Role of Martial Arts in ‘Theyyam’ of North Kerala

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Role of Martial Arts in ‘Theyyam’ of North Kerala

Theyyam is a very popular ritual form of worship practiced among people of North Malabar in Kerala state, India, predominant in Kasargod-Kannur Districts of Kerala state. The word Theyyam is derived from Devam or God. People of these districts consider Theyyam itself as a God and they seek blessings from this Theyyam. A similar custom is followed in the Tulu Nadu region of neighbouring Karnataka known as Bhuta Kola. A Theyyam is an artistic performance that could be described as a mix between dance and Kalaripayattu.

The costumed performers dance while holding weapons of the Kalari. Swords, shields, spears and urumi are often used. There are approximately 400 types of Theyyam and among these, there are some theyyams which showcase extraordinary power, through difficult martial arts and also walk on fire during the performance. Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam and Kandanar Kelan Theyyam are the most famous theyyams which practice such risky acts during the ritual.

Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam

Training to become a Theyyam performer begins at around eight years old. Most performers of the arts also train in Kalaripayattu because the movements used are based on those of the Kalari and the weapons are the same. Most Theyyam routines are based on famous warriors. For example, there is a Thacholi Othenan Theyyam, which features an Urumi, and a Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam. At the temple, the myth is told like a song, flowing through the voice of the narrator, with the sound of the drum as gentle interjections. The “Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam” is the legend of a hero Mannappan who lost his life during a war. The performer will play a hero who was an outstanding martial arts prodigy. The sorrowful tale of the journey of the hero Mannappan, later deified as the Kathivanoor Veeran. Mannappan excelled in martial arts since he was a child and continued to study them as he grew and Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam is performing martial arts with ‘Urumi’ and other weapons with the background sound of Chenda.

Kandanar Kelan Theyyam

Kandanar Kelan Theyyam is another famous Theyyam performed in the temples of North Kerala which has a close connection to the Kalaripayattu martial art. Kandanar Kelan Theyyam also performs based on Kalari practices and during the ritual the performance is done with the background sound of Chenda and other instruments. The myth is sung through the voice of the narrator. The story gets more and more intense as the night progresses. The percussionists strike the drums even harder. A melodious sound flows from the trumpet. The Theyyam, bearing the finished ornamentations on his head, makes the fierce expressions of a warrior as he marks the rhythm with his feet, jumping high and dancing in mid-air.

Also, the Theyyam jumps to the fire and walks through the fire many times during the ritual since the Kandanar Kelan Theyyam is based on the story of the warrior Kelan who was unable to escape from the wildfire and sacrificed his life.

During the ritual, at one point Kandanar Kelan appears to be totally engulfed by the flames. The assistants kept a careful eye on proceedings and threw water over any part of the Theyyam’s costume that was in danger of catching fire. Red hot ash and sparks flew into the air as Kandanar Kelan and the assistants poked and provoked the flames. For performing this Theyyam the performer should be an expert in martial arts and also it demands a high level of dedication and courage.

 

 

 

 


The Author Sandeep is pursuing his Second Year B. Ed at Aloysius B. Ed College, Mangaluru


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