Malabar: Theyyams and beyond
By ehalam. Created on Dec 29th, 2012. Last updated on Dec 29th, 2012.
Malabar is the name of the northern districts of the Kerala state in the Southwest corner of India. I visited Malabar in December 2011 with my wife. It was a backpack journey that took us to very remote areas and gave a very strong emotional spark. Thus, this account is hardly a travel guide, rather a very personal reflection on the people and their culture by an attentive passer-by.
My passion for India started in 2010 on my first visit to this kaleidoscopic country. What I am most attracted to is the openness of its people - nowhere else, not even in my home have I felt it so easy to have a simple and satisfying contact with a fellow human being. Although I look very different from ordinary Indians I feel very much at home here.
It is not surprising then that soon after my first visit I decided, like an addict, that I want more of this feeling. I wanted an adventure, and this is what I got. As in the first time, I travelled with my wife, and the friction of the travel certainly cleaned up the calk that inevitably builds up in any long term relationship.
My teaching and other duties allowed me only a couple of weeks off in the first half of December 2011. I started my preparations about 5 months in advance. I read travel stories in IndiaMike and all other sources that I could find on the internet. It was the ritual dance of theyyam that made me to choose North Kerala as our destination. Allegedly one of the most archaic and oldest forms of living religious rituals, theyyam seemed just the right type of experience I wanted to have. I discovered on the internet that there was a week-long theyyam festival in the northernmost district of Kerala (Kasaragod) exactly at the time of our planned visit. There was only one paragraph about this event in the whole world wide web, and although the info was repeated in several pages, none of them provided any specific location or other details. Although some place names were mentioned, these were not marked on Google maps, at least not in the same spelling.
The main language of Kerala is Malayalam, a Dravidian language which has its own syllabic script. Knowing that there are not many English speakers in North Kerala I was worried about how to navigate the places if place names are to be deciphered from written Malayalam. I wanted a good map, but the Kerala Road Atlas I bought over internet was rather schematic and hardly a thing you can rely on when you explore an unfamiliar area. Finally I printed out several pages of Google satellite images which were quite useful. However, my worry about reading the place names was fully unjustified: the linguistic landscape (public and commercial signs on the streets) in North Kerala is fully Malayalam - English bilingual, and even the official signs are few and far between, the name of the place is repeated on every advertisement giving a company's contact information. So it is not difficult, sitting in the bus to know exactly where you are well before your stop is coming.
To familiarise myself with Kerala, I used both the Lonely Planet's South India & Kerala travel guide as well as Rough Guide to Kerala by David Abram. I found the books to be in a nice way complementary, Lonely Planet being a dry and concise with good basic information and Rough Guide proving rich background information, insights and personal opinion. The latter was too large to be read thoroughly beforehand, but absolutely excellent after the trip helping to gain a deeper understanding of the place just visited.
I planned our trip from north to south, starting from the northernmost town Kasaragod (A) and Bekal Fort (B) for theyyam, then visiting the Valiyaparamba backwaters (C) some 30 km to the south, staying a few days on the beach near Kannur (D) and looking for more theyyams, then taking the mountainous back road to the Wayanad area 100 km from the coast to the east which is famous for its wildlife and the 2100m Chembra peak (E), then back to the coast near the place where Vasco da Gama once landed in India (Calicut) (F) and then further south to the Fort Cochin (G) in Central Kerala to see one of the best ensembles of early colonial architecture in Fort Kochi.
I tried to book hotels in advance by e-mail, but I got very few replies. So actually I ended up having only one advance booking for the seashore homestay Costa Malabari near Kannur which was highly recommended in Lonely Planet and several travel forums. For the rest of the travel I hoped to find hotels on the go. And actually there were plenty of them everywhere we went, and if you are not very demanding on the accommodation there is hardly any need to worry whether you have somewhere to stay when you arrive to a town in the afternoon.
When trying to book the train tickets I discovered to my disappointment that the Indian online rail booking system has started to demand an Indian mobile number as a part of the verification system and so I lost my account there. It was not a big problem though as I found the cleartrip.com booking system that is an excellent place for both Indian train and domestic flight tickets. So after these preparations we went off to our trip with quite a clear mental image of the area we were heading to but with very little certainty about where we would lay our heads in each evening.
From Mumbai to Kasaragod
We arrived at the Mumbai international airport early in the morning, and even after all immigration formalities, it was still dark outside. I had booked tickets to the 11.40 Netravati express departing from the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus not far from the airport. As I did not want to arrive at the railway station in darkness, we decided to wait for the sunrise in the airport. However, the exit passage in the airport has no chairs or benches to sit, and the outside was full of begging children. So we just sat on the ground in one little niche and watched the endless flow of people passing by. There were people of all colour and many religious/cultural backgrounds. Suddenly one lady stopped very close to us and put her suitcase down. It was so close that I felt my personal space intruded. After a while she took her luggage and went on. A moment later the same was repeated by two other passengers. Then we realised that we had created a zone of rest which attracted other people to step out of the flow and have a small stop. I was surprised of the amount of luggage people travel with: some trolleys were loaded with huge piles of sacks knitted in cloth and vigorously tied with a rope. A small lady carried two huge suitcases, so that she took one suitcase for 10 meters and then repeated the same with the other one. Everybody had their destination and ours was 1231 km and 18 hours of train ride away.
Surely it would have been sensible to take a domestic flight instead, but I wanted our journey to start by train. Air fare is too business-like: you stay in your European mind-set, it is a part of your normal experience. But an 18 hour trip by train washes all your ordinary life away. It is a transition to the other world, preparation for the Indian way of operation.
So, after sunrise we took a taxi to the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus. To be honest, the terminus was a chock. My previous experience was the Mumbai main railway station, the huge Victorian building not much different from the Victoria station in London - a hectic, but manageable structure very much in the line how you imagine a railway terminal. But Lokmanya Tilak was different.
