Theyyam and Thira (Teyyam, Theyyattam ), also known as Kaliyattam is a popular ritual form of worship of North Malabar in Kerala, India, predominant in the Kolathunadu area and in Kodagu and Tulu Nadu of Karnataka.  The Kolathunadu includes the present-day Kasargod, Kannur Districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad and Vadakara and Koyilandy Taluks of Kozhikode Districts of Kerala. The Theyyam is a performance art and people of these districts consider Theyyam itself as Gods and they seek blessings from Theyyam. A similar custom is followed in the Tulu Nadu region of neighbouring Karnataka known as Bhuta Kola.

Theyyam of Kerala


Theyyam is one of the most famous festival of North Kerala. Theyyam is known by several names in these areas. It is known as Kaliyattam to the northers parts of Pazhyangadi River, and in between Pazhyangadi and Valapattanam River it is known as Theyyam and to the south of Valapattanam River it is known as ‘Thira’. Although they are known by different names like Theyyam, Thira and Kaliyattam, they are same but they also have some differences.

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Theyyams are the living cult with several thousand-year-old traditions, rituals and customs which are predominant to the Nonrth Malabar area of Kerala. And it is a performance art in which man takes the role of Gods and perform the dance and give blessings to Devotees. The word meaning of Theyyam itself is GOD. Theyyams can also be called as dancing Gods. The dance of Theyyam is known as ‘Theyyattam’ and the dress of Theyyam is known as ‘Theyyakolam’.

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The headgear and other ornamental decorations are spectacular in sheer size and appearance. The makeup and dress of Theyyams are very beautiful and brightly coloured. The makeups and facial drawings of Theyyams are very beautiful and complicated and are done by trained artists. Mostly the Theyyams are brightly red in coloured and the dressings including coconut leaf and flowers.

For the background music of Theyyams the traditional music instruments of Kerala are used like Chenda (a wooden cylindrical drum), Chengila (an Indian gong), Elathalam (metallic musical instrument which resembles a miniature pair of cymbals), Karum Kuzhal (a double reed wind instrument) and Takil (another music instrument of Kerala) etc. The special dance of Theyyams in brightly coloured dresses, facial makeups and drawings, and special headgears with the background music of the traditional music instruments of Kerala, give spectacles a rare opportunity to enjoy the special performance art form along with the worship of Gods.

Inorder to become a successful Theyyam artist it requires years of learning and practise. ‘Thudangal’ (the beginning) and ‘Thottam’ (the invocation) are the introductory rituals of the Theyyam. Thottam is mostly performed the day before Theyyam and some Theyyams have ‘Vellattam’.

Theyyams are mostly performed in places where presence of Gods are there like Temples and ‘Tharavadu’ (Ancestoral home). Other places of performance of Theyyams are ‘Kavu’ (Sacred Grooves), ‘Ara’, ‘Palliyara’, ‘Mundya’, ‘Thanam’, ‘Kottam’ etc.  There are no stages or curtain for the performance of Theyyams. They are performed infornt of the idols of Gods and people can watch it near to that and at the end get blessings from Theyyams. Fire has an important role in the performance of Theyyams and some Theyyams can include fire dance also.

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The Theyyam season is between 10th of thulam and Edavapathi (According to Malayalam Calendar), i.e. begins on the 10th of the month of Thulam (October November) by the  Kolappalli Chathambappli Vishakandan Temple and Neeleshwaram Anjootambalam Temple. And it ends by almost 15th of June Valapattanam kalarivathukal Temple Theyyam and Neeleshwaram Mannanpurathu Kalasham. Inbetween these months lots of Theyyams are performen in different parts of North Kerala.

Mostly Theyyams are Mother Goddess (Eg: Muchilottu Bhagavathi). Veerans (Heros) are also worshipped as Theyyams (Eg: Kathivanoor Veeran). In ancient times there were more than 500 theyyams. Now there are only about 120 or so Theyyams that are practised.

The performers of Theyyam belong to the lower caste community, and have an important position in Theyyam. Each community has the right to perform a particular Theyyam.

Some of the main Theyyams of Kerala are Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Vishnumoorthy, Kandanar Kelan, Kathivanoor Veeran, Kshethrapaalan, Pottan Theyyam, Bali, Badrakali, Vayanattu kulavan, Gulikan, Kuttichathan, Gandakarnan etc.

Theyyams are performed annually in temples are Tharavadu. There are also Theyyam festivals which are performed at an interval of 12 years or more (Sometimes about 70 years) and such Festivals are known as Perum Kaliyattam. The Muthappan Theyyam is performed on all days at the Parassinikadavu Sri Muthappan Temple in Kannur.

You can refer to the book Theyyaprapancham by R. C Karipath to know more about Theyyams.

Next: List of Theyyams

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