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Teyyam, Bhuta Kola & Mudiyettu

Teyyam | Bhuta Kola| Mudiyettu

In Kerala and Karnataka (and possibly across India) we find not only a structural similarity between Hindu religious rituals and premodern dramatic forms, but also a basic shared instrumental outlook: most times a ritual is performed, or a play staged to achieve a particular end. For example, to attain the same end (a son, victory, etc) one can either perform a Vedic ritual or sponsor a performance to  a deity. Or do both.1 Many times a devotee asks for a boon and in return promises a performance of the deity's life (via Yakshagana, Teyyam or Mudiyettu). This relationship between ritual and theatre goes one step further: performing in a drama (as actor, musician or other) is often considered a form of prayer or an act of devotion or a meditation or an offering to a God. Even watching such a traditional performance is often thought of as a communication with the divine, as a puja. For a broader discussion of ritual in Hinduism, see here. Hindu ritual practice is many millennia old, in more recent forms, such as Yakshagana and Kathakali, the relationship between worship and theatre is remains strong but is stylized and abstract and re-worked through a bhakti prism. However, in older more "folk" forms the potent bond between spiritual worship and dramatic enactment remains untarnished. Here we find no stage, no temple but the pure enactment of a religious narrative that transforms not only those that perform it but all that witness it.     

Photograph by Pepita Seth of a Moovalamuzhi Chamundi, or fierce goddes, Teyyam.Along the Malabar coast, from coastal Karnataka to the tip of Kerala, there exist three inter-related, ancient Dravidian spirit worship traditions. In Teyyam, and Bhuta Kola we find a dancer who, over the course of many story-telling rituals, is possessed and transformed into a god or goddess, who then blesses and talks to his/her faithful people—the audience of the performance. In Mudiyettu we find the same story-telling lead to the summoning of a spirit (but hosted by a tree and not a human). Maha Multipedia draws from all three traditions in some measure.

The most prevalent and well-known tradition is that of Teyyam or "Teyyattam", a devotional, dance-drama ritual of Dravidian origin found only in North Kerala. "Teyyattam" means the "dance of god," as Teyyam seems to be derived from the Malyali word daivam (god).
The transformation of dancer into deity is both an internal and an external process. The actor performs various austerities to purify his body before the performance, such as fasting and abstinence. He paints his face and body and then wears layers of ritual costume, made especially for this rite. The climax of the performance demands the donning of an elaborate headdress, as only then is the possession/ transformation complete. The performance of the ritual itself occurs in stages, beginning with long songs that tell the story of the deity, various songs in praise of the deity, and dances to the beating of drums. This ritual is always performed outdoors, in the courtyard of a small shrine of the deity in question, usually at night. The devotees/ audience group around the main actor as the rituals and songs are performed, often following him as he walks and dances around the courtyard.      

Image by Pepita Seth, mainpulated by me. The Sanskritization of this basically Dravidian form is very crude and clearly visible in a number of ways: animal and blood sacrifice is now mostly symbolic; highly local stories and deities have been claimed as avatars of pan-Indian Hindu gods, such as the Devi [the great goddess]; and Vishnu-worship has been introduced into the primarily female-deity-oriented Teyyam. Some Dravidian gods do still survive in figures such as Kutti Chattan (a primitive god of black magic now unpopular among all Orthodox Hindus) and historical heroes. Spirits, animals, serpent and tree worship also survives, though often linked to either the Devi or Vishnu of the Sanskrit Hindu pantheon. Another way one can see the primal origins of this form is in the prevalent presence of caste and gender politics, with many stories revolving around high caste abuses of lower castes, or the abuse of innocent women.      

If you would like to see videos of various Teyyam ceremonies, please go here and here.  Additionally, here is a video I shot in November 2005 in a small village in Kasargod District, North Kerala. Here you see the local men creating the costume of the Narasimhan teyyam that will be performed/ evoke. The assemble all the jewelry and make the elaborate skirts.

Image of a Bhuta ritual found online. Unknown photographer.


At the northern part of the Malabar coast, among the Tulu-speaking community (from Udupi, Karnataka to Kasaragod, Kerala) we find the Bhuta Kola or Holy Spirit Worship. This rite takes place annually, after dusk and can go on till the early morning. Bhuta Kola is not obviously part of larger Brahminical Hindu practices. Like Teyyam, the spirits being summoned are usually local guardians who protect the villagers as well as their livestock from the evil forces. At some point these spirits were said to be the attendants of Lord Shiva. Maha Multipedia borrows one specific rite from this tradition, that of the possessing spirit picking apart a flower in order to prophesies. For some images of Bhuta related artifacts (and contemporary images) please visit this museum site.




Photograph by Vivek Namboothiri of a Mudiyettu kalam.

Mudiyettu is another ancient dance-drama-ritual folk form found mainly in central Kerala at Bhadrakali Goddess temples. It shares traits with both Teyyam and Bhuta Kola; Mudiyettu is a hybrid and ancient ritual-dance form that combines Dravidian and local myths with Sanskritic and cosmopolitan ones. However, it lacks one significant structural difference--spirit possession. It is one of the most localized and regionally specific performative modes used in Maha Multipedia.

One can divide the entire Mudiyettu performance into two parts: the first consists of ritual worship and prayers and the second of the enactment of the central myth. In this it is closest to Teyyam.

The ritual part of Mudiyettu starts with the drawing on the floor of a large, awe-inspiring Bhadrakali (fierce Kali) with fangs and a red tongue wielding numerous weapons. This image is called the kalam. Elaborate verses describe Bhadrakali from head to foot as the image is made. It is believed that the spirit of the deity resides in a sacred tree on the temple premises; a lamp is lit at the foot of the tree which symbolizes the spirit. The lamp is brought to the kalam while the music continues. The kalam is then "charged" with the spirit of the deity-from the lamp. After this the priest erases the portrait and distributes the leftover kumkum (vermillion) to the devotees.2 In Maha Multipedia Kali erases the kalam in a wild dance and so takes the spirit into her.

The Mudiyettu myth is narrated in verse with explanatory prose passages. It presents a dramatized version of the Puranic story of Darika-Vadha, or the 'Slaying of Darika'. This story in brief is this: the demon Darika became very powerful after getting boons from Brahma. He could not be killed by any man, demon or one of the gods; if his blood should ever fall to the ground, from it a hundred more Darikas would appear. To kill Darika, Bhadrakali emerged from Shiva's third eye. She was joined by three other warriors including the goddess Vetali. This bloodthirsty goddess drank all of Darika's blood before Bhadrakali slew him. For two illustrations of this battle please see right.Images of the great goddess fighting a demon from different parts of illustrated Devimahatmaya editions from the 18th century.

The Mudiyettu myth shares elements with two Sanskrit puranic myths: the Slaying of the demons Raktaveeja and the demon Mahishasura found in the Markandeya Purana (and Devi Mahatmya)--myths important to Maha Multipedia because of their prominence for Shakta or Goddesses worshippers.



Further Reading

Philip Zarrilli, Richard Farley and Swann Darius’s Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance

Ananda Lal (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre

David Shulman & Deborah Thiagarajan (eds.) Masked Ritual and Performance in South India: dance. healing and possession