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The Oracles of Malabar

 
 

Theyyam is a corruption of the word “daivam,” which means “god” in Malayalam, Kerala’s state language. An incredibly vibrant tradition that has been in practice for the last 1500 years, Theyyam is a folk religion with deep roots in Malabar, the northern region of Kerala. In Theyyam, the practitioner, or oracle, enters a state of exalted trance in which he becomes the physical manifestation of a deity. He is believed to be possessed with divine powers to heal, foretell the future, and confer blessings on devotees. A Theyyam practitioner traditionally hails from select castes, who are among the most socially disadvantaged communities in Kerala, where caste divisions are still very strong. Yet during Theyyam, the oracle is worshipped as a living deity by all classes, even by the Brahmins, the community at the helm of the social system.

A visually rich cult with explosive colors in the face and body painting of the practitioner, Theyyam is also a religious art with dense layers of imagery and symbolism, one in which ancient chants are employed in conjunction with the ritual use of music, richly colored fabrics and dance to visualize and invoke the deity.

The Oracles of Malabar
Theyyam is an ancient religious cult of Malabar in North Kerala. A hierarchy of gods and goddesses are believed to manifest in the flesh-and-blood templates of the oracles. Although the outward appearance of the incarnate deities is often wrathful, they are believed to be benevolent.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
An intense makeup session is an essential part of invoking the deity. Red, orange and yellow are the traditional colors used for makeup, with intricately designed loops and whorls that differentiate the incarnate deities. A slim strip of coconut leaf is being used here to draw meticulous loops and whorls and spirals on the oracle’s cheeks, daubed in fluorescent orange paint.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
Traditionally, the deity is manifests in its flesh-and-blood form when, after make up, the oracle ceremonially gazes into a mirror and watches himself as the incarnate deity.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
Theyyam is a cult that uses richly colored fabrics. A group of workers, hailing from the same community as the oracles, are preparing the god's costume.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
A fire Theyyam, with no less than 16 fire torches fixed around the waist of the Theyyam performer upon a thick sheath of tender coconut leaves. The living god is being worshipped by the temple priest here.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
The oracle rushes through the fire repeatedly, bare bodied and bare feet, in a temple courtyard.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
An oracle walks through the crowd, chanting blessings on the devotees. In his trance, he usually talks frenetically in a voice that is different from his own.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
Two kamerans, servants of the god, hold the oracle as he dances in his trance on a stool. In his trance the incarnate deity can only be touched by his kamerans.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
A troupe of drummers rapping out insistent beats on the drums with their small, hard drumsticks as the oracle stands on a ceremonial stool in the courtyard of a temple inside a forest in Malabar.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
In his living god avatar, the oracle is worshipped by all classes. Theyyam is a cult in which man becomes god and god becomes man, commanding respect and devotion.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
A rice paste with yellow turmeric powder is a sort of a sacrament with which the incarnate deity blesses the devotees. It is considered holy and believed to have healing powers.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Oracles of Malabar
A Theyyam practitioner removes the last vestiges of his make up before going back to his daily routine. This man is a well-digger by profession.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
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