2/19/2007 to 2/20/2008 | India , Kerala

Tracking down Theyyam in Kannur

Getting to Kannur, a city in northern Kerala along India’s southwest coast should have been the easy part.  But as I arrived at the Mangalore state run bus stand I was told the same thing I was told at the private bus stand, “no bus to Kerala, strike.”  My last hope of avoiding an unwanted layover in Mangalore was the train. I donned my backpack and set off to catch a city bus back the 4 km to the Mangalore train station. Fortunately the trains were still running and surprising at such short notice I was even able to procure a seat.

Arriving in Kannur, I discovered it was much more than a bus strike.  The entire city looked like a ghost town.  I had to be impressed with the Indian solidarity, the art of the general strike was learned from Gandhi himself, and the lesson has not been forgotten over the years.  I later learned the strike was over a two rupee raise in the gas price, not exactly an idealistic cause, but one that can always muster general support, despite the economic reality of the rising cost of fuel.  Of course, landing in this ghost town caused certain logistical problems for me.  All of the restaurants and shops were closed, leaving the litter strew empty streets resembling a set from Hollywood’s latest post apocalyptic film.  Fortunately, I was able to locate a hotel that opened its doors for me, but I was forced to fast until the strike ended that evening and I could finally scarf down a tasty South Indian Thali.

Of the relatively few tourists who visit this region of northern Kerala, most do so to witness the spectacle of the ancient ritualized dance known as theyyam, unique to this area.  There are many local temples as well as theyyam grounds (sacred sites particularly for theyyam) which have theyyams annually.  During the theyyam season, which runs from October to May, due to the shear number of theyyam sites there is likely to be one occurring on any given day.  However, since the timings are set by the Malayalam lunar calendar the hard part is finding out when and where a theyyam is being performed, and then how to get to it.  With precious little information from my guidebook, not even a map of Kannur, I set out in the morning to find the location of a theyyam.  My plan was to track down the district tourism office in hopes they could point me in the right direction.  Without the help of a map this seemingly simple task proved somewhat difficult.  There was an office in the Kannur train station but it appeared to be perpetually closed.  At the station I was told of another office in a different part of the city but was given rather vague directions on how to reach it, referring to landmarks that meant nothing to me.  In my wonderings through the deserted streets the previous day, I had remembered seeing a sign for some sort of tourism office.   It turned out to be the office of the district deputy in charge of tourism.  Despite the sign, it still took the help of a local to lead me to the office which was tucked behind the court building along a foot path passing through a vacant lot.  Apparently this was one of those cushy Indian government jobs that require no work.  As I walked along the dirt trail to the office I couldn’t image any tourists actually finding there way to this place.  It seemed that the deputy was well aware of the impractical location of his office and didn’t bother to show up, which I suppose I can hardly blame him for.  After a couple fruitless attempts at contacting the mysterious deputy, being first told he would be in at 10:00 am then 1:00 pm I was told of another office, the District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) office which was just around the corner.  Finding this office was the equivalent of finding the theyyam treasure map.  There were actually people there, which was a huge step in the right direction over the two previous locations where I had attempted garner information. Furthermore, the staff was very helpful and spoke English.  A situation which is not always the case, a painful half hour in the Udupi Tourism Office comes to mind, in which a man read out loud to me a tourism brochure (in English), that he eventually gave to me anyway, while ignoring or not understanding my questions about trying to track down the location of a Buffalo race (which I never did find).  In this case, the helpful man at the DTPC office wrote down the bus connections I needed to get to a theyyam which was taking place on that afternoon.

I hopped off the Thalassery bound bus at the indicated junction in the road.  I figured I was at the right place when the bus that pulled in was almost full even by Indian standards where there is always room for one more.  Fortunately, it was only about 15 minutes to the theyyam site, though it seemed like an hour in heat amidst the mass of compacted bodies.  My slight discomfort was rewarded with an impressive spectacle.  The costumes and makeup of the artists were impressive enough but add to that an atmosphere of faithful devotes, fanatical drum beats, and piercing horns, and I was enamored by the sight that lay before me.  It was the authentic thing, a ritual that has been taking place in these regions for generations; this was no tourist performance, and I was the only non-Indian in attendance.  In preparation for the performance each theyyam artist was lead though a series of circumambulations and mantras of the various shrines and offering platforms, after which it is believed that he becomes possessed by the deity he is portraying.  When theyyam artist remerges from the dressing area in full regalia they are led around by two assistants as if to keep the spirit within him from injuring the host.  Eventually the two assistants release the theyyam after which he dances with an otherworldly intensity to the relentless and frantic beat of drums.  Staring into the theyyam’s distant dark eyes, I pondered the possibility of what I was witnessing.  If gods really do take human form then this must be such an occasion.  After the performance the faithful flock to the theyyam to receive blessings and consultations from the god within.  The theyyam artist finally returns to his mortal form by standing up on a stool and spinning around in front of the temple icon at the leadership of the presiding priests.  The headdress is removed and the god releases the theyyam artist.  Its folk dance meets the exorcist, meets fortune teller, and in a country famous for its elaborate and colorful festivals the performances of theyyam are among the most spectacular.

After the series of performances, which I would later realize was a rather small program of only about 5 different deities lasting about 5 hours, a middle aged woman who was the head nurse at a nearby hospital invited me back to her house for some food.  The villages in this area of Kerala are much different than others I’ve seen.  For one they are much more spread out, with each house occupying its own separate parcel of land rather than a group of houses together surrounded by fields.  In addition the houses are much nicer than I have seen elsewhere in rural areas.  It seems nearly everyone I met either works in a Gulf country or has a son working in a Gulf country.  The workers from abroad have sent back a substantial amount of money to Kerla much of which has found its way into the building of larger homes.  In addition, many professionals rather than move to the cities maintain their traditional family homes and commute in to the city for there job.   After being stuffed with rice and sambar (South Indian lentil and vegetable dish) as well as a special festival food that was like Rice Crispies mashed with banana coconut and sugar, I thanked my hosts and hopped back on the bus back to Kannur extremely happy with a day that had such an uncertain beginning.

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