Theyyams of Malabar: Incarnate Deities

tewfic_theyyamPhoto ©Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved.

I’ve just returned from Kerala, India where I was leading a 2 weeks photo-expedition to this area whose tourism slogan is “God’s Own Country”. Geographically, the region is called the Malabar Coast, and it includes most of Kerala state and the coastal region of Karnataka state. This is extremely diverse area, with ancient ties to maritime trading routes with the Arabian Gulf and much beyond.

The highlight of the expedition was the unique Theyyam rituals and performances, which are indigenous to a small rural area in north Kerala. This opportunity provided a window into a world of remarkable and ancient traditions, seldom seen (nor appreciated) by mainstream tourists.

The term Theyyam is the corruption of the Malayalam word Daivam or deity. It’s essentially a cult predominant in farming and rural areas, combining several thousand-year-old traditions, rituals and customs, irrespective of castes and classes of the Hindu religion. Its adherents consider the Theyyams as incarnations of various deities, and seek their blessings and counsel.

There are nearly 400 Theyyams representing various local deities, as well as legendary and mythological characters. Only members of a Hindu specific sub caste can become Theyyams, and this privilege is passed on from generation to generation.

A fundamental component in the Theyyam performances is its intricate face-painting and body decorations. This lends itself beautifully to all sorts of photographic styles, from environmental portraiture to photojournalistic narrative imagery.

The Theyyam performers wear traditional costumes, complex headdress and other body decorations which are prepared by artists, members of the same caste. Some of these costumes are made of coconut leaves, while headdresses and masks are made of more solid materials, while bracelets and anklets are heirlooms, passed on from father to son.

Similar to psychic mediums, Theyyam performers start by meditating, an important state of mind that prepares their bodies for the deities. The accompanying cacophonous music and its furious drumbeats assist the Theyyams to deepen their trance. At the appropriate time, awestruck devotees eager for advice and counsel approach the Theyyams, now with eyes bulging and rolling back into their heads. The advice is doled out in a hoarse voice, sometimes in lengthy tirades, depending on the complexity of the questions. I was told that the questions include from money matters, health, social issues and the like. In these parts, many disputes involving land and water rights are resolved by the Theyyams instead of the courts.

There’s no question that the stage-practice (and it is stagecraft to a large degree) of Theyyams and its intriguing rituals make it one of the most fascinating religious performance.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Good evening, Tewfic El-Sawy

    My wife and I toured South India for a couple of weeks last year. It was a vacation but for me, that also means testing cameras and shooting stock.

    Kerala was our favorite area. I got some very nice photos at the temples and of the people. Everyone was so friendly and they *wanted* to be photographed; that does not happen in most countries (or even in big cities of India.)

    We did not see the Theyyam performers but we did see two Kathakali performances. Colorful …. but to us, very strange and ritualized … almost artificially so. And we had no idea what was going on sometimes.

    It was similar to this photo that I found on the Web.

    All the best,


  2. Hello Peter,

    Kerala is indeed one of the most interesting areas of India, competing with Rajasthan as its most popular destination.

    I’m not surprised you weren’t able to witness Theyyam ceremonies, because these are not really publicized and only occur in a small rural area of north Kerala…so one needs local knowledge to find them, and even then it’s hit and miss.

    as for Katha’kali: it’s really about the battle of good versus evil, but the finer plot details are incomprehensible unless you’re familiar with the ancient sacred Hindu epics. the music is somewhat cacophonous but the lovely costumes and makeup compensate for the potential eardrum damage!

    I just uploaded a Katha’kali gallery here:

    all the best,


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