Men who would be gods

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Friday, May 5, 2006

Hour has come for the divine appointment. A group of cousins goes to the local temple to usher in the oracle. Not very sure of the way and way of rural life, they follow Thejus, who is to join 4th class after the summer vacation. The local boy leads the party, arrived for the occasion, through areca plantations in Bavuparamba on the banks of the Valapattanam River.

At the red temple looked after by the family of the priest, a group of men start the ritual as we arrive. Two boys buck up their chendas (drums). A man is suddenly transformed into an oracle while his aide gather articles of worship in a basket. The priest's mother looks at the overcast sky and hopes it may not rain today. We follow the oracle back home.

Pattathil House is readying for the annual reunion. Padmanabha Venugopal catches up with his uncles and cousins. His mother Gouri is the youngest of the seven siblings. On our way from Kannur, she has been telling us about her land and its faith. For the extended family, connected by a lineage beyond memory, the annual Theyyam is a tryst with the family goddess as well as a get-together of the diaspora.

With the drum in earshot, neighbours rush to the house. Emerging from the shadows of areca trees, the oracle runs through the paddy field to the house. In olden days, when paddy was a profitable crop and the family held acres of land, the run started from the border of the field, which extended till the river, Venu's uncle Kunhikrishnan Nambiar tells us.

The 72-year-old retired lieutenant colonel also tells us that his ancestral house was thrice its present size when he was a boy. No one lives here now, but a lamp is lit every evening for the goddess who would incarnate tonight through the Theyyam. Respecting an age-old ritual, scattered descendents join their relatives living in the neighbourhood once a year.

The oracle bows before the lighted lamp and clanks his sabre and shield. He blesses the onlookers who, in turn, hands in monetary offerings. The nightlong ritual has started. The oracle places his arms in the makeshift temple in the courtyard. After a quick smoke, he joins the others preparing costumes for the Theyyam.

Labour is divided between the oracle's team and the Theyyam artistes. The painstaking preparation of the Theyyam's massive crown and other paraphernalia will go on till the final performance in the morning. Men crouch together cutting out patterns from coconut palms, banana leaves and bamboo shoots. More family members come in.

Theyyam is an artistic ritual of role-reversal where high-caste landowners bow before a Dalit in flames and flaming colours. The artiste assumes divine powers and answers the prayers of his former masters. A night when the untouchable turns the adorable. Tonight, a host of deities - Veeran, Vishnumurthy, Bhagavathi and Bhadrakali - will descend here.

Manoharan gets ready for Thottam, the unwritten lore of the Theyyam transmitted down generations. He wraps a red clothe around his waist and extends it over his shoulders to wear as a bandana. He seeks blessings from each member of his troupe and bows in all directions. The drummers line up behind him as he faces the light in the temple.

After a build-up, the drummers retreat. Manoharan and two companions sing the divine heroics. The three men request the deities to come over them. The melancholy voice is illegible with slang and elongation. Then the oracle takes over. As he steps a strange dance with the drumbeats, a group leaves to get the offering for goddess.

At a house past areca log bridges, women and children wait for their share of festivities. The offering for the goddess - 28 coconuts - is traditionally brought in from the Thondachan temple maintained by this Thiyya family. The procession returns to Pattathil House with the offering. Flaming torches and skyrocketing crackers fight the night.

The oracle is still dancing. He paces round the seven carriers of coconuts. Then everything settles down. It's time for dinner. Family members and neighbours sit in front of plantain leaves for a specially-made gruel. Manoharan and companions, who would be gods and goddesses, are served food in the courtyard.

As the first Theyyam appears, spectators fill in every available space on the corridor and the courtyard. Veeran, less flashy and horrific than the celebrated Theyyams, runs up to the lamp in the house before starting his dance of valour. He goes on to bless all with his short staff. Then he circles the temple and sits on a stool in front of it. An accomplice holds out a cock. Veeran plucks its head as if it were a flower. Calm once again.

Another Veeran comes. Elders go through all the rituals. Younger ones doze off or go to the neighbouring houses to sleep. They skip the lesser shows to be awake when Bhagavathi and Bhadrakali come. Theyyams become harsher and brighter as the night progresses. There are over 50 varieties of Theyyams in Kannur and Kasaragode districts in north Kerala. But Pattathil House always had a fixed schedule.

Attendance is full again at daybreak. The grand show is to begin. Four men go to the river. Once they return, the rituals will be set in motion. Manoharan has his face painted and steel teeth jutting out of the corners of his mouth. He wears a long skirt made of coconut palms. As his companions mount the crown on his head, Manoharan is hidden behind esoteric patterns and dark colours. Torches fit into his costume and crown are lit.

A strange communication ensues between the goddess and her oracle. In the dark, the men's shrill coo echoes. The four wet men follow the priest to the heap of smoulder covered in ashes. After the priest worships the fire, the oracle and the four men run in circle around it. Then, one by one, the five men leaps to the heap and kicks away the smoulders with bare feet.

On cue, the Theyyam is ready. The lean man is nowhere to be seen. In his place is the ferocious goddess, Bhagavathi. The dance of fire begins. Two men are constantly pouring a solution of turmeric on Theyyam's hands to protect it from the blazing torches. He is unmindful of the heat and pain. Drums add to the fury. Women pray before the visible goddess and pour more fuel to keep the flame ablaze.

Rhythm of the drums and anklets rise with the earthshaking steps. At dawn, the goddess fills the stage surrounded by clasped hands and wide-open eyes. A cock is handed to the goddess. She goes in circles and swirls with the terrified creature in hand. Flames eat into live flesh. Feathers rain. Cries drown in the hysteric drumbeats.

Finally, the goddess slit open the cock's neck. Torches on the crown are extinguished. The still burning bigger torches are detached. People queue up to receive the offering - rice and turmeric. Everyone is blessed. Curious kids take snaps of the divinity back home.

After blessing the devotees and answering their anxieties, the Theyyam gets ready for the next avatar with slight modifications. Bhadrakali is more powerful. She can read your fortunes and future from a coin she sticks on her forehead, Venu's aunt says. One sleepless night has exhausted us. But Manoharan and his brothers are still dancing, like his father did before their time.

For generations, these men have been keeping gods alive with their faith.
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