Theyyam And Bhuta Kola are ritualistic art forms that narrate the legends of Lord Shiva
Theyyam And Bhuta Kola are ritualistic art forms that narrate the legends of Lord ShivaShutterstock

Theyyam and Bhuta Kola: Unleashing Lord Shiva's Fierce Avatar

Know about Theyyam and Bhuta Kola, which are a unique retelling of Lord Shiva's links to the ancient tribal past, where his fierce avatar reveals itself enlivened by deep faith and the beats of the asuric drums

Where does Shiva reside? We will get a variety of answers depending on whom you ask. The conventional answer would be to place the abode of Shiva on Mount Kailash, but one can say he resides in the many holy shrines dedicated to him. He lives in the 64 jyotirlingas, or abode of lights, spread across India. Some may insist on considering only the 12 jyotirlingas as important. For them, Shiva resides as Somnath in Gujarat, Mallikarjuna in Srisailam (Andhra Pradesh), Mahakaleshwar and Omkareshwar in Ujjain and Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh), Vaidyanatha in Deoghar (Jharkhand), and Bhimashankar in Maharashtra. He is Ramanathaswamy in Rameshwaram (Tamil Nadu), Nageshvara in Dwarka (Gujarat), Kashi Vishwanath in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Trimbakeshwar and Grishneshwar in Nashik and Aurangabad (Maharashtra), and Kedarnath in Rudraprayag (Uttarakhand). 

Then there are majestic and beautiful Shiva temples such as Lingaraja in Bhubaneswar (Odisha), Brihadeswara in Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu), Vadakkumnathan in Thrissur (Kerala) and Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh. There is also the Shiva, who resides in graveyards or in cremation ghats, along with his bhuta ganas.

An elegant and eclectic answer to the question may be anbe shivam—or love for everyone and everything, which is the essence of Shiva. Shiva lives in truth and beauty, or satyam, shivam, sundaram is another answer. Shivoham or "I am Shiva" and tatwamasi or "you too are it or him"—that is, Shiva resides in each of us—could be another answer. But there is no Shiva or any god, and that he is a figment of the imagination is as much a valid answer as everything is Shiva, and there is nothing other than Shiva. It is this indefinability that makes Hinduism unique and inexplicable. This is what makes it enduring, endearing, and confusing—simultaneously. However, unlike other theistic concepts of Hinduism, the idea of Shiva cannot be restricted to the pages of philosophy or the constraints of the temples.

Another Abode For Shiva

Far from the precincts of holy temples and jyotirlingas, far away from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas or the crowded ghats of the Ganges in Varanasi, there is another abode for Shiva in a small sliver of land between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats. Though Brahminical Hinduism has worked out an uneasy coexistence with this essentially tribal god over the centuries, the tribal and rebellious nature of this tradition is hard to ignore. This Shiva links our culture to a distant tribal past that predates even the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Theyyam dancer in South India dressed as a local deity called Mutthappan
Theyyam dancer in South India dressed as a local deity called MutthappanShutterstock

The super hit film "Kantara" (2022) gave a glimpse of this world and brought this tradition to the mainstream. As someone who grew up in this culture, it is surprising to see how little space such traditions have in our mainstream. The Kirata Shiva, or tribal Shiva, is the lord of the jungle. He rules over the countless sacred groves of this land, sharing the sacred precincts with his consort, Bhagavati. He has his ganas or companions of various species and races of humans, semi-humans, and animals. Unlike the mute idols of the temples that depend on elaborate rituals conducted by priests, this Shiva, Shakti, and their companions speak and walk with the people.

Though there are ritualistic dance forms such as the Padayani, Mudiyettu, and Thirayattam in other parts of Kerala, Theyyam of Malabar and Bhuta Kola, also known as Daiva Kola or Nema of the Tulu region, are the most striking of these ritual art forms. Shiva and his consort Bhagavati and Bhadrakali (sometimes depicted as the daughter of Shiva) descend on earth to perform an awe-inspiring ritualistic dance. They dance to the rhythmic beats of asuric drums, gongs, and cymbals.

Sometimes, prominence is given to the sons and daughters of Shiva and Bhagavati. These offspring of the divine couple are not their well-known children, such as Ganesha or Kartikeya but Panjuruli, Gulika, etc. Sometimes, their companions dominate the show.

There are more than 500 different Theyyams in Malabar and hundreds in Tulu Nadu
There are more than 500 different Theyyams in Malabar and hundreds in Tulu NaduShutterstock

Theyyam And Bhuta Kola

The Theyyam ritual includes an oral history and a narration of stories known as Thottam. Part myth, part legend and part oral history, these stories rival the Puranas written in Sanskrit or classical Tamil. It is a parallel world that challenges the traditional Brahminical narrative about gods. Although one can also find Brahminical tenets and glimpses of the philosophy of Adwaita in many Thottam songs, the philosophy is made more relatable to the common people. On the other hand, the Padannas, the Tulu counterpart of Thottams used in Bhuta Kola, still retain a more purist tribal influence, emphasising omens and the occult.

