Theyyam is a corruption of the word “daivam,” which means “god” in Malayalam. An incredibly vibrant tradition that has been in practice for the last 1,500 years, Theyyam is a folk religion with deep roots in Malabar, the northern region of Kerala. In Theyyam, the practitioner, or oracle, enters a state of exalted trance in which he becomes the physical manifestation of a deity. He is believed to be possessed with divine powers to heal, foretell the future, and confer blessings on devotees. A Theyyam practitioner traditionally hails from select castes, which are among the most socially disadvantaged communities in Kerala. Yet during Theyyam, the oracle is worshipped as a living deity by all classes, even by the Brahmins.

A visually rich cult with explosive colours in the face and body painting of the practitioner, Theyyam is also a religious art with dense layers of imagery and symbolism, one in which ancient chants are employed in conjunction with the ritual use of music, richly coloured fabrics and dance to visualise and invoke the deity.

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A colourful costume, silvery fangs and silver diadems of serpentine heads on the headdress are the mark of a Bhagavathy Theyyam—a wrathful but benevolent goddess. 

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An intense make up session is essential to invoke the deity.

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Red, orange and yellow are the traditional colours used with intricate loops and whorls that differentiate the deities.

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In the courtyard of a forested temple, an oracle dances to the drums. Musical accompaniment is an important feature in Theyyam

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Vellan, a Theyyam practitioner for eight years, takes a drink of coconut water before entering into a trance.

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The oracle struts and pirouettes frenetically and talks in a voice that is different from his own. In trance he can only be touched by the kamerans (the servants of the god).

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A fire Theyyam, where no less than 16 fire torches have been fixed around the waist of the Theyyam performer. A fire Theyyam, where no less than 16 fire torches have been fixed around the waist of the Theyyam performer.

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Two kamerans, servants of the god, hold the oracle as he dances on a stool. The crowd watches reverentially.

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An oracle walks through the crowd, chanting blessings on the devotees, a routine that is followed after all Theyyams.

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In his avatar of the living god, the oracle is worshipped by all classes of people, even by the Brahmins, a community at the helm of Kerala's strong caste system.

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A devotee lies prostrate at the oracle's feet. Though lower caste, the Theyyam practitioner is worshipped by all during his trance.

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When he comes out of the trance, the oracle is fanned with white linen and his eyes, often closed with a metallic pad in trance, are washed with cold water.

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Hari, a practitioner for 11 years removes the last vestiges of make up before going back to his daily routine. His role as part-time god over, he will return to his well-digging profession.