I left Kochi a little sad, as my friend had departed the day before for her yoga teacher training in Goa. I was on my way to Kannur, a town in the northern part of Kerala, where tourism is growing, but hasn’t yet reached the proportions it has further south.
But Kannur definitely has its reputation, and I certainly saw tourists. But the beach was empty for the most part, and even the big draw in town was blissfully free of foreigners.
Kannur is known for its annual theyyam festival, which runs for almost half the year. Theyyam is a Malayalam word that is supposedly derived from daivam, meaning god. During theyyam, a performer, one who has trained all his life, induces a trance and takes on the persona of a deity.
Not just any deity – the theyyam ritual is specific. Only certain people within certain families can perform it, and even then, they invoke only specific gods at specific temples at specific times of the year.
The performer dances, often with props such as swords, fire, staves, etc, and in his rthymic motion, induces the trance. When he glimpses himself in the mirror, he no longer sees himself, but his god or goddess. The change is measurable – even the casual onlooker can sense the presence of a different persona.
The ritual is not unlike spiritual possession found in so many cultures, and is itself a syncretic mix of Hinduism, animism, and even some Islam. The gods are not strict to the Hindu pantheon, but can also be warriors, unfairly accused girls, and deities from other religions. But whoever the god is, he or she is an integral part of the family who performs that theyyam every year.