Theyyam and Thira are among the most important of the rural performance rituals. The specialty of Theyyam is that their very guise is taken as godly. Thira, however, is a human impersonation of god to appease the latter. Thira prioritizes ‘dance’, whereas Theyyam gives predominance to the specific make-up. Etymologically, ‘Theyyam’ has its origin in ‘Daivam’ (god). This ritual is extant in parts of Kasargod, Kannur, some areas in Kozhikode and Coorg in Karnataka. The art-form worships Gods and Goddesses, Nymphs and Fairies, Spirits, long-dead ancestors, snakes, valiant men, and the iconoclasts who fought for societal reforms. There are also a large number of Mappila (muslim) Theyyams and Amma Theyyam, that enunciate the principle of religious tolerance.
Tender palm-leaves are crucial in the special get-up of a Theyyam. The facial make-up is also executed by indigenous products like tender leaves, natural black ink, turmeric powder and rice flour. Some Theyyams, in addition, use masks made of areca nut leaves, and twigs. Silk dress with creases, belled ropes, a shield to stuck to the forehead, an armor for the torso, a pair of white gloves, garland-like adornments, and tender-leaves around the waist, constitute the get-up of Theyyams, mostly.
The communities that perform Theyyam include Vannan, Malayan, Maavilan, Cheravan, Velan, Pulayan, Paravan, Chinkatthan and Pambathar. This performance is executed in ‘Kavu’(a holy grove), sheds made in fields and in Hindu housleholds. Those who stage it, call this ‘Kaliyaattam.’ Chenda, an especially loud drum, is the major accompaniment. There are other instruments too, like Maddalam (an oval drum), Thakil and Ilatthalam (different types of cymbal), and Kuzhal (the wind-instrument).
The initial ceremony in a Theyyam performance is Thottam Paattu, where the one who has donned the make-up of Theyyam, sits in the Kavu or Sanctum, and sings paeans to the god whom he impersonates. The Thottam Paattu seeks to reveal the legend behind the god worshipped. This is, in a sense, an invocation. As the song reaches its crescendo, the Theyyam starts its delirious dance. Some Theyyams tread fire at this time. ‘Uriyaadal’ is when the theyyam answers the queries of devotees. Afterwards, the devotee pays obeisance to the Theyyam, takes the final offering ari and kuri, and concludes the rite. When the get-up is undone, the ritual comes to an end.