One of the colourful and enchanting art forms of Kerala Theyyam is derived from the Malayalam ‘Daivam’ meaning God. It is also known as Kalliyattam (dance for / of Kaali the Goddess) or Thirayattam (dance at thira – village) in different places. Being one of the traditional and oldest ritualistic, worship art forms of Kerala Theyyam is dominantly practiced in the Malabar regions of the state. Districts of Kasargod, Kannur, certain areas of the districts of Wayanad and Calicut practice this art form. Its traditions, rituals and practices are believed to be of more than a thousand years old. Theyyam is considered to be the embodiment of God and believers seek blessings from them. Its performance as are also held as offerings. Other than Kerala it is also practiced in the Kodagu and Tulu regions of Karnataka. There is another similar custom in Tulunadu, Southern Karnataka known as Bhoota Kola

Theyyam as an art form incorporates all artistic talents like vocal, instrumental music, sculpture, dance, painting etc and preserves the traditional and ancient culture. It is performed in front of the Kavu (temple / shrine) and its performance brings wellbeing to the family and society too. Many such performances include some dangerous feat like fire walking etc. The prominent characteristics of Theyyam are considered to be primitive and tribal. This has increased its fame and acceptance by other religions too.


The performers are usually from a particular clan since it is considered to be a right to perform Theyyam. The artists are expected to be well versed in the rituals and characteristics of the deities that they portray. Also they practice to sing, dance with the beating drums, dress as per the act and do the complicated make up too. They are usually given a generic thorough training in physical, mental and spiritual sense before they start performing. Since it is a sacred ritual the performers undergo rigorous fasting before the performance.

The attire used in Theyyam is very colourful and interestingly done. Tender leaves of coconut are extensively used to make the head gears and also part of the dress for Theyyam. The head gear of a Theyyam artist is a work of art and sometimes are several meters tall. The facial makeup too is an intricate work which usually takes hours to finish. For some acts the performer tie burning torches around their waist as part of their attire. There are three parts of a theyyam performance.

The performance begins with the ‘Thottam‘ which is the invocation and is performed with not much makeup or the costume. It is followed by the various ceremonies which precedes the actual manifestation. The third part is the most important part and done with all ensemble. It is believed that the divine spirit possesses the artist in this part of the performance.

Being an art form the costume used for Theyyam is also a traditional one. The costume includes the makeup too and is called ‘Kolam’ There are many forms of Theyyam – more than 400 Theyyakollams it is said and the prominent among them about more than 100. And the major types of Theyyam are 1. Bhagavathi Theyyams which portray the Goddess in different forms and incarnations, 2. Saiva Vaishnava Theyyams which usually depict stories associated with Lord Vishnu, 3. Manushika Theyyams which enact certain human heroes and historic incidents. 4. Purana Theyyams, these retell stories of Puranas and other religious texts.


Theyyam is predominantly performed by men except in couple of places where ‘Devakoothu’ (dance of Goddess) is performed. Devakoothu is more graceful and has smooth movements unlike the masculine steps in Theyyam.

Pootham and Thira

Pothan and thira

Malabar region has another art form known as ‘Poothan and Thira’ which is similar to Theyyam in its headgear. This art form is basically based on Lord Shiva’s lieutenant ‘Poothan’ and ‘Thira’ – Goddess Kali. The attire here too is usually bright red and with gold coloured ornaments. The Thira character is distinguished by the black crown. The performers are accompanied by , Elathalam and Kuzhal. The performance usually consists of lots of shouts and wild gestures meant to ward off evil. Visually very appealing, these are performed by the Mannan community.