When Namboothiris (a Malayali Brahmin caste) arrived in Kerala from North India around the 8th century, they were granted land by the ruling warrior clans. Many of the sacred groves held by tribal and other communities were a part of this land grant. In the typical Indian way of coexistence, the tribal gods were integrated into the myths and pantheons of Brahminical Hinduism, and stories intermingled with each other.

The upper castes ritually and socially controlled Theyyam, making the performer a helpless dependant on their munificence. The blessing of Namboothiri priests before the beginning of the ritual became institutionalised. The rituals, however, retained their tribal nature. Rice, meat, fish and toddy are the staple offerings to Theyyams, something unthinkable in traditional temples. In recent times, though, toddy has been replaced by drinks such as tea and fish by chickpeas in some temples.

Theyyam dancer getting ready for Onam celebrations
Theyyam dancer getting ready for Onam celebrationsShutterstock

The right to perform these ritualistic art forms is restricted to members of the Vannan, Malayan, Velan and Mavilan communities, all scheduled castes or tribes. The moment the artiste takes on the attire of Theyyam, he is no longer human but a deity. It is fascinating to see how the caste hierarchy gets inverted in the ritual. In the past, when untouchability was the norm and the caste system was rigid, Theyyam and Bhuta Kola demolished the boundaries, at least during the duration of the performance.

When Theyyam speaks, it is the god speaking, and no upper caste person can ignore that voice. Theyyam acted as a check and balance against the brutal nature of the rigid caste system. The Theyyam season begins after the harvest in October and continues till the advent of the monsoon (May-end to June). It is the time to thank the gods and ancestors for a bountiful harvest. Myths and folklore are associated with the ritual. There are more than 500 different Theyyams in Malabar and hundreds in Tulu Nadu. Bhairavan, Gulikan, Chamundi, Kuttichathan and Pottan are some of the prominent deities that feature in Theyyam.

There are Vaishnavite-influenced Theyyams such as Vishnumoorthy, Angakkaran, Thekkan Kariyathan, and Daivathaar, but even in these rituals, the worship doesn't stray from its tribal identity. The food served breaks all taboos of satvik temple food.

Finally, The Answer 

Theyyam is egalitarian. You do not go to worship the Theyyam but to communicate with the deity. Theyyam will speak to you, listen to your woes, and give you practical suggestions. The ritual is sure to overwhelm your senses. The black of the night and the ethereal silence of the sacred grove before the performance create an uneasy expectation. Torches slowly light up. From the womb of the jungle, Shiva or one of his bhuta ganas or devi emerges. In a vivid display of colours, predominated by its striking red hues and shining black lines, exaggerated by the flares of fires and torches, the gods appear—so near that they can be touched and spoken with.

Ember glow like a thousand eyes from the fire pit. The eyes of the gods penetrate deep and stir your conscience, which drags out long-forgotten memories and opens up wounds you thought had healed. Time folds and unfolds, merges and dissolves, stands still and races forward. You don't see Theyyam. You enter another universe. When the piercing cry of the Kurumkuzhal pipes is punctuated by the unearthly roar of the god or the goddess and spirals to a frenzied climax, you realise that, finally, you have found where Shiva lives.

Words cannot describe that moment. One can only experience the aura of the divine, feel the tug in one's heart, the whisper in one's ears of some ancient chants. It doesn't matter whether you are a believer or a sworn atheist, a confused and rootless city-bred Indian, or a temple-hopping traditionalist, Theyyam is sure to evoke primaeval tribal memories hidden in your DNA. 

People consider Theyyam to be gods and seek blessings from them
People consider Theyyam to be gods and seek blessings from themGetty Images

Reimagining Shiva 

You realise that the original Pashupati, the lord of the beasts, the lord of the world, doesn't belong to the dark, cloistered sanctum sanctorum of temples, where he is infantilised, woken up, bathed, dressed, and paraded in a palanquin or on an elephant. Nor can he be living at the lofty heights of distant snow peaks, bathed in silence. When you watch Theyyam, you can't imagine Shiva or his bhuta ganas living anywhere but here and now, in the steaming jungles of southwestern India.

The trident on the crown, the serpent motifs painted over the body, and the frenzied dance all give a glimpse of some ancient tribe that would have originally conceived Shiva or seen him in the womb of this sacred jungle. Shiva, who wears elephant skin on his waist and sits on a tiger skin, is adorned with cobras and wears ashes on his body, which could only be imagined by some ancient tribal priest. The image of Shiva on a snow-clad peak starts looking incongruous and unreal.

He belongs here, in this humid air, rich with the fragrance of incense and the acrid smell of coconut oil. His abode is where he is served toddy and fish. He dwells where he and his companions can enter the body of a tribal and dance to the ritualistic and energetic beating of the chenda drums. In these groves, caressed by the breeze from the Arabian Sea and the spice hills, he lives with his bhuta ganas and countless children, protecting humans from their greed.

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