Gods and Goddesses
Malabar the northern region of Kerala India 2009.
Theyyam are ‘holy men’ or priests who dress in fantastic costume once a year to participate in temple ceremonies. They dress as goddesses and become the goddess during the ceremony. Local people flock to the temple during this time. They ask the Theyyam’s blessing, maybe have him tell what the future holds for them or ask for his prayers for their special intention.
This is an ancient ritual and the privilege of becoming a goddess is handed down through certain families. There are about 400 Theyyams in northern Kerala.
The make-up and dressing in the costume takes hours and the labor of many men who act as acolytes of the Theyyam. Palm fronds are made into skirts, fluffy white bits of cotton or something like cotton are glued to the face and body of Theyyam to give him the appearance of a tiger. Intricate designs are drawn on the face of the Theyyam. Then as he crosses the temple courtyard in a clockwise direction, the acolytes drum frenetically. Theyyam twirls, hops, smashes coconuts and flails his sword as he summons the divine powers, enabling him to administer to the needs of the faithful who line up to talk to Theyyam and to offer him alms.
Although the ceremony was like nothing I’d ever seen, it did seem somewhat familiar to me since I was raised a Roman Catholic and that was in the day when we, too, had ceremonies and special vestments were worn by our priests. Nothing like the Theyyam, however!