The Tradition of Teyyam: Chandran T.V.

Scholar associated with the Dept. of Art History and Aesthetics, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Baroda.
The generic term Teyyam is derived from daivam which means God; teyyattam (in which ‘attam’ is the word for dance), therefore, denotes the dance of god. In the ritual tradition of teyyattam, the performer represents God. Confined to the Kannur and Kasargod districts of north Kerala, it is performed on different dates between December and May. There are more than three hundred teyyam performances characterizing the region. As such, the present day performance may be largely attributed to mother goddess, and hero deities.

The most important object in teyyattam, is the pot or kala‹am derived from the Sanskrit word kala‹a, symbolic of the womb of the mother earth. It is richly decorated with tender coconut leaves and areca nuts and contains toddy. The areca nuts symbolise the principle of containment while toddy symbolises the breast and the womb. The kala‹am is taken around the shrine thrice in a procession.

A distinguishing component of the performance is that of tottam. These are songs through which the deities are invoked. With few exceptions, tottams invoke goddesses Kål∂ and Pårvati and the sons of Lord ›iva. A tottam eulogises the deity and narrate legends for about five hours at a stretch. Towards the end the deity is believed to have entered the body of the tottam singer. Two men encircle him with their hands interlocked with each other so as to guard the spirit which has just gained entry.

Performance of teyyam takes place during the day and night in front of the village shrines. The performers belong to Vannam, Malayam, Velan, Anjuttan Munnattan and Pulayar castes. The performer comes out with painted face wearing the costume which befits the deity. He prepares to enact and sits at the northern side of the shrine. The headgear is tied as the stuti or chants eulogising the deity are recited. The dancer goes into a trance, transforming into the propitiated deity or teyyam. The preliminary ritual is completed when the performer looks into the mirror and identifies himself with the deity. He circumambulates the shrine thrice and dances in front of it. At the end, the teyyam listens to the devotees and receives offering from them. Each year the enactment is repeated with great splendour perpetuated as a living tradition.

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