Student Projects/Politics behind pottan theyyam



Theyyam is a folk art performed in the North Malabar region of Kerala. Its form varies from thirayattam to bhoothamkettu in different regions. The word theyyam is a corruption of Daivam or God and it specifies “the God’s dance”. Theyyam is usually performed in kaavus. Later the performance is shifted to kalakam, tharavadu and public space. Theyyam performance depicts the transition of the human body to a powerful deity. This sacred performance is believed to bring virtue and prosperous to the society and family. K [1]K N Kurup describes theyyam as, “ritual dance that makes the entire region of north Malabar as its theatre. It is basically a form of dance, artistic as well as sacred”. People participate in theyyam worship regardless of their caste. Secular aspect of theyyam is reflected through mappila theyyam performed by Muslim community. Theyyam is not particularized to single worship and single God. People worship nature, ancestors, spirits and gods as their sacred deities.

MYTH edit

Myths are the stories that transmitted generation after generation. Society usually consider it as fictitious but still some people believe it as true stories that has happened years ago. It is hard to separate the fictitious and factual elements from the myth. In terms of theyyam; myths, rituals and performances have some deep-rooted correlation with culture. And it plays a vital role in the existence of a large part of the population. Thottapattu (stories) are myths sung during the performance of each theyyam and it generates an essence to this art form. This myth that gives structure and power to theyyam. Thottam of each theyyam is different and it varies in different places. Thottampattu imparts the cultural scenario of that period. Thottam is a crucial element that decides the political, cultural, religious viewpoint of theyyam. Thottams are generally orally transmitted from generation to generation. And the same theyyam has different stories in different places.

    Myth can carry anything and everything. It can accommodate both truth and false belief. This makes it a self-deconstructing thing. The myth itself is an interpretative process and an open- ended system. The social and political component has affected the formation and transition of myths. Myth as a metanarrative restricts the true form of theyyam and gives a falsifying image. Multiple possibilities in myths of theyyam contradict a single narrative. Myths of theyyam incorporate the suppression, heroic deeds, revenge etc. that an oppressed person has suffered in the society. The oppressed person is either a lower caste or a woman. The story of marginalized person is always a subject of study but the verity and falsity in such stories are difficult to distinguish. Fabrication in these stories is done by upper caste people for their betterment.


Pottan theyyam is the most popular theyyam in different parts of Northern-Kerala. The ritual performance of Pottan theyyam sometimes last for a year. The performance of Pottan theyyam is colourful and it gives a spiritual eyegasm to the audience.


Myth of Pottan theyyam describes the story of a lower caste Pulaya and Sri Sankaracharya, a great scholar. Lower caste Pulaya (Dalit) and his wife were on their way back to home and he carried his baby on his waist. Sankaracharya, the great scholar of that time was on his way to receive ‘Sarwanjha Peedam’ and then he saw them and asked them to move away from his sight as he did not want himself to get polluted by them. They were not ready to move out of his way and later Sankaracharya and Pulaya engaged in a set of arguments. Pulaya asked ‘ If I cut my hands and you cut yours, we both have red blood and you use the same rice , bananas that we made and you use the water come from the well that we Pulayas toil to bulid’. Sankaracharya couldn’t reply to his questions and he wondered how an illiterate, ill–educated lower caste could ask such sophisticated, philosophical questions. Then he started to meditate and his sixth sense opened, there he saw Lord Shiva, Devi Parvati and their son Nandikesan and with fear he jumped into their foot and asked them to forgive him. In that very moment Shiva appeared and blessed him. Sankaracharya asked Shiva about the true purpose of a Pulaya identity and he replied that ‘It was to teach you that all men are deserving respect and honour and everyone is equal in this world. Then he promised Shiva to install idol in his current form. It is this form of Shiva existed in Pottan theyyam. (William [2]Dalrymple ).

There is another unrecognized myths in contrast to the popular myth of Pottan theyyam that manifest the image of Shiva. These local myths are codified by Liss[3]y V Mathew in her book Pottantheyyam Athijeevanathinte Anushtanam. It describes the story of Alankaran, a lower caste and Sankaracharya. One day Alankaran happened to hear the debate between Sankaracharya and other scholars and he wished to question his ideologies related to caste. When he was on his way to receive Sarwanjha Peeda, Alankaran appeared in front of him and started debate with him. Sankaracharya disdained Alankaran and asked him to move away from his way. Alankaran contended about the futility of caste system and the equality of all human beings. Sankaracharya could not reply to his questions and he felt humiliated in front of a lower caste person. The other upper caste people came to know about this incident and as a punishment he was killed by upper caste people. This myth has not got much recognition like the previous one. Alankaran myth is concealed by the hegemonic power structure of the society.

The second myth of Pottan theyyam is contradicted to the popular myth. The hegemony of popular myth is evolved through various stages and periods and this power structure are resulted into the emergence of popular myth. In the second myth, Sankarcharya and Alankaran have involved in the debate of caste system prevalent in the society. In this particular myth Sankaracharya, the great scholar bows his head in front of a lower caste man. He is degraded in front of an illiterate, uneducated man and that has provoked the upper caste people to kill him.  The idea behind the ‘sixth sense’ in the popular myth itself is an upper caste ideology. Sankaracharya becomes dumb in front of Chandala and he is unable to answer Chandala’s questions. This sixth sense can be defined as the egoistic portrayal of an upper caste man. The hegemonic structure intentionally makes this sixth sense to evade themselves from being humiliated. It is this sixth sense that extricates the entire upper caste from being humiliated since they do not have an answer to Chandala’s questions. In contrast to the popular myth Alankaran is unanswered to his questions and neither Shiva nor Paravathy has come as a rescuer. There exist a society in which lower caste people have degraded into nothing and their voices are subjugated by upper caste through severe punishments. In this circumstances Alankaran shows the courage and fearlessness to interrogate with Sankaracharya. The questions put forth by chandala is remained unanswered and it propagates the idea that they are too insignificant and stupid to be answered. The second myth is still covered by ashes and the upper caste hegemony restrict it to come out.

  1. 1.      Kurup, K.K.N. The Cult of Teyyam and Hero Worship in Kerala. Centre for Folklore Studies University of Calicut, 2000.
  2. Dalrymple, William. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Bloomsbury, 2009
  3. Mathew, Lissy V Pottantheyyam Athijeevanathinte Anushtanam. State Institute of Languages Kerala, 2013.