Lokmanya Tilak Terminus (C) indianetwone.com; (C)magiceye at mumbai-eyed.blogspot.com
There was just a dusty field, several platforms far apart and the waiting hall that reminded a temporary shelter. First we even could not spot the waiting hall and were quite suspicious when the taxi driver stopped at the verge of the field in the midst of tens of rickshaws and said that we are here.
So we took our backpacks and headed towards the terminal. We were the only western people in the middle of thousand Indians hurrying to work. It was a rush-hour. And we had to make ourselves comfortable at this place for another four hours when our train was supposed to depart. But we did not know which platform it was departing and even how to find out as all signs appeared to be in Hindi. We entered the waiting hall which was full of people. There were a few benches, all occupied, beggars and several passengers still sleeping on the ground, people going in all directions. So we went out again, totally lost. After a moment of headlessness we spotted three vacant seats on the nearest platform and landed there. First we just sat there and tried to grasp the thing.
There was a bastion made of sand sacks in one corner of the terminus, manned by three or four fully armed soldiers. There was an unfinished highway fifteen meters above the ground nearby; and there was a huge tent behind the terminal which was apparently a mosque as loud recitals in Arabic were aired from there. After a while we noticed that not all information was in Hindi. Actually, everything was bilingual, but for some reason we just were not able to see the English texts at first sight.
After an hour or so the terminus calmed down, the sun started to burn and two ladies came from somewhere and had a long white cloth, 4 meters long they had just washed. They took it from both ends and stood there in the sun for about an hour until the cloth (which I suppose was a man's garment) was dry. Seeing this one understands that time is a different concept here.
In due course we found our platform and the train that stood there apparently from the time of the last arrival. The passenger lists were all old, but when people started to take their seats we did the same. About 40 minutes before departure new passenger lists were glued to the wagon walls and everything was OK - our names were nicely listed. We had our places in the side berths on the second sleeper wagon. It was an ugly interior with some curious cockroaches crawling here and there. But it was to be expected and in a while I stopped noticing it and let myrself be carried away by the rythm of the wheels, hot dusty wind blowing from open windows and vendor's endless mantras: biriyani, biriyani, biriany, poori, poori. Actually, Kersti, my wife climbed to the upper berth soon after departure and literally slept 14 hours in a row. In our compartment, there was the core of a Hindu family; I did not understand whether they were returning from some family celebration in Mumbai to their home in Udipi or they were pilgrims to the famous Krishna temple in Udipi. In any case, all of them had their palms heavily tattooed in Henna, even the older men. They were more than ten people and twice they all gathered to our compartment to have their meal. They had curry and parothas taken with them in large lunchboxes, ordering chai from the wallah. In these occasions all three levels of berths were full of people and I invited a couple of them to use my berth as well. They weren't fluent in English, so our conversations remained brief.
But the occasions gave me a very good opportunity to observe how strict the left hand taboo is. And actually it is not that absolute as the India travel guides let us believe. Or maybe it is just more complex than the basic rule that you do not use your left hand for eating and passing things to others. Bread is taken and chai glass is held in the left hand while eating, as is banana. Children were given toys and other items apparently more by left hand than the right one, as I noticed, but I do not know whether it was just coincidene or some rule. More observations are certainly needed.
The train arrived to Kasaragod 5.30 in the morning, exactly on schedule. The station was fairly empty and we used the taps on the platform to refresh ourselves and wash our teeth, as did some local young men opening their snack booths. We had the obligatory chit-chat with them about where we are coming from and what are our names. They recommended visiting the 1400 year old Malik Deenar mosque near Kasaragod which we later did. But first we walked to the town centre, abot 1 km from the station.
Kasaragod is really a small town, the most provincial town we visited on this trip. We wandered around for an hour or so and decided to have breakfast. In one corner we were invited to a very authentic looking Hindu cafeteria, or I do not know what other name to call it. It was an ancient building, dining halls on two levels, connected by a room-wide stairs; there was a small altar with Ganesha, flower garlands and burning oil lamps. We had poori bread with coconut chutney and sambar (a kind of vegetable curry). It's a very filling food that keeps you going for the whole day.
Having decided that this is all Kasaragod could offer to us, we negotiated a rickshaw to take us to the mosque and thereafter to the Bekal Fort 20 km south from Kasaragod.
The Malik Deenar mosque did not look very much like a mosque, but it certainly had a distinctive architecture that was of the same type as some other very old mosques we saw later in Calicut. Actually, the architecture was perhaps not from the first millennium, the mosque was reconstructed in 1809. The most distinctive feature was colourful decorations on the facade that reminded Hindu temples, and the lack of minarets.
What characterises the Islam in Kerala is its long independent development from Arabic mainstream. Established already on the Prophet Muhammad's life time, conversion to Islam took place peacefully in Malabar, and thus far Muslims have been living in close contacts with Hindus and Christians. Christianity also has long roots in Malabar, allegedly the community was established in Calicut by apostle St. Thomas already A.D 52 and later supported by European colonisation. Only in recent times when thousands of Kerala people work on the Gulf area has mainstream Islam having more influence which is manifested in the cityscape mainly by new Arabic style mosques.
The Rough Guide warned us that the roads in Kerala are in bad condition, and the road From Kasaragod to Bekal Fort proved it in full. Actually, it was the worst road we encountered in our whole trip. The speed of the traffic hardly exceeded15 km/h. Bekal Fort which charges 100 Rs for entrance is entirely worth the money and you could see that the revenue is well spent here. The travel guide has characterised it as a dry empty field where goats are wandering, but this certainly has changed. One quarter of it has been turned into a green garden and the gardening works are enlarging. In a few years time the place could be a first class park. Also the wall pavements were fully restored, so that all fortifications were easily accessible. And the views are magnificent.
Our next goal was to find a hotel to stay. Bekal area is a rising tourist area, mainly for the domestic market, so there are already a couple of top end resorts. But we wanted something simpler. After a while we spotted a hotel and asked for a room, but apparently the place was not operating. The owner insisted that he'll take us to the hotel by his car and so he did, driving us another half mile to a place called Bekal Beach Residency. The room was nice and clean with European style bathroom and cost us 900 Rs per night. Although the door knob of our room was loose, using the key as a knob, everything worked. Getting rid of our backpacks we went out to find theyyam.
