Seeing the Theyyam and Birthday on the Beach

As Aleks is still working on her Open University course you’ve got me for the whole blogpost this time. Feel free to skip to the next post if you prefer the purple writing.

Having been promised beautiful unexplored beached and backwaters in Northern Kerala by the guidebook, getting off at Kannur station was a bit of a rude awakening. Especially as we were booked to stay in the city for want of better options in our price range initially. There was however one good reason to stick around this area for at least a short while: we had a good chance of seeing a Theyyam.

A Theyyam is an event which happens only in the winter months in the small village temples of North Kerala, but within this small time and space, thousands of Theyyams take place. They are best described as a ritualistic dance ceremony featuring elaborate headdresses and makeup. During the dance, people believe the Theyyam actors actually become the gods themselves. A great source on Theyyam worship is the source where I first read of them, William Dalrymple’s book “Nine Lives” – a Christmas present to Aleks which I stole.

Finding a Theyyam is less straightforward then one might think. I found at least 3 published “Theyyam Calendars”, but none gave all the information – place names often weren’t findable on Google maps, and the government run site actually fails to put dates beyond which month a Theyyam festival is happening in. After a lot of painful searching I found references in several Calendars to a Theyyam festivalbin a place named Chala, only around 10km from Kannur. Crucially the government website had a phone number listed on the page and I was able to get the actual date and time from someone involved (which were actually different to those on some of the other calendars).

The festival was due to start with some night Theyyams in the evening, so we took a tuk-tuk around 7pm out to Chala. We knew we had found the right place by the crowds, far larger than you might expect from a village that size, which only got bigger as the night went on. After around 10 minutes of waiting, a line of men struck up a constantly altering my rhythm on different drums. Shortly after, the first Theyyam actor, led by a man with burning brazier, began to perform. Dressed in a  large hooped skirt-like garment, and naked from the waist up apart from a simple red headdress he span around, and performed a strange dance involving thrusting movements of a short wooden stick as he moved. He was then led round the gathering crowd, this time by an oil lamp, where he gestured at sections the assembling crowd to stand (including us; there was definitely no question of not obeying the mildly terrifying glance emanating from his painted face). To each section he shouted a loud call I can only describe as close to the sound men in a rugby scrum make upon engagement.

Not quite like your annual church fete.

The first Theyyam actor was followed by two others who performed similar dances and blessings. Throughout the performance the crowd gradually grew, and though we had been there for a couple of hours already, there was definitely a growing anticipation, as though we were about to approach the main event. Finally the crowd rushed to a corner as we caught glimpses of a Theyyam entering with the full headdress and face bright yellow. As he made his way to the centre the elaborate costume and headdress confirmed to us that this was the important one, the main deity (sadly the identity of this god we never did discover). He gyrated and stamped as the crowd eagerly sought to get near and the drummers increased their intensity to the maximum. Once he had come to a halt people got up both to take a break and to go closer to the Theyyams, as several had been doing after each performance. We decided that although the festival was set to continue through the night and in to the next day it was time to.make our way back to Kannur while we still could, having got a good flavour of the Theyyam ritual. The experience was something unique, and the atmosphere quite unexpected. In this small place, hundreds had converged to witness the dancing of their gods, a major yearly event at which people of all ages and backgrounds in the community seem to have come together.

The main deity in full flow. Sadly due to the low light and crowds this is one of the only close up photos that really worked.

 

Drummers accompanying the theyyam.

The next day marked the 27th time I’ve personally completed a lap of the sun. Bright and early we departed Kannur on a train to the nearby small town of Payyanur, stopping only to purchase a cake in the typical train-delay time. In Payyanur we had a momentary panic trying to locate the ferry terminal. Thanks to the intervention of a friendly tuk-tuk driver we found the correct path to an unmarked concrete jetty.

The elusive jetty can be found here. Unfortunately Google maps doesn’t show the path here, but the satellite photos can help.

Boarding the government boat we set out upon our luxury 50-rupee cruise of the Valiyaparamba backwaters – north Kerala’s quieter alternative to the morebtouristy rivers and canals of the south. Endless palm trees lined the banks, and it was only really at this point we began to properly appreciate the beauty of Kerala’s landscape.

Typical view of the edge of the backwaters.

 

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In 2013 this suspension bridge was built to connect the mainland to our destination. It lasted 2 months before collapsing.

We alighted by the Avisa Beach House, a small homestay in an idyllic spot with views of the backwaters and the beach, separated by a strip of land not much more than 100 metres wide. There I spent what has to be the most relaxed birthday of my life. As a February baby in the UK I can confidently say I had never sunbathed on my birthday until now. We even managed to eat cake on the  beach, although thanks to an increase in wind the candle blowing became an exercise in trying to get one or two lit long enough for a quick breath of air!

At Avisa we spent two days discovering the beauty not just of Keralan scenery, but also Keralan food, with coconut fish and prawn curries populating our lunches and dinners. The island isn’t exactly deserted- we discovered a village maybe half a mile walk away from the guest house – but it is as yet fairly untouched any tourism.

 

Exploring the island on its one road.

All too soon we found ourselves enjoying the glorious views of the Valiyaparamba backwaters from the government boat. Despite an initial mixup in getting on the boat heading the opposite direction we were soon headed back to the town of Payyanur and the train station. A long wait there was punctuated by another delicious meal, this time in a swanky looking restaurant entirely made from bamboo. Fresh fish wrapped in banana leaves and steamed added a delightful final touch to the Kerala section of our trip.

 

 

Aleks enjoying the boat trip.
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Action shot! Preparing the banana leaf fish for eating.

The relaxed atmosphere of Valiyaparamba was perfect; fantastic preparation for what was to come next. After a night train down to Coimbatore and a morning spent on admin in an Internet Cafe we boarded a train to Kolkata – nearly 40 hours of India between us and there.

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