I am beginning to wonder if should cut short my trip and return to Bangalore. The last few days have been dull due to the weather. Although I have enjoyed my visits, I would enjoy it even more if I come back after the monsoons. But last evening I checked out the monsoon predictions from the Indian Metrological Department. For the coming week, the center of the monsoon is expected to move north, meaning that there would be far less rain in the south. Let’s see. I am going to stick around for another week.
So this morning I take the same Netravati Express that I took yesterday to reach Kasargod. I get off at Kannur. Although its new official name is Cannanore, the old name has stuck on. The station is busy. The platforms are milling with early morning crowds. I head into KVR Vegetarian Restaurant on Platform 1. It is a clean place with waitresses dressed in blue waistcoats and white salwars. For breakfast they have quite a tempting choice of South Indian delicacies – upma, puttu, iddiappam and vadai. I order a plate of upma. It is served fresh and hot. It costs a ridiculous eight rupees only.
I enquire at a book stall nearby about theyyam performances. Theyyam or theyyattam is a spirit possession and dance-worship ritual popular in this part of Kerala. I am aware that this is not the season for theyyam but I am going to try my luck. The bookseller says the same thing. The theyyam season is over. I have to wait next year to catch one. I consult my Rough Guides guidebook.
‘What about Parassinikadavu? Do you think there will be performance there?’ I ask.
‘Ah! Yes, you might see it there,’ tells me a customer buying the morning newspaper, Malayala Manorama.
‘Ana roopam edukkathu,’ tells the newspaper vendor. He means that the spirit will not be manifested. I’ll have to go there and find out for myself.
I cross the railway tracks by an overhead bridge and after a short walk reach the town’s major bus stop. Within a few minutes I get a bus going straight to Parassinikadavu. The village name is quite a mouthful and I find the bus conductor announcing it as “Parssini.” The bus is crowded and I have to stand all the way to my destination. It appears that lots of people are going there and most of them are making their way to the temple. Being Sunday, the temple is expected to be crowded. I learn that people travel for miles to visit this famous temple.
The temple is a long way down, set in a valley by the banks of a wide river. There is no need to ask for directions. Simply follow the crowd. Soon I am at the temple. It is a hive of activity, a sensory experience, a complex mix of ritual sounds and vivid colours. I learn that the theyyam performance is only half past six in the evening. There are plenty of hotels around but all of them are booked. I may have to return to Kannur for the night. I dump my backpack at the temple’s cloak room. I have the whole day to enjoy the temple in leisure.
With so much going on in every corner of the temple, it is rather difficult to get my bearing. Near the temple’s office are devotees eating offerings of boiled channa. Others are collecting slips from the office for pujas and offerings. Priests are busy in their routines. To the left, inside a single well-ventilated room something is going on. A line of men is making it way slowing into the room.
I learn that this is a ceremony called “choroon.” It is performed for babies about a year old. It is to mark their first food. Fathers stand in line with their babies while sometimes the mothers stand by the sidelines to comfort. An oil lamp burns steadily in the room. Next to it is a small linga, anointed and decorated with flowers. A priest inside performs the rituals. He advises the fathers to sit cross-legged. A banana leaf is laid out. Holy water is sprinkled on it. The priest recites mantras that common folks do not understand. A donation is first requested. Once collected, the priest serves a ladle of sweetened rice. I believe it is sweet pongal – rice cooked with jaggery. Fathers take a pinch of this food and feed it to the babies. Mothers, siblings and relatives look on with excitement. Pictures are clicked. Flashes light the room for brief moments. The next father-and-son pair moves in to perform the same routine.
I head into the main temple where special ceremonies are underway. Like in Dharmasthala, the temple is housed in a large enclosed space with a high ceiling. From outside, the enclosing structure is pagoda-like. Inside are high pillared verandahs around the inner temple. In a corner, is a large scale. People actually weigh themselves on this iron scale and offerings are made according to body weight. This temple is in typical Keralan style with sloping roofs and lots of lamps hanging under the eaves. Little lamps stand fixed to the temple walls of lattice work.
This is a temple where not just these rituals but the items they use to perform them, the hand gestures, the circumambulations, are all unique and stylistic. I gather these are aspects of a rich old tradition still current in these parts. Banana leafs are used in most of these rituals. Water, rice, coconut, beans and channa are other common items used in worship. What catches my attention is a set of brass idols of dogs. There has been no tradition of dog worship in most parts of India. I can’t think of dog being a vehicle to any of the gods in the Hindu pantheon. Dog worship in this temple is quite intriguing.
As I sit on the inner verandah watching devotees come and go, I am tempted to take pictures. But photography is strictly prohibited here. A little before noon a puja begins. A policeman clears the floor facing the temple. The priest does his routine. What happens next amazes me. A dog walks in. The priest offers food on a banana leaf. The dog laps it up in seconds. The priest continues with his routine, sometimes going into the temple and sometimes coming out to the silent crowd. The dog lingers for a while but its task is done. He would have to wait for the next puja for such attention and luxury. Later I find that there are no less than five dogs inside the temple and they take turns to grace the temple pujas and artis.
A long queue has gathered to partake the temple’s free lunchtime meal. I join the queue. The river is flowing broadly and the sky is dull as ever. At least it is not raining. It is a long hour of wait and finally at half past noon lunch is served. I have to wait another twenty minutes for my turn. We sit on a low wooden plank. Banana leaves are laid out before us in a hurry. Thick boiled rice is served in heaps. Sambar is poured out. Buttermilk comes quickly after. It is a basic meal without vegetables or protein. It is full of carbohydrates but nothing else.