The word theyyam is a dialect form of daivam (God). It is a ritual dance, a living cult with thousands of years of traditions. As a rare combination of dance and music, it reflects important features of a tribal culture and has a clear social function even in our days. In the course of Theyyam, which can last as long as 24 hours, the dancer gradually becomes the embodiment of a particular god: he is not acting a god, but actually converts to a god and is paid a full respect by the devotees as a real living god.
The roots of Theyyam are deep in prehistoric times. Earlier it involved scarification of animals, and some of the Theyyam ritual songs describe that there were even sacrifices of humans in favour of the deity. For a long time it existed parallel to Hinduism, but its extraordinary influence in the society made the Brahmins to look for ways to gain control over the practice. In this process, Theyyam was integrated to Hindu religion and transformed: a large number of Brahminical gods and goddesses have been incorporated into Theyyam. Along with these gods and goddesses innumerable tribal gods and goddesses are worshipped. Also, blood offering is forbidden under the influence of Brahmanism, but it is still performed as we witnessed ourselves.
Originally Theyyam was the practice of the lowest castes, but once the cult became patronized by the Brahmins, the highest authority of Hindu religion, the intermediary castes also took it as a major religious practice, and it became the religion of the masses. Even the followers of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspect and some of the Moppila (the name of Malabar Muslims) characters like Alicahamundi have found a place in the cult. Still, the Theyyam ritual dance is exclusively performed by the male members of the traditional cast groups like Vannan, Malayan, Velan, Mavilan, Pulayan and Koppalan, the members of which were "untouchables" and "unapproachables" for the high castes. As the artists belong to this particular social class, they commanded no statues and position. Only during the time of performance their social degradation had been eliminated. During the ritual, the dancer has full authority over any person of any caste.
The ritual is generally performed in front of the village shrines. There is no stage, it is an open theatre, the audience standing or sitting around the performance. Usually, women and children gather tightly in one spot while men are dispersed in the rest of the area, changing places as the action moves from one place to the other (below left).
The dancer wears a very elaborate make-up and costume (one particular head wear is even about 5 meters long - above left). The make-up is done by specialists and other dancers. However, the performance does not start in full costume and make-up, but is elaborated in the course of the ritual. Full dress is worn only for the culmination of the rite.
The Theyyam ritual is not entertainment (or maybe a bit), but has important social meaning and purpose (see above right). The elaborate rituals are intended for the blessings of the supernatural. Often the entire village folk attend the Theyyam and place offerings, vegetables, oil etc. After the end of the ritual, the living god takes a seat and people approach him for personal blessing. This procedure may last about an hour or longer, depending on the number of people. As we witnessed, some gods were certainly more popular (and perhaps more powerful) than some others.
There are several good web pages for theyyams with beautiful photos and a lot of useful information. Look, for example http://www.vengara.com/theyyam/index.html which also contains theyyam calendar. The account above rests heavily on information presented in http://www.payyanur.com/theyyam/theyyam.htm.
Eager to experience this fascinating form of worship, we went out of our hotel to find out where it takes place. The young hotel receptionist even did not seem to understand what we are asking for, which was not encouraging. So we headed to the nearest village crossroad where there were some rickshaws and shops. We showed the name of the festival, and tried to pronounce it, but our pronunciation apparently was incomprehensible, and the rickshaw drivers had difficulty with reading Latin alphabet. But as we witnessed many times later, after a while a person appears who knew some English and could help us out. After a few minutes of his explanations in Malayalam, one of the rickshaw drivers agreed to take us there. His knowledge of English was marginal, but as long as he knew where to take us, it was no big problem.
I had a high resolution Google map printed out and I tried to follow where we were heading which initially worked out well. But after a fifteen minute ride we turned to a small side-road, and I did not understand whether this road is shown on my map. In short, I lost the track. So did the driver, apparently as he had to stop twice to ask the locals for directions. The road got narrower and narrower and we were quite in the middle of the jungle: the houses were small and poor and not many around. After a half hour of ride we arrived to a small valley with a unpretentious temple in the middle. Strangely it was built below the ground level in a shallow pit. There was not much activity around, except a few men arranging some lightning. However there were huge merchandise stalls erected nearby, indicating that a lot of people were expected. We tried to find out when the ritual started, but the man did not know English. At least the driver knew what we wanted, but he did not speak English either. After a while the man started to repeat tomorrow and ten, so we thanked and returned to Bekal. We asked the driver to stop before our point of departure to take a walk to nearby Palukunnu which created some confusion for him. Again we found somebody to translate and then it became evident that the performance would actually start 10 pm on the same day. So we asked the driver to pick us up at the hotel at 9 pm and took a long walk to the Palukunnu and back on the beach.
On our way back we had a delicious dinner on a Muslim fast food restaurant and prepared ourselves for the big event. We weren't sure whether it actually starts at 10 pm and if yes how long it will take and whether we will be welcome there after all. But it was very exciting, indeed. When we were taken there, I tried to remember the road (after all, it was already the third time to go through it), in the case we needed to return on our own. This time there was certainly something going on: the lights were on and there was about a hundred people waiting for the performance. Not knowing for how long we will be there, we let the rickshaw go.
As soon as we hesitantly approached the area, an elderly man, slightly drunk, took us by hand to the best place to follow the event. As we later found out, the particular theyyam that we witnessed was called Vishnumoorthi. It was the first part of the ritual that consisted of the long recital of the story, accompanied by energetic drumming.
