comments 27

Theyyam: More Than A Fancy Display Of Enactments


When it comes to telling old folklores or mythological stories, people in India often do it the hard way – by enacting dance or drama on stage. There is some kind of liveliness in such performances that not only give life to the original stories but also bring our life to a state of exuberance and enthusiasm. When you watch a set of people doing complicated dance moves or enacting mythical characters – you get a sense of awe and experience a whole new reality.

I think that is the beauty of such mythological stage plays. And North Kerala’s Theyyam, a popular ritual for worship in the north Malabar region (North Kerala), whose origin can be traced back to over 800 years, is no exception. With a series of ritual dance performances incorporating dance, mime, and music, Theyyam showcases the ancient tribal cultures, where performers represent a heroic character with divine power – by wearing heavy make-up, huge masks, and flamboyant costumes to give a dramatic appearance.

theyyam dancing

theyyam dance

The headgear and other ornamental items – which are mostly prepared with bamboo sticks, coconut leaves and colours, among other things – look spectacular, in their size as well as in their appearance.

theyyam festival

Those who perform Theyyam are known as Theyyakaran. During a performance, a Theyyakaran completely merges himself with the rhythm and powerful dance moves – which goes all the way from giving intense expressions to breaking a coconut with his forehead, to some of the craziest dance moves you might have seen in your life.

theyyam maskman

theyyam performance

maskman dancing

These performances are conducted with a belief that they would remove the perils and bring fortune and prosperity to our lives. Mostly performed by men – in their vivid and bizarre makeup – there is one Theyyam form, known as Devakkothu, or the Lady Theyyam, which is acted by women. Where I managed to see only a few performances, in reality, there are over 400 different forms of Theyyam, which takes place between December to April every year, making these 5 months ideal for any tourist and photography lover, who is visiting North Kerala.

Other than being one of the most visually impressive forms of art and dance performances in India, it is unique in a way that it is performed by the people of different castes, altogether. Though that’s a different thing that back in olden days when casteism was more rigid, only the people who belonged to the upper rungs of the social ladder were privileged to take part in this festivity. But if you see it today, it doesn’t seem that it ever had any influence of casteism and superiority. In fact, it very much appeared as one of those cultural events where people, as a community, take part.

If you go behind the main stage, to the preparation room, you can see dozens of volunteers, all charged up and toiling with their own duties – as if almost making sure, at their individual level, that the festival gets concluded with nothing but an absolute success.

theyyam preparation
maskman makeup

festival preparation

I saw a man making simple decorations out of banana leaves in the preparation room. Almost 2 hours later, when I stepped back in the preparation room, as one Theyyakaran concluded his performance, to see how it all looked at the backstage, I found the same man, still engaged with his work, as if looking out for some perfection in the banana leaves.

Recommended Read: My First Impression of God’s Own Country Kerala

festival preparations

Outside, another dedicated bunch was busy carrying heavy logs of wood to prepare for a big fire-party, while the kids walk about the area, engaged in their own lively conversations, or almost hypnotized by different Theyyams.

hard work

man carrying wood

kids festival


To me, the entire night of different Theyyams looked more than just a bunch of fancy dance performances. It appeared as one of those subtle gatherings that were meant to bring people together, displaying the simple examples of how society, as one, can work together.

After all, I realized, this what festivals and cultures are meant for — in their true, absolute sense.

Have you seen Theyyam or any other art form in Kerala? How did you find it?

Filed under: India


After my couple of years of corporate career, I left that lifestyle behind, and with it, everything that didn't fit in a backpack. I've learned that this world is too big (and too interesting!) to spend your life working at one place, and that's what inspires me to remain footloose and fancy-free for the rest of my life!


  1. Shyju says

    A very detailed explanation about theyyam, I am from Kannur, Kerala, one of the main locations of the theyyam as the main ritual in the temple. For different types of theyyam, you can visit my blog also

  2. Ami says

    Thanks for sharing this. This seems like it would be amazing to see. Love the photos, you’ve really captured the moment.

    Ami xxx

    • thanks for your inspiring comment Ami. And yea, it’s really a great experience to watch such a cultural show.

  3. Ratisha Goyal says

    Always a pride to savour on the cultural delights my country has to offers. Your pictures have captured it real well. Great post!

  4. Allan Liwanag says

    It reminds me of the Philippines in the sense that we have a ton of spiritual performance.

  5. Ana De- Jesus says

    Wow it was fascinating learning about the range of movements, mime and dance that this culture uses. I love the elaborate costumes.

    • speaking of costumes and face-paints, someone at the event told me that some face-paints take around 12 hours to complete, whereas costumes take days. Imagine, with how much patience and belief the artists perform the show. Truly inspiring.

  6. Florence says

    I love it! So nice to discover Indian tradition (I mean, one of Indian multiple traditions) mostly because I don’t know any from the South of India 🙂

  7. Joanna says

    This must be a great experience to watch! I have only traveled to the North of India, and I did take part in a traditional Rajasthani dance and sing show in Udaipur. I have to say, it was impressive. I would like to go to Kerala next time and see the Theyyam dances too

  8. Eugenia says

    I watched this dance performances on TV! Simply amazing! I’d love to see their performance live one day! Thanks for sharing such an interesting post!

  9. Laura H says

    Oh wow I’ve never seen anything like this in my life before! I’d love to view this life, it must be enchanting!

  10. This sounds like it would be really incredible to see. The effort and pageantry that goes into native dances is brilliant.

  11. Fatima says

    I have often these dances on the television. I know how much hard word these people do. Their outfits are so intricately designed and then the face paint! Takes hours to prepare just one dancer but it really does enhance their performance.

    Fatima |

    • yea, some face paints take about 10, 12 hours to get done. but yea that’s the beauty of it. Those who take part do it with so much patience and of course faith in their culture.

  12. Lana says

    Thank you for sharing. I’ve never heard of Theyyakarans, but it sounds like a spiritual experience!

  13. Lana says

    I’ve never heard of Theyyakarans, but it sounds quite spiritual. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Looking at the costumes, they look simple enough and yet elaborate. The dance itself must be awesome. I thought if you have a video, you could also embed it in your post so we could all see.

    • You just made me realize that I missed something by not capturing a video. But I was so absorbed in the performance, that trust me, taking some time out and clicking still pictures was – in itself – was a task.

  15. Nat says

    It sounds magical, your descriptions really bring the performance alive!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.