Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific


Teyyam, Powerful Manifestations of Gods in Nature

Teyyam is a divine dance that is prevalent in the northern districts of Kerala, such as Kannur and Kasargod. The name teyyam is derived from daivam, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘god’ or ‘deity’. Performed in shrines, sacred groves, houses, and open places, teyyam represents mythological, divine, ancestral, animal, and heroic characters, each with its own distinct shape and form of origin. There are over 350 of these teyyams.

As one of the most outstanding folk arts of Kerala, teyyams are a unique combination of dance and religious worship that are accompanied by a traditional percussion instrument (cenda) to create a spiritual mood. However, the performances are made complete through the visually striking costumes and the intricate face makeup used on the performers who represent the teyyams.

The teyyam costume can be described as the epitome of divinity, aesthetics, and architecture. Indigenous skill comes into full play in creating the extraordinary and wonderful beauty that ultimately demands awe-inspiring devotion from the people. These same emotive senses are further stimulated through the geometric patterns and color choices included in the facial and body makeup.

The color selection reflects the great minds of the past generations, individuals who labored to create through teyyam a physical manifestation of the most powerful gods very close to the people. They considered the land a wide canvas with green as the predominant color, so red, the complementary color to green, dominates the makeup and costumes to make them more conspicuous. Generally, in addition to red, colors such as orange, yellow, and black are used. Green is also occasionally used for a few deities, but the occurrence of this color is rare as it blends too easily with the landscape.

The process of making up the face of a teyyam is called mukhathezhuthu. It starts with smearing manayola for orange as a light shade on the face. Different designs and patterns or sometimes lines are drawn on the border using cayillium and mashi for red and black, respectively. The yellow is made using turmeric powder, and to make the white, rice flour is used. Kumkum is the material for lipstick. If needed, green is made by mixing turmeric powder with red.

Coconut shells hold the paint while the midribs of coconut leaves serve as the brush to apply the intricate drawings. Indigenous materials used to create the most complex designs on the teyyam face are a wonder in the world of teyyattam. It is surprising that it is hardly seen elsewhere in the world in any folk ritual arts. The names of the designs are drawn from the local parlance revealing the features of birds, animals, flowers, and other elements of nature. Sometimes the name itself will suggest its representation. Anakkal (elephant leg), telval (scorpion tail), kozhipushpam (chicken comb), and kurangiruttan (sitting posture of a monkey) are just a few examples.

Several different detailed elements are included in the application of the makeup. Painting around the eyes is an important part. Mankannu (deer eye), vattakannu (round eye), kodumpurikam (fierce eyebrow), balikannu (eye of bali), and nattu kannu (owl eye) are examples of some different designs that are focused around the eyes. Bilateral symmetry is also important with the designs. The tiger, for example, is drawn on the two sides of the face for teyyams such as Puliyur Kali and Pullikkarinkali.

Some teyyams, mainly heroes with an exception of Padakkatti, a female deity, have beards. There are three categories of beards; two are color based (black or white), and the last, a hanging beard, is descriptive of the visual appearance of a long black beard. White beards represent older characters while black beards symbolize youth. The long black beard is said to have been taken from demon, and it is used by a mother goddess.

Developing since antiquity, teyyam dance performances have become important representations of religious worship and ritual in India’s southern state of Kerala. The rich colors and patterns of the face and body makeup are a distinctive part of local intangible cultural heritage.