The myth of Vishnumoorthi is the following: The emperor Kurupp had a boy servant at his palace called Kannan. One day Kannan and the daughter of Kurupp were playing together and when Kannan was plucking mangoes from a tree, one of them accidently fell on the head of the girl. Though it was an accident the emperor did not believe it and wanted to kill Kannan for revenge. Some kind people informed Kannan about the danger and he fled to a remote village. There he was given shelter by an old lady who was a Devi devotee. Kannan lived there serving the old lady just like her own son. When Kannan matured he wanted to meet his parents and relatives and to spend time where he grew up. The old lady insisted that going back would be fatal for him. But you cannot fool your fate. Kannan came back to his native place and Kurupp came to know about this. Once when Kannan descented into a pond to wash his face and legs, Kurupp secretly attacked Kannan and killed him with a sword. He abandoned the blade to the pond, but it came out from the water and started to juggle above the water. Consequently there were disasters happening in Kurupp's family. His cattles and other earnings were lost. Family members suffered from ill health and mental disorders. Astrologers were brought to his home who found that it was because he killed Kannan. When Kurupp begged for a solution, astrologers said that a theyyam must be performed to make the Narasimhavatharam (Lord Vishnu) happy.
Although not understanding the recitals, the building up of the tension in the narrative was clearly felt on the variable speed of speech and drumming rythms. The point of climax was really shivering. The recital lasted about an hour.
After the recital, we were approached by a few youngsters who spoke quite good English. It became clear that the theyyam is over for this night. So we were asking for a rickshaw to ride back. The boys tried to find a rickshaw for us and after a while they said that one guy has agreed to drop us back, but only after another performance, the so called Koladi. The boys begged us to stay for the Koladi which they said is the most famous dance in Kasaragod. They invited us to the temple territory to the back side of the temple. The temple had a square layout and the back corner (the north-east corner, if the Google map is positioned accurately) had a square cut-out without the roof. It has a very clean floor. I do not know what this area is called.
About 12 or 14 teenage boys, without shirt and wearing the beige lunghis (a traditional wrap around cloth worn by men instead of trousers), and a couple of young men (perhaps teachers) took about 20 cm bamboo sticks to each hand, crouched in the circle around a nilavilakku (a sacred oil lamp) and started singing, hitting rhythm by the sticks.
The trick was not that they hit their own sticks together (which they did, too), but they also hit the sticks of their both neighbors in a very elaborated pattern. At the same time they danced either croaching or standing, and the steps were not easy either, considering that it was all performed simultaneously with hitting the sticks together. The singing was very similar to my native runo-singing: there was a lead singer who sang a line which was then repeated by the chorus. It had the same trochaic metrum as does the Baltic-Finnic runo and the melody had a very familiar pattern, too (it did not have the Indian quarter tones, but rather simple movements within one third). There were several dances with different steps and slightly different melody, some even being on the three quarters basic metre. It was amazing to see these young boys so proudly performing this ancient dance which appears centuries away from the contemporary international consumer culture. It was not that the boys were not aware of Bollywood, Hollywood, hip-hop and the like. All of them had their smartphones with internet access, I suppose. But the fact that the contact with the glamorous VIP world has not let them to feel that their own culture is somehow backward or just "uncool" deserves respect.
After the Koladi that lasted about 45 minutes, the boys took us to the rickshaw driver who was surprisingly the same old chap who had first directed us to the places and later had short conversations. He was slightly drunk when we first met, slightly more after the Vishnumoorthi; and after the Koladi, he was definitely so drunk that asking him to take us to Bekal would have been irresponsible for both our own as well as his safety. Despite the boys insisting that he is experienced and could handle driving (which I actually believe, as he was later driving home anyway), we refused and so there was no other option for us than to walk home. It was 7 kilometers and we had to go by our memory on the road that we had seen just three times. But the full moon was shining like a silver coin, and the gods were on our side, so we didn't get lost, did not meet any snakes, tigers or other dangerous animals (except an apparently drunk gang of youngsters near Bekal). It took us 1,5 hours to get to our hotel and my feet had several large blisters as a result. But we were happy and returned to the village next morning 10 am to see the continuation of Visnumoorthy.
When we waited for the ritual to begin more people approached us to ask questions and just to socialise. The last night only the marginal members (drunks and village fools) of the community communicated with us, a more respectable men approached us. There was a guy, Vasantha who had left the village at the age of fifteen for Dubai where he had worked for thirty years as a pastry chef. He had returned now for good. He spoke fluent English and was very open. He explained the details of the theyyam. I think that it is important to stress that he was also somewhat an outsider in this community, although certainly wealthy and respected. It was thanks to him that after the Vishnumoorthy, we had the chance to have a common lunch in the temple kitchen. He said that he himself was invited, and he was asking whether he can bring us. Having a lunch in a Hindu temple is a rare opportunity, I think, and I felt really honoured. The meal was simple: coarse rice that looked like whole barley, but white, the rice boiling water with some spice as drink, and several curries, some definitely made with meat (perhaps the cock that was sacrificed in the course of Vishnumoorthy).
After the lunch, about 3 pm another theyyam was expected. But as there was still time, Vasantha invited us to his new home. His home was in the same village, about 1 km from the temple. It was a new villa, built on the money that he had earned in the Gulf. It was by far the largest and most beautiful building in this village. It was built in a typical style, with a large open terrace on the ground floor and another one above on the first floor, nicely decorated with red granite. The rooms were spacious with polished granite floors. In the corner of the living room, there was a wooden home temple, which reminded a large cupboard with windows on both sides and on the door. Inside it there was a Hindu altar. Next to it was a glass vitrine with the pictures of parents and his elder brother, now deceased. There were also various valuable family items and professional certificates. In the opposite wall, there was an inbuilt aquarium with large fish. Behind the house there was a garden with some banana trees, coconuts (which are virtually everywhere anyway), grapes and vegetable beds. His wife brought us fresh coconut sap and bananas, straight from the garden.