After lunch, I take a walk. There are many hours left for the evening performance. I cross a bridge to the river’s other bank, walk past green fields of rice, waving coconut palms and amble by the riverbank. It is a pleasant walk in rural Kerala. There is an aqueduct here that was opened in 1997. Today it is covered with moss and weeds, clogged with dry coconut fronds. It has not been in use for years. I even doubt if it was ever used. It is yet another sign of public investment gone bad.
‘Don’t go alone,’ cautions me a drunkard as I walk on a lone road between large stretches of paddy fields. The countryside is green and fresh. Kerala during the monsoons is beautiful.
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘People will think you are here to rob them. It’s not safe.’
I continue on my walk for a while and return the same way to the river’s bank. This is Communist territory. In one of their centers some youths are playing carroms while others are reading newspapers. Red flags are flying on poles by the road. I walk into a grove of coconut palms and pass a typical Keralan fisherman. He flatly refuses to be photographed and denies being a fisherman. He is actually a toddy harvester. Except for a white loin cloth, he is bare. His muscular body is dark. He carries a wicker basket slung across his left shoulder. On his right hangs another backet in the shape of a pot. Hanging at his waist is a sharp pointed sickle. He would have made a great portrait.
Back at the temple, things start as early as half past four. The priest and the dancer participate in a short ritual. The priest ties a little head band and crown to the dancer’s forehead. They pay their respects to the deity within. To be honest, I can’t tell you what deity resides in the temple. I haven’t had a chance to see it. The doors are closed most of the time. The dancer disappears into private quarters. He will now commence his make-up, get into his costumes, wear his elaborate headress and get into the mood of the character completely. He will forget his normal life. The boundary between real life and dance ritual will disappear for him. He will become god personified. Nothing less will do.
A giant lamp faces the shrine. It stands some fifteen feet high. A priest comes around with a ladder to clean the lamps. Once the lamps are cleaned, he starts on the laborious task of pouring out oil into all these lamps. There are literally hundreds of lamps to be lit in the temple. Cans and cans of oil are burned in one night. Standing lamps, hanging lamps, lamps fixed to brass plated woodwork – all are prepared with dedication and customary routine. By 6 pm it seems that the lamps are ready. It is dark outside and getting darker by the minute. A little later a bottle of toddy is fetched from somewhere and delivered. I believe it is for the dancer. It is a known fact that they get drunk to get into the mood of spirit possession. But this toddy is not drunk without ceremony. The bottle is first taken into the temple to be blessed by the deity. Only later it is offered to the dancer.
By half past six, the lamps are lit. The night has truly begun. The mood is perfect. A large crowd has gathered. Theyyam at Parassinikadavu happens every evening. For many, this must be a repeat performance. For others like me, it is a first time experience. Yet, there is great anticipation all around. The silence is pregnant with it. The lamps flicker like a symphony of free stars without destiny. It appears that they are not here to dispel darkness but to touch it. Theirs is a union, for light has no meaning without darkness.
Music breaks the silence of these inner spaces. Loud drums and shrill wind instruments heighten the mood. The priest comes out first and begins his rituals. Then the dancer follows with slow measured steps. Sometimes he does not even move. The entire dance is played out on his face, the shifting expressions and penetrating stares into blank spaces directed to the inner shrine. He wears an elaborate headress and a costume that gives heavy form. The costume is only from waist down. His body is bare. It is decorated with a fine paste of mixed colours as dots, circles and lines. Arm bands decorate his upper and lower arms. He does not cover his face with a mask. His face itself is the mask, for he has lost his original self and worn the expressions of a higher spirit. His lips are pronounced to a bulging thickness. His hair is cream coloured and appears to be made of painted coir.
At his ankles are jingling anklets that make their sounds with each step he takes. He wields two weapons – in his right hand is a sword and in his left is a bow and arrow. These weapons are taken into the temple by the priest, blessed by the deity and returned to the dancer. The dancer too does his own set of routines and offerings to the deity. Contrary to what I had expected, the dance is minimal. Energy is suppressed and even lethargic at times. I had expected something else. I keep expecting it to build up to a higher level but it never does. Nonetheless, the steps and motions with which all rituals are done are quick and jerky. At times, it appears that even the priest is part of the dance. Everything he does is part of the whole.
For sometime, I don’t see the dancer. He has disappeared into the shrine. The priest comes and goes. When the dancer comes out, he has assumed a new form. He is believed to be in a state of spirit possession. The priest pays his respects to the dancer who is now God personified. The deity dances before the shrine. He sways side to side, moves around in large circles before the silent crowd. Music is intense. The dancer is in complete control with a heightened awareness. He blesses the high priest. He blesses the musicians. He touches a few people in the crowd. He then lays out a banana leaf with offering. One of the temple dogs comes in and accepts the offering.
Only after this offering to the dog, food is offered to the deity by the priest. Holy water is offered. The deity partakes these in quick fashion. Here is an aspect of role reversal. The priest is a high Brahmin. Dancers of theyyam are usually of a lower caste. Theyyam brings them together regardless of caste.
The rituals in this temple are perhaps quite arcane and cryptic. Having not understood any of it, I must not be too hasty to dismiss them as nonsense. There are people here who have deep seated beliefs in such things. They believe in spirit possession. To them the dancer is truly God. To me, it was just a special performance of an age old Keralan tradition of North Malabar Coast.