Theyyam (Teyyam, Theyam, Theyyattam) is a popular ritual form of worship in Kerala, India, predominantly in the Kolathunadu area (consisting of present-day Kasargod, Kannur Districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad and Vadakara and Koyilandy Taluks of Kozhikode of Kerala) and also in South Canara and Kodagu of Karnataka as a living cult with several thousand-year-old traditions, rituals and customs. The performers of Theyyam belong to the community which are in below level in ancient caste structure formed by Namboothiri brahmins in Kerala, and have an important position in Theyyam. The people of these districts consider Theyyam itself as a channel to a God and they thus seek blessings from Theyyam.
All the prominent characteristics of primitive, tribal, religious worship had widened the stream of Theyyam cult, where “even the followers of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspect” and made it a deep-rooted folk religion of millions. For instance, the cult of Bhagawathi, the Mother Goddesses had and still has an important place in Theyyam. Besides this, the practices like spirit-worship, ancestor-worship, hero-worship, masathi-worship, tree-worship, animal worship, serpent-worship, the worship of the Goddesses of disease and the worship of Gramadevata (Village-Deity) are included in the mainstream of the Theyyam cult. Along with these Gods and Goddesses there exist innumerable folk Gods and Goddesses. Most of these Goddesses are known as Bhagavathy (the Mother-Goddess that is the Divine and United form of the three principal Goddesses namely, Brahmani (Saraswati), Vaishnavi (Lakshmi), and Shivani (Durga)).
Different branches of mainstream Hindu religion such as Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Shaivism now dominate the cult of Theyyam. However, the forms of propitiation and other rituals are continuations of a very ancient tradition. In several cult-centres, blood offering is seen, despite being forbidden in sattvic Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In such centres, separate places outside the precincts of the shrine are selected for blood offering and for the preparation of the traditional Kalam (Square made for this sacrifice occasion) known as Vadakkan Vathil. The Theyyam deities propitiated through cock-sacrifice will not enter such shrines. This religious cockfight over blood sacrifice, which does also include the cockfight as a blood sacrifice, is a prime example of “cultural synthesis of ‘little’ and ‘great’ cultures”
The dance or invocation is generally performed in front of the village shrine. It is also performed in the houses as ancestor-worship with elaborate rites and rituals.
There is no stage or curtain or other such arrangements for the performance. The devotees would be standing or some of them would be sitting on a sacred tree in front of the shrine. In short, it is an open theatre. A performance of a particular deity according to its significance and hierarchy in the shrine continues for 12 to 24 hours with intervals. The chief dancer who propitiates the central deity of the shrine has to reside in the rituals. Further, after the sun sets, this particular dancer would not eat anything for the remainder of that day. His make-up is done by specialists and other dancers. The first part of the performance is usually known as Vellattam or Thottam. It is performed without proper make-up or any decorative costume. Only a small, red headdress is worn on this occasion.
The dancer along with the drummers recites the particular ritual song, which describes the myths and legends, of the deity of the shrine or the folk deity to be propitiated. This is accompanied by the playing of folk musical instruments. After finishing this primary ritualistic part of the invocation, the dancer returns to the green room. Again after a short interval he appears with proper make-up and costumes. There are different patterns of face-painting. Some of these patterns are called vairadelam, kattaram, kozhipuspam, kottumpurikam, and prakkezhuthu.
Mostly primary and secondary colours are applied with contrast for face painting. It helps in effecting certain stylization in the dances. Then the dancer comes in front of the shrine and gradually “metamorphoses” into the particular deity of the shrine. He, after observation of certain rituals places the head-dress on his head and starts dancing. In the background, folk musical instruments like chenda, tudi, kuzhal and veekni are played in a certain rhythm. All the dancers take a shield and kadthala (sword) in their hands as a continuation of the cult of weapons. Then the dancer circumambulates the shrine, runs in the courtyard and continues dancing there. The Theyyam dance has different steps known as Kalaasams. Each Kalasam is repeated systematically from the first to the eighth step of footwork. A performance is a combination of playing of musical instruments, vocal recitations, dance, and peculiar makeup (usually predominantly orange) and costumes.The Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam is one of the famous theyyam in Kerala.