As we are of approximately the same age, we found that we have much in common on our views on life and values. So we spent a nice hour in a friendly and stimulating conversation and exchanged e-mail addresses. I found it remarkable that he had built his home in the same village he was born, even if the place had quite poor infrastructure - apparently no bus connection in vicinity, no shops or services. The only and I believe decisive factor in favour of this location was the fact that most of his relatives lived all nearby. So I think that this village must have a really strong community feeling that provides a meaningful social environment for its members despite the apparent lack of modern conveniences. This spirit must be responsible for the sustainability of old cultural traditions and values as well as for the lack of brain-drain which characterises many rural areas in my country, Estonia. I think it is all about one fundamental value difference between sustainable and disappearing communities: in disappearing communities the prevalent value orientation is to increase one's personal consumer power which motivates everybody who has some skills and ambition to move towards the centres of wealth, be they on the regional, national or global scale. In sustainable communities, value orientation must be towards the social goods, or happiness which is generally easier to achieve within the existing social networks, particularly if these networks are well working to induce happiness. This may sound as if I am saying to people in poor areas that stay where you are and try to be happy which is as if I would deny the right for them to aim for better livelihood. But again, this is true only in our Western value system which could hardly imagine happiness without the growth of personal wealth. I think that we will see soon how sustainable our growth based conception of happiness is. The other thing being whether the living generations of Westerners could in principle change their value orientations even if the limits of ecosystems would brutally face them with this question.
The next theyyam was some form of Bhagavathi (below left), with a really long and heavy 7 metre headdress (below right). We saw the building of this headdress already in the previous night when, at the time of Vishnumoorti recitals, several men tied long bamboo chips together with a wet rope forming a drop shaped structure. They continued this on the next morning covering the wooden frame with red cloth. This required quite a lot of patient needlework. The resulting construction was both long and heavy as it was erected by the force of three men, and they had trouble keeping it in balance. The head-dress was put on the sitting dancer who already had a large circular shoulder-dress in a diameter of nearly 2 meters. The head-dress that had two strong poles was fixed to the body of the dancer with ropes. The process took some 15 minutes until the dancer was satisfied with the strength of the bindings. Then he rose on his feet. It was obvious that a slightest imbalance would result in the fall of the man and the god, but there was a means to avoid this. His assistants took three meter long mushroom shaped poles and supported the construction if it started to tilt. The god moved around the shrine several times and danced, accompanied by heavy drumming all the way along. The ritual ended about the time the sun set, the long headdress was removed and people came to get salvation. So did Vasantha, asking me along, but I refused saying that I am not ready yet.
This time Vasantha called a rickshaw for us and we got home by nine a clock. The fan in our room was operating, but quite old and noisy. But in a nice way: while rotating it replicated the drum rhythms of the theyyams. So when I closed my eyes on the bed, the theyyam still went on as even our fan embodied some local hotel deity.
I woke up a few moments before 5 am to the sound of passing train which was followed by distant barking of dogs and some early rooster's crowing. Suddenly a wave of sadness came to me and I thought whether this was the same feeling that inspired Claude Levi-Strauss to title his book "Tristes Tropiques". And then it started. The most mystical and touching experience I had on this trip. First I heard the sounds of the Muslim early morning prayer from several locations. Hearing this in the darkness far from home was deepening my sadness when suddenly I heard the most reassuring female voice singing a magnificient song. The melody consisted only one period that was repeated again and again, each line ending with the word suprabhatam. The song lasted for 20 minutes and it was full of love and assurance of life. Later I learned that this was Sri Venkateshwara Suprabhatam, the Hindu Morning Prayer for waking up the deity (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Fjw_6AntJo&feature=related). When the song ended I fell asleep again and slept healthily till 9 o'clock.
Valiyaparamba backwaters and Kannur
In the morning, we headed to Valiaparamba backwaters. Travel guides characterise these backwaters as a un-touristy alternative to the famous Allaphuza backwaters. On Northern backwaters, as they are also called, there is only one company running house-boat cruises, 9000 Rs for a 24 hour tour for two, meals included. I had called to the company after arriving to Kasaragod, but they were not able to provide us the tour for such short notice. And thank god, as we got our cruise 100 times cheaper using the government passenger boat. But in the morning we did not know this, as we did not even know how to get to the Boat Jetty near Udinoor. This place seemed to lie far from main roads, the closest larger town being Payyanur. We decided to take a train from nearby Bekal station to Payyanur, but when checking out from the hotel around 10, we were told that all trains have already gone and the next ones are in afternoon. We were suggested to take a bus to Kanhangad and from there another one to Payyanur. So we faced our first bus ride in India.
It was quite an experience. We hopped on the first bus that came along and it was heading to Kanhangad. We were seated next to the driver and the ride began. The young driver certainly showed us all his skills and these were remarkable, indeed. We overtook all other vehicles on the road. At times it seemed inevitable that the bus will hit the car in front of us, but the driver reduced the speed at the last moment, just this much as to let the coming vehicle to pass and then overtook sharply just a second before apparently inevitable collision. He avoided the holes in the road with great skill, but quite often I thought that I will be thrown out of the front window. Anyway, we got to the Kanhangad safe and sound and took a picture of this hothead as our revenge.
His style was not exceptional though, I noticed many bikers who drove skilfully and with great contempt of death between the lines, outmaneuvering themselves from apparently fatal situations. However, one day we also witnessed a tragic accident when a bike of two young men had had a collision with a bus, apparently while overtaking a truck in a blind curve. One of them had got stuck under the bus, so that the passengers had to lift the bus to get the boy out. They were both alive, though in a bad condition, and were lifted to the hospital by a car and a rickshaw, their feet sticking out of the window. This sight calmed our rickshaw driver to the extent that I felt as if I were traveling in Finland. I must say though that I was surprised that most of the bikers had helmets in Kerala, a sight that was rare on the roads of Goa when we visited the state two years ago.
In Payyanur we thought that one bus ride is enough for the day, but as soon as we got out of the bus, we were instantly asked whether we want to go to Kannur. We said Payyanur, and were directed to the bus. After the conductor had advertised his bus for a few minutes by shouting Kannur, Kannur, Kannur, Kannur, we were on the road again. This driver, a middle aged man was much calmer and we even had chance to enjoy the surroundings. We got out in Payyanur, a small town, perhaps like Kasaragod, and started our usual process of explaining the rickshaw drivers where we want to go. It was half an hour ride to an area that stood out by remarkably large and well off villas. The Boat Jetty was there, several narrow diesel engine boats aligned to a short quay, so that the last boat could be approached only by going through all others.
