Motivated by a short story from William Dalrymple’s excellent non-fiction work “Nine Lives”, we made it our mission to see a theyyam (thay-YAM). Of course, another way to describe it is that Kris fell in love with the story, forced me to read it and began asking around to make it happen.
A theyyam is an ancient ceremony said to outdate Hinduism unique to the small villages surrounding the south Indian town of Kannur. So, we boarded a 10-hour overnight train for the destination with the hopes of seeing one for ourselves. While there are several “staged” theyyams, mainly for tourists, authentic ones are more difficult to find. Since most of the information about the theyyam is confined to the host village, with dates and details communicated solely by word of mouth, finding one can be a challenge. Kris relentlessly continued her theyyam investigation, questioning every shopkeeper, driver, waiter and passerby who seemed to have the slightest English ability while asking (read: demanding) that I do the same.
After finally getting vague instructions on where one may be, we left our Kannur base before sunrise for the tiny village of Azhikode. After some wrong turns in a rickshaw, we deemed our instructions, and driver, helpless. Not one to give up, Kris resorted to charades, pointing the driver toward distant drumbeats. The faint rhythm grew louder, ultimately leading us to the theyyamin a small field. Welcomed by the morning light and what seemed to be the entire village, we were greeted as old friends, treated to breakfast and later invited into homes. The performance itself, when the spirits of the gods are said to literally possess the bodies of the dancers, was a phenomenal mix of color, spirit, fire, dancing and drums. While we were fixated on the performers, the village kids found Kris and her iPhone far more interesting.
These photos hardly do justice to an incredible experience, which was very much like witnessing a ritual from long, long ago. Theyyams can last 8-48 hours, but we (read: Kris) wanted to avoid a scene when possessed dancers have been known to bite the heads off chickens and drink their blood. Just as we were ready to go, our new friends insisted we stay for a festive lunch feast served on banana leaves. We may not pray to the same gods, or practice the same rituals, but we continue to celebrate our days here with some of the kindest and most generous people. That’s the magic of India.