Kerala’s most popular ritualistic art form, theyyam is believed to predate Hinduism, originating from folk dances performed during harvest celebrations. An intensely local ritual, it’s often performed in kavus (sacred groves) throughout northern Kerala.

Theyyam refers both to the shape of the deity/hero portrayed, and to the actual ritual. There are around 450 different theyyams, each with a distinct costume, made up of face paint, bracelets, breastplates, skirts, garlands and exuberant, intricately crafted headdresses that can be up to 6m or 7m tall. The right to perform a particular deity often belongs to specific communities. During performances, each protagonist loses his physical identity and speaks, moves and blesses the devotees as if he were that deity. Frenzied dancing and wild drumming create an atmosphere in which a deity indeed might, if it so desired, manifest itself in human form. Theyyam performers are male members of lower castes, treated with deep respect throughout the ritual.

From November to April there are annual rituals at each of the hundreds of kavus. Theyyams are often held to bring good fortune to important events such as marriages. The best place for visitors to see theyyam is in village temples in the Kannur region of northern Kerala. In peak times (December to February) there should be a theyyam ritual happening somewhere almost every night.

Although tourists are welcome to attend, this is not a dance performance but a religious ritual, and the usual rules of temple behaviour apply: dress appropriately, avoid disturbing participants and villagers, refrain from displays of public affection. Photography may be permitted, but ask first and avoid using a flash. For details on where and when, check with your guesthouse or contact theyyam expert Kurien at Kannur's Costa Malabari.