Using the passenger boat is really an excellent opportunity to explore the backwaters. The boat zigzagged up to the Northen end of the backwaters and at each stop there were a few people coming in or out. It is a peaceful yet noisy ride where you can enjoy the beautiful surroundings, villages and fishing boats, and observe local people.
At one stop a young Muslim couple boarded, the girl looking like 15 and the boy in his twenties. The couple was so obviously in love that it was a very sweet sight indeed: they just could not get their eyes and hands off each other, her turquoise headscarf falling constantly on her shoulders in the gentle wind. Their behaviour was very similar to the European youth, or me and my wife 25 years ago. Later in the beach area near Kannur where Kersti dared to wear shorts, exposing her endless legs, another Muslim woman in black hijab approached us and after a short informal friendly conversation said to Kersti that she is beautiful. Surprisingly the other locals were also tolerant of her legs, at least their faces remained smiling. So the Islam in this region must be quite liberal, I guess. However, a bus full of Bangalore tourists bursted to comments when seeing her in the shorts, so generally she stuck to the long skirt as default.
When we ended the 1,5 hour boat tour and wanted to get off, the crew said that the boat continues towards south to the Payyanur railway station that was perfect for us, as we could also see the southern part of the backwaters and later take a train to Kannur. The trip to Payyanur lasted another 1.5 hours and the whole day on the boat cost us just 60 Rs. The most convenient way to start the backwaters tours would be from the Payyanur railway station - the quay is just 500 meters from the station. The boats operate after every 1.5 hours or so. It would be a good idea to get out in Valiyaparamba and wander around the village and the outer beach; and to continue the trip on the next boat, but we relised this too late. The boats are subsidised by the state and this is the reason why the tickets are so cheap, but they are not in the best condition, to be honest, so that one member of the crew has to constantly pump out the water from the bilge.
From Payannur we took a train To Kannur, a 40 minute trip. In Kannur station we called one of the hotels recommended by the Rough Guide and arrived there just before dawn. Kannur I would call a city, with a new shopping mall called "City Center" and a few modest skyscrapers. Its beach promenade on the cliff is frequented by local young couples after the sunset, and it certainly is a romantic place, with a lighthouse, sound of breaking waves, stars and the moon.
Costa Malabari and more theyyams
Costa Malabari is a guesthouse south of Kannur, recommended by Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide to Kerala. And indeed, it is a remarkable place. The house we had our room was just at the top of a cliff on the beach. The beach was a 200 m sandy strip secluded between two rocks - virtually a private beach.
The host Kurien has a full overview of theyyams in area and arranges English-speaking rickshaw drivers-guides to take the tourists to the theyyam, look after them, give explanations and bring back in the morning. Other lovely features are the common meals for all the tourists in one house (our house had four rooms, all booked during our stay). Maybe it was chance, but these western people we met there were certainly not ordinary holiday makers, but dedicated travellers. So, the after dinner conversations brought up wonderful travel stories in India and elsewhere.
We asked Kurien to arrange transport to a theyyam, and 3 am the rickshaw was there to take us to one. The ride lasted about an hour. At this place four theyyams were performed in a row and there were 6 or 7 dancers. We were able to see the make-up procedure and afterwards my guide encouraged me to take blessing from one of the gods, which I did. Although the theyyams were even a bit more spectacular at this time, the athmosphere was not that dedicated as in the first village. There was a gang of young men who did not pay much attention to the theyyam, but spent time mocking each other, there were also a number of tourists who made some scenes of the theyyamlook like a red carpet occasion where a crowd of papparazzos greet every new celebrity with the turmoil of flash lamps. In a word, some of the authenticity that we witnessed on our first theyyam was missing. Perhaps this is an inevitable outcome when the tradition starts to commercialise, being taken as a tourist attraction. It is likely that this travel log could also contribute to this by attracting more visitors to the area.
By 8 am the rituals were over and we headed back. In some village on the road was blocked by trucks and the rickshaw driver said that toddy is collected to be taken to shops. Toddy is a fermented alcoholic drink made of coconut sap. We were asked whether we would like to try and immediately a glass of toddy was given to us. Kersti had a small sip but I drank the whole glass (below).
It had a very good fresh taste, slightly sweet, I could characterise it as a sweet cider. There were consequences, though. I got diarrhea and a fever in the evening that lasted about 24 hours. There were no pains or anything and it all felt so right - I wasn't suffering, but rather having a kind of ayurvedic cleansing procedure. So after two days I was cleaner, leaner and full of good spirit. Kersti spent this day on the beach which she certainly enjoys more than I do.
After three days in Costa Malabary we were heading to Wayanad, a mountainous area, famous for its wildlife sanctuaries. As I wasn't very sure about my stomach we took a taxi instead of adventuring by busses. This enabled us to stop at an ancient Shiva temple on the road that had wonderful wall paintings telling the story of Ramayana.
I had spotted a guesthouse Villa Valentine ([url]www.valentinewayanad.com[/url]) already back home when I was exploring the Chembra peak area on Google maps. It was located on a very remote place near Teppadi, the closest settlement on the track to the Chembra. I was surprised that it had its own homepage and was tagged to the Google map and so I thought that it would be interesting to stay there.
It is a nice four bedroom house in the middle of a small coffee estate, there is a river nearby that during the dry season is rather small, but has a deep reservoir at one point that is perfect for swimming. The water is cool and refreshing. A one kilometre walk takes you to the Soochiparra that is a recognised tourist attraction with tickets, souvenir stalls and stone stairs to the bottom of the thirty meter waterfall. A beautiful place that is popular both amongst the local tourists as well as suicide committers, as we were told.
We were taken care by Radhakrishnan a 45 year lively man who was the manager, cook, cleaner and guide all in one person. We were the first western tourist at this place that usually accommodates young wealthy Bangalore IT-people who come with friends to have a wild weekend party in the nature. And the place looks like a Garden of Eden, indeed. When we stayed there, we were the only guests.
