First timer’s guide to Theyyam festival in Kerala (2020 dates, itinerary and more)

Kannur Theyyam (1)Kerala is known for its diverse culture. The state has multiple festivals celebrated all year round. The state has Onam, Boat Races, Carnivals and Poorams. But one of the festivals that have gained attention of travellers from all around the world is Theyyam. Theyyam’s history and origin can be traced back to over 800 years. Theyyam showcases the ancient tribal cultures with a series of ritual dance performances incorporating dance, mime, and music. All performers represent a heroic character with divine power. They wear heavy make-up, huge masks, and flamboyant costumes which gives them a divine appearance.

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Theyyam is a famous festival of Malabar region and has more than 100 versions of it celebrated with different stories and all of them centres around celestial beings. For someone who is not native to this state, finding the best date and venue for the festival is little difficult. The location, the timing and the venue is not secret but difficult to understand unless you have local contacts. There are multiple versions of Theyyams and you should know about the version that you wish to attend.

In local custom, the Theyyam festival has different names but it can be commonly categorized into the following categories –

  • The Fire Theyyam – The main and the most glamorous version of the ritual that is attended by the top photographers of the world. The Fire Theyyams of Kannur region has multiple smaller versions. There are six main fire Theyyam where the divine beings put themselves in the fire completely. There are toned down versions of these festivals with the intensity getting less and less.

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The one that I attended was one of the rituals with less intensity but with a similar gravitas. It is one of the most visually impressive forms of art and dance performances in India. But if you are looking for Theyyam Instagram shots then you’ll be disappointed.

  • The morning Theyyam – These Theyyam are performed in the afternoon or in morning around 6. The culture seekers who are not interested in photography can surely attend this festival as they have a different type of intensity.
  • Forest Theyyam – These are more mystical versions of Theyyam that are held inside bamboo forests. There is less fire but the scenery is simply gorgeous.
  • Community based Theyyam – There are important versions of Theyyam that are organized by Muslim communities as well as women. These are important part of the cultural aspect that many don’t know about.

When is Theyyam organized

Theyyam Festival is organized from the month of November to first week of May. There are different venues of Theyyam that are associated with tales of heroism and valor among various mythological figures.

To find out the dates of Theyyam festival in Kerala, you can refer to Kerala Tourism’s website where the date of each and every Theyyam Performances around Kannur is listed in detail.

Theyyam Calendar

How to attend a Theyyam festival

To attend a Theyyam Festival, you’ll have to spend some time researching. Theyyam Calendar is a nice resource to consult before planning your trip. You can also book a homestay in Kannur and connect with the owners to figure out the best dates during which you can attend the festival. Chances are that you’ll find a Theyyam festival in Kannur anytime during the month of November to May but it is a better idea to understand the kind of ritual you wish to see.

Important aspects of Theyyam

If you are going to attend a Theyyam festival in 2020 expecting that a masked dancer will start jumping in and out of fire then you are in for a surprise. Like every festival celebrated all around the world, you only see a few important aspects of Theyyam on social media and mainstream internet. Since fire Theyyam looks more glamorous so there are more photos.

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Theyyam is a celebration of culture. The moment you step near the temple premises you’ll see people singing and dancing. There will be orchestra outside with 100s of people dancing on songs, you’ll find groups of drummers performing Shinkarimelam and girls performing the traditional dance forms of the state.

Inside the temple, the chances are that you’ll see three to four versions of Theyyam. Some of the important ones include.

