergency, have dubbed the Malabar region ‘the killing fields of Kerala”.
Figures say some 69 people have been killed from both camps between 2000 and 2016, even though their rivalry stretched back to the 70s. Background checks and police FIRs have revealed that it’s the workers at the grass-root level of both parties, belonging to impoverished backgrounds, who become pawns in the political enmity.
Kerala’s political arena has been dominated since the 50s by two main coalitions led by the CPI(M) and the Congress. Smaller parties like the Kerala Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) maintain their own vote-banks and attach to the two main coalitions according to their convenience. These political equations have largely remained undisturbed despite the strengthening of the BJP at the national level and its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, holding the country’s most number of shakhas in the state.
But in northern Malabar, the feuds between the CPM and the RSS-BJP, mostly at the local level, have had cultural, social and religious undertones. Both groups vie for influence among the same vote-bank, the Hindus, for political and cultural gains. The CPM, to a great extent, has been able to cash in on the support politically, while the RSS hasn’t been able to do the same for its political arm, the BJP.
This is where theyyam comes in.
Amid deep unrest between both parties, the ancient folk dance form has been successful as a great unifier, in helping build relationships and setting the stage for a community devoid of political differences. And so, across Kannur and Kasaragod, one can see CPM and RSS activists shedding their animosities and working together to help organise theyyam performances. Such performances also reflect in many ways the dance form’s central theme — a caste-less, class-less united society.
Says Gopalakrishnan, “The RSS-CPM killings mostly happened in Koothuparambu-Thalassery belt where there are ‘party villages’ with culverts or electricity poles as markers. But further north of the Valappattanam river, where theyyam is performed, there are hardly any killings. People may belong to different parties, but when there’s a theyyam performance, they all join in.”
As a party, the CPM is atheist in character and frowns upon subscribing to any religious beliefs. But in Kerala, the party has never officially forbidden its members from participating in religious ceremonies. It understands that the state may have a ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ character, but essentially, it is deeply religious.
The theyyam in many ways also aligns with the core communist ideology and principle: that of raising the voice of the oppressed against majoritarian bourgeois ways.
Chandran, a local, remarks, “The CPM is actually concerned about the inroads the Sangh Parivar is making among lower-class Hindu communities. Therefore, it seeks to engage more effectively with people, becoming part of temple committees and helping organise theyyam performances. It doesn’t want to lose its connection with the people.”