The next moring Radhakrishnan organised a jeep to take us to the bottom of the Chembra peak. It is a 2100 metre mountain with steep slopes. There is a very narrow and steep footpath to the top and you need a 1000 Rs ticket and a forest guide to accompany you. The descent is quite demanding particularly if the sun starts to burn: it took us 2,5 hours to reach the peak. The views are magnificent, the clouds permitting (the morning fog forms clouds around the peak that dominate from 10 to 12, thereafter the view improves). There is a cliff on the north side of the peak with some 20 m of free fall followed by a steep slope to the bottom of the valley about 700 meters down. Sitting there is a breathtaking experience. Asscending the mountin is only slightly less demanding than descending, and if you are not particularly fit, your legs will get certainly wobbly by the time you reach the base. Good shoes with proper traction are a good idea, although the guide hopped skilfully down on regular old slippery rubber sandals that everybody wears around here.
In the afternoon, Radhakrishnan invited us to his home. It was about a kilometre away, on the other side of the hill. In our side the homes were quite large, Radhakrishnan said that this is the Muslim village, where many people work or have worked in the Gulf. The other side of the hill was Hindu area. Most of the people there worked at the tea plantation and factory. It was a poor area. The houses were small having two rooms and a kitchen. They were on the side of the hill and had no access by car, but just a simple footpath. Radhakrishnan lived in close proximity to his brothers. Actually the footpath to his home passed the front-yard of their houses. Each house was slightly higher on the hillside. Radhakrishnan's house was the last and actually, it wasn't a house but a tent. Inside there were two large beds, a high steel locker and behind this the kichen area. Radhakrishnan's wife Bindu offered us tea and we sat on the bed. Radhakrishnan opened the locker and took out a framed photo of his parents about A4 size. It was a studio photo taken some 40 year ago. His father worked at the tea factory and died of heart attack when Radhakrishnan was a child. His mother died due to yellow fever when he was 7. Radhakrishnan and his younger brother and sister were raised in their elder brother's family. Later he invited us to his stepmother's house, too. Her house was also small, very clean, particularly the kitchen which was full of utensils and spice boxes arranged nicely on the shelves. Actually, the kitchen is considered the purest place of the home according to Hindu religion. So it is kept particularly clean. In the living room there was a TV, a DVD player and a large number of movies. Although most of the people we met on our voyage were smiling and happy-looking, Radhakrishnan's stepmother was just glowing in happiness. It wasn't the hey-hey-jumping type of happiness (after all, she was in his sixties), but the happiness of great souls, full of spirituality and kindness.
Rashakrishnan was building a real house for his family, ten more meters up the hillside, and promised that after two years, he could invite us to their new home. When I asked how it is to live in the tent during the Monsoon season, he replied laconically: "not good." A falling tree in the storm could be a real danger, and snakes, too, at any time of the year. Actually on the next day, Radhakrishnan was called by his wife who said that a snake is on their bead and does not want to go away. So he went home, killed the snake and returned to work. Although his living conditions were really modest even on local standards, I could sense no misery or bitterness in the talk or actions of this family.
After visiting his home, Radhakrishnan took us on a tour by rickshaw. We passed the tea factory, a poor Muslim settlement and headed higher up to the mountains to reach Radhakrishnan's home temple that was located on the top of the highest hill around. It was a small temple dedicated to Sita, the deity of agricultural fertility and virtuous womanhood, an avatar of Lakshmi (the Mother Earth). It was about a quarter to 6 when we went there and the music was played from the loudspeakers to invite people to service. The music was full of the same happiness that we saw on the face of Radhakrishnan's stepmother. Hearing it on the temple hill with magnificent views over the whole area fulfils the heart of even the most agnostic Estonian with the sense of divine purpose. (Estonians, by the way, are known to be the least religious nation in Europe, mere 16% believing in God, according to Eurostat. But the surprising 56% of them believe in the existence of some sort of spirit or higher being, the highest proportion in Europe.) When the music stopped, two echoes returned from the distant hills.
After leaving this temple, Radhakrishnan took us to another temple. The service was already under way when we entered. As customary, we (the men) took off our shirts. We watched the altars and then R brought us to the main altar where people were standing, men on the left and women on the right side. The priest was in the sanctuary, the doors closed. After a while, he came out holding a holy fire. He was an old man with a long grey beard. The men took the flame as you take water to wash your face. Then the priest poured holy water to the palms of people, which was drunken and poured on the head. Then he passed sandalwood paste and flowers to everybody. The paste was used to mark the forehead and the neck; the flowers were held behind the ear. So we received our salvation.
When we returned to our hotel I asked R whether Hindus, Muslims and Christians have services at the same time. "Yes," he replied, "everybody goes to the service at the same time, the God is the same, only the ways of service are different." Actually, his wife Bindu was Christian and so they went to the temple in one week and to the church the other week. I suppose this tolerant unitarian universalist approach to religious matters might be quite common in Malabar which could explain the relatively peaceful coexistence of major religions in this area over thousands of years. It is an attitude that might be recommended to Europeans as well, although I think that it would not work in the civilisation where the majority is not religious while the minority is. I suppose that it is easier for two religious people to agree that the God is the same than to reach similar mutual understanding between a believer and a secular. But as for us, we returned to our hotel better beings than those who left it a couple of hours earlier.
Communism and consumerism
After a day in an elephant sanctuary and other tourist attractions in Wayanad we headed further to the coast to Calicut (Kozhikode). It was a two hour bus ride including a descent from to the 700 meter high plateau that was steep as a wall, thus providing a fantastic view from the top to the lowlands.
Riding through villages and towns we witnessed communist symbolics in many places: there were red flags, some having the communist symbol - the hammer and the sickle, portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Che Quevara, next to the pictures of local leaders; and political banners written on red cloth and stretched over the street. It wasn't the first time to see this. The dominance of communist symbolic stroked us already on our first day in Malabar.
First I thought that it is just a peculiarity of one village. But it was not. Communist symbolic is everywhere. For me as a person who has lived half of his life in the Soviet Union, this sight was a real deja vu.