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  • Gulikan and Bhagavathy Theyyam – A non fire version of the ritual that is known for drum beats, music and intricate makeup.
  • Vaira Jaathan Theyyam, Paradevatha Theyyam, Sasthappan Theyyam, etc are all non fire versions of Theyyam
  • Pottan Theyyam is performed in the morning or in day time
  • Nagakaali Theyyam is the worship of fertility goddess. The rituals are performed in the during the day time. The makeup process is very intricate and a must for culture seekers.
  • Gulikan Theyyam is one of the most unique rituals of Theyyam. The performance is known for the headgear made of areca nut palm which is the tallest of all the Theyyam and it represents the Hindu god Yama.
  • If you want to attend the fire Theyyam then look around for Khandakarnnan Theyyam. The mentions will be on the Theyyam Calendar’s website but researching is important. The intensity of Khandakarnnan Theyyam increase with the amount of fire sticks the performer puts on their gear. The one I went to had six fire sticks but I was told that during more intense rituals, there are 10 to 12 sticks too.
  • Kanadar Kelan is another fire Theyyam but it is very rare and more dangerous.

Photography at Theyyam

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Theyyam is a photographer’s delight. Apart from attending Theyyam dance performances that go on for all night, you can also visit the main stage, to the preparation room where many volunteers are present. The backstage area is a makeshift space where you can click the participants wearing customs and wearing makeup. Clicking these pictures is as important as the dance aspect of the festival. Theyyam makeup process is very long and intense. There are chances of taking some nice portraits at the event if you attend the makeup session.

Timing of Theyyam Festival

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Theyyams happen all day. Some of them are performed in night so if you know of one then visit the place around 12 midnight and be prepared to stay awake till 6 in the morning. You’ll have to hire an auto-rickshaw or a car from the city to drop you at the spot. You can return to your hotel in the morning when local buses start. There are rituals performed in afternoon and morning. Make sure that you research properly or speak with a homestay owner before planning a visit.

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Theyyam is all is glory and grandeur, is not for the weak hearted. You need to be prepared for a lot of running and moving around. You need a camera that is capable of clicking in the dark and at fast speed. Camera quality for Theyyam needs to be high because the movement is really random. Apart from this, there are scenes that you may not like so make sure that you go there only when you are ready to accept that this too is a part of the culture of the world.

Hope this Theyyam blog helped you understand the festival. For more details or guide on Theyyam, connect with me on Instagram or Facebook. You can also drop a comment below in case you have some query.

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Mayuri Patel

    As you said Kerala has so much for every type of traveler. I haven’t heard about theyyam festival, little bit I knew was only Onam and boat races and Kalaripayattu art. Theyyam looks Photographer’s Paradise and those walk on Fire must have been scary!The headgear and makeup makes this festival more vibrant. Glad to know about this unique festival of Kerala.

  2. blair villanueva

    I haven’t heard about this festival until now, and I noticed that their aura is so fiercely! It is amazing how this tradition has been existing for the last 800years. I would love to visit Kerala soon, I heard this is also the best place for meditation travel.

  3. Just Heading Out

    This so interesting! I had not heard about Teyyaam before, but now I would to see it one day. It is always such an interesting experience to attend cultural festivals in other countries. This one looks especially spectacular. I love that there are so many different versions too, the one in the bamboo forest sounds enchanting. I love your suggestion of booking a homestay, locals always give the best advice.

  4. rilakszagrebguide

    These photos are a wonder to watch! It’s astonishing how many details there are on each mask, each costume… And the fact the festival survived for 800 years really makes you think how the world has changed, but some old habits, old customs, are always there, reminding us of our heritage. The fact that you can visit it and be a part of this “keeping of tradition” is what all travel should be – a real learning experience.

  5. Amrita

    I have been wanting to visit Kerala for Theyyam for so long. It was almost planned this March, but its now in the backburner. Thanks for sharing such vivid details of Theyyam. The photographs are quite beautiful and tell a lot about the festival. Hope to capture the essence of Theyyam next year!

  6. Epepa Travel Blog

    During a coronavirus pandemic, such festivals seem to be a complete abstraction. I hope that it will end someday and we will be able to enjoy participating in such events again. Theyyam looks really interesting, I would like to see it.

  7. John Confidus

    Awesome experience! I would love to experience it! Amazing event! I’ve never been to a carnival! Thanks for sharing!