Kannur Rituals

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From the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, I fly to the heart of tropical India on the North Kerala Coast, to Kannur, chosen for a few days of quiet and relaxation.  

On an undeveloped beach at sunset near Kannur

I am the only visibly non-Indian on the plane from Dubai and while standing in the immigration line upon arrival, I am pulled out and grilled by several immigration officers who phone the place where I have reservations for the night to confirm my credentials.  It is obvious to me, and I find it a little funny, that I am probably the only non-Indian to come through all day so the officers need to show their usefulness.  I later find out that this international airport was only created a few years ago, so in fact, given COVID restrictions, I may have been one of the few non-nationals to pass through their immigration system in the last few months.

My driver is waiting for me upon arrival and I sit in the front left-hand seat as that has a working seatbelt (no seat belts required here in the back seats and few are accessible).  We pass through small towns and villages and I am amazed how little rural India has changed over the last 50 years.  I measure growth in India by the number of floors of the shops in an area.  I remember how on my first stay in 1965 most commercial areas had one-story shops and then over time another layer was added and later an additional third floor — and then the old structures were torn down and newer high rise buildings were built.   I saw this happen in Hyderabad and Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Delhi.   Here, in the Kannur district, there are still the original one-level mud brick stalls with old tile roofs, usually with a covered front porch held up by wooden columns, often crumbling but still functioning.   Occasionally there are shops with 2 floors and even rarer 3 levels — except in the center of Kannur city center where concrete and glass showrooms have sporadically appeared.    

I arrive about an hour later at my traditional Kerala home-stay and am greeted by my host and taken to my room in a 200 year old house, made of mud-bricks with tile roof.  It is a very plain space, clean and simple, but with air conditioner and fan and fully functional bathroom.  There are only 4 rooms here,  the other three occupied by visitors from France.  The stay includes 3 meals per day all cooked by the owner’s wife and this is truly delicious home made Kerala food, vegetarian except for a fish dish at night.   There is nothing to do here but relax and walk to the nearby beach and eat fabulous cuisine.

My Homestay Entrance

To my great surprise, at dinner I am told that the other visitors are here for the Theyyam rituals which occur over a few month period once a year at Hindu temples in the Kannur and immediately South Kozhikode area between end of January and Mid-March.  Although I am familiar with almost all forms of classical Indian dance, this is not temple dance but a deeply religious event wherein men trained from birth to participate in this devotion are painted and decorated over a many hour period and then put into a trance to embody a specific God and give blessings to the local people.  I was invited for the following morning to join a French couple to travel by motor rickshaw to one of the nearby sites of this ritual which, in this case, is at a private home temple area and is paid for by the attending neighborhood folks.

Three Gods are manifest at this event, each very different and all impressive in their demeanors and command of the proper form, accompanied by drums and shenai trumpet.  I learn later that there are 3 parts to these Theyyams over 3 days, beginning with the actor out of costume describing the story that will be told the following day, then the manifestation of the God, being revealed in full traditional garb, and then the period of benediction and prayer.  We stay for a number of hours and watch the progression of the dressing and revelation of the Gods and the locals lining up to get blessings.

The next morning I leave at 5:30 am by car for another Theyyam ritual, this time at a temple. It is still dark when I arrive and few people are there so I am able to sit in a front row seat. The temple environment is quite different and is beautifully lit up with oil lamps in this pre-dawn time. The first God is revealed amid firebrands and is a startling and striking vision in the dark morning light.

The second God is a full-bellied and bloodthirsty red Kali with flames in her crown and fire in her hands. At one point she walks up to the small group of guests and stands right in front of me with fiery torches heating my face. She then walks to a puja sacrifice site and engages with some priests who present a chicken to Kali who manually beheads it while dancing around, scattering feathers. Very intense.

Kali in all her fiery majesty
The priest holds the decapitated chicken while Kali spreads its feathers

The French visitors told me that each Theyyam is different and I understand why some people return many times to experience a few moments of another system of beliefs and a different perspective on reality. I think I will plan to be back next year.

I have fully enjoyed my time in this small part of Kerala and I leave this peaceful world for life in the IT city of Bengaluru.