But its essence must have been much different than the soviet communism. Actually, in Kerala, communists were elected to the power; they did not usurp it as Bolsheviks did in Russia. And there is not just one communist party in Kerala as it was in the USSR and no other parties, but two communist parties and a whole lot of other, non-communist ones. Apparently Kerala communists have done some good as they have been re-elected frequently after 1967 when they first came to power and pushed through a radical reform giving land to 1.5 million landless families. As a result, Kerala's small scale farming is the main economic activity for half of the population. This is a very traditional life-style that helps to maintain the ancient cultural traditions still very much alive in villages. On the other hand, this economic model is responsible for the remarkably low level of economic growth in Kerala.
Communists and their politics could be said to be responsible for the slow economic growth in other ways too: as the work force is politically active, investors try to avoid the state; and alcoholism is certainly a problem: despite the fact that both Islam and Hinduism prohibits consumption of alcohol, it is widely used. Radhakrishnan had explained the daily routine of tea plantation workers to us: they earn 120 Rs for day's work, for 50 Rs they buy rice and for 70 Rs Rum. In the evening they consume all of it and go to sleep just to start it all over the next day. This is rather similar to the former workers' routine in the USSR, too.
But there are good sides, too: Kerala has the highest literacy level in India - over 90% of Malayalis read and write, life expectancy, despite drinking, is 74 years which is slightly higher than in my home Estonia, an EU country. Infant mortality is 14 per 1000 (as compared to 47 as the Indian average). So, despite poor economy, the social sphere seems to be OK and people happy, even though the happiness may come largely from religion not from consumption. Why are we Westerners so certain that associating happiness with increasing consumption is in any way superior than deriving it from other sources?
We stopped in Calicut only for one day staying in a cheap hotel next to a very colourful and vibrant market. Trade seemed to be the most characteristic feature of Calicut. Its main streets were packed with shops and customers, and for some goods, it is certainly the best place to do your shopping.
We bought several very nice print painted handloom fabrics, shirts and towels, all much cheaper than in Cochin further in south. Also, there is a government run handicraft shop Khadi Gramodyog on the Basheer Rd, near the hotel Malabar Mansion. Prices there are about three times less than in Cochin. In smaller towns in Malabar, no handicraft can be found in shops, as this merchandise is mainly oriented for the tourist market.
The lively trade is said to be based on the earnings of the guest workers in the Gulf area: about 24% of the national wealth of Kerala is derived from the export of work force. The fact that the workers and money return to Malabar seems to indicate once more the strength of the social networks and culture - it is certainly not a country that the people want to abandon. It is quite a different pattern than what we see in the Post-Socialist countries of Eastern Europe. I think that the core of this difference lies on the differences in the conception of happiness in Kerala and in Europe.
Next day we headed to our final destination - Kochi, the Keralas second largest city, an important port and commercial hub in central Kerala. I tried to book a room in a nice heritage hotel (Ballard Bungalow) the night before. I did not introduce myself much, just saying that I would like to have a room, but I guess that my English had already acquired some South-Indian features, so I was told that there are no vacancies. Ten minutes later Kersti tried the same place, using her best RP English, saying that she is a tourist from Europe, travelling with her husband, and she got the room for us. A nice working example of linguistic profiling, and a good piece of knowledge that could be handy in the future.
Actually we got another useful lesson at the train station as well. We arrived an hour before departure of the train that we had chosen and bought second class tickets from the counter. The teller told us that there are no places left on the next train and we should wait another 3 hours for the next one. Quite bad luck. Knowing that Indian rail travel is tricky, I approached a gentleman who was reading an English language newspaper on the platform. I said that I am new to Indian train travel and could not understand the information printed on my ticket. He explained that it is a day ticked that can be used on any train heading towards our destination. He also said that I can take the next train, despite fact that we did not not have seats. Most likely there are seats that the ticket counter does not know about. I will just have to approach the compartment head in the train and ask him to upgrade my ticket. So we did and I learned how to upgrade a second class ticket on the train. Again, a skill that could be handy in the future.
There is not much I want to write about Fort Kochin - it is a touristy place, full of Western holidaymakers. There are the Chinese fishing nets, the famous tourist attraction of Kerala; and, of course, a splendid colonial old town with narrow streets with renaissance churches and palaces.
We tried Ayurveda treatment and it certainly is very relaxing and rejuvenating, particularly the dripping of oil to the forehead that leads you to the wonderful world between sleep and wakefullness; and of course the aromatic steam bath that works miracles on your oiled body. So, we spent our last days in Kerala as real tourists, enjoying good restaurants and listening the gospel choirs that sang about the great day in Betlehem, Rudolf the red nose reindeer, and white Christmas, gently bringing us back to reality.
Christmas back home
Every culture has its own traditions and Christmas is certainly one of the periods laden with traditions in Estonia, too. In our home, it is a four day ritual that starts with going to the market and buying 10 kg of sauerkraut, and 15 kg of pork meat, including pettitoes, and guts. Then the womenfolk spend a whole day making sult (a delicious meat yelly) and saussages filled with groats and fatmeat. My son goes to the wood with all the family children and brings Christmas-tree which will be decorated. On the Christmas Eve, before the dinner, we go to the cemetery to sing some songs to our ancestors. And we may even drop into church. After dinner everybody starts to wait for Santa Claus. This is customarily played by me. This year, when I left to to dress up, I realised that all this is very much like theyyam. Although everybody knows that this is me who is embodying Santa, still when I got my face painted, white beard and costume on, I looked to the mirror and became the Santa Claus. And when Santa enters to the candlelight room, you can sense the special atmosphere. We certainly need a little miracle, be it in Malabar or in Estonia.
Latest comments for Malabar: Theyyams and beyond
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Please look at this thread, even if you are not in India.: Have you seen Jonathan Spollen?
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I have just read the account of your trip - wish I'd seen it before our own journey to Kerala couple of months ago as it raises some very good ideas.
Thank you for taking the trouble to post; I'm sure that it will be an inspration to others to branch out that little bit extra.