The Theyyam or Theyyattam is one of the most outstanding ancient dance form of North Kerala. particularly now found in the traditional Kolathunadu, of the present Kannur and Kasargode districts. As a living cult with centuries old traditions, ritual and custom, it embraces almost all castes and classes of Hindu religion in this region. The term Theyyam is a corrupt form of daivam or God. It is a rare combination of dance and music and reflects important features of a tribal culture.
Theyyam folk dance, with themes not only of Gods, but real life heroes like Thacholi Othenan, unniarcha etc. It has numerous deities, each having their own distinguishing headgear and costumes. The costumes of Theyyam are made out of cutting and painting.
There are so many Bagavathu Kavus and Thraravadu in Payyanur and nearby villages where Theyyam is performed . The word 'Theyyam' originated from 'Daivam' means nothing but God. The Theyyam or Kolam (a form or shape), represents a mythological, divine or heroic character. There are around 400 Theyyams in northern Kerala. The bizarre head dresses, costumes and body painting and trance like performances are very extraordinary. Each one has a distinguishing headgear and costume made out of natural materials like coconut leaves and bark. Musical accompaniments are chenda, elathalam and kuzhal (horn). The Theyyams are exclusively performed by the male members of the traditional caste groups like Malayan, Vannan, Navilan, Pulayan, Koppalan and Velan. They actually belong to the scheduled castes and tribes. Female roles are also enacted by men wearing suitable makeup and colourful costumes. During the festival season between January and April, Theyyam performances can be seen in most of the Bagavathy Kavu (Temple) at North Malabar during December - April of every year.
The theyyatom peoples put coconut sheaths in black, white and red patterns, fresh coconut fronds form skirts, fashioning breasts out of dry coconut shells and tying a red cloth around the waist. The facial decorations are intricately designed with enriched symbolism. Theyyam is performed in the courtyard of a house or village temple, as the artist gets ready and the spirit of the deity is evoked during the nighttime. The usual c characters in Theyyam are 'Gulikan', 'Darikan', Chamundi','Nagakali','Pottan', Theechamundi', 'Vasoorimala',Bhadrakali', etc.
The indigenous Theyyam cult under the influence of the great classical Indian tradition incorporated new ideas and legends. However its form and content did not change very much. The earliest Brahminic settlements like Payyanur and Perimchellur (Thaliparamba) in Kolathunadu where the Brahminic religion was propagated through the institutions of temples largely influenced the popular folk religion based on Theyyam and other tribal cults. According to the legendary Keralolpathi, Parasurama sanctioned the festivals like Kaliyattam, Puravela and Deivattam or Theyyattam to the people of Kerala. He assigned the responsibility of Theyyam dance to the indigenous communities like Panan, Velan and Vannan. These traditions explain how the indigenous cults like Theyyam were incorporated and metamorphosed under the religious supremacy of the Brahmanism. In the long historical process a social system evolved in Kerala in which the little culture like Theyyam belonged to the depressed castes and classes where as the temple oriented culture belonged to the dominant castes and classes. There were no violent confrontations between these two cultures as there was no total destruction of the indigenous culture. “There can be no doubt”, say Bridget and Raymond Alchin, ‘that a very large part of this modern folk religion is extremely ancient and contains traits which originated ruing the earliest periods of Neolithic , Chalcolithic settlement and expression (The Birth of Indian Civilization 1968 p.3039)
Velan, on of the communities of Theyyam dancers, is referred to in the Tamil Sangam literature. According to Sangam tradition he was employed by the mothers of the love-lorn girls to exercise the malignant spirits from their daughters. He propitiated God Murukan to drive away the evils spirits by sacrificing a goat before a Kalam or Square made for this occasion. At the end of the ceremony he conducted a dance known as Velan Veriyatal with a spear in his hand and prophesied the future happiness of the girl. The works like Tirumurukattuppatai, give descriptions of Velan’s Kalam, offering of chekki and oleander flowers with sacrificial blood, locations of performance like Manram, Podiyil, estuary (thuruthu), groves, forest, riverbanks and Kadamba tree. The main characteristics of such performances are traced in the contemporary Theyyam cult. Now all such rituals as described in some of the Sangam works and their commentaries are being observed by Velan and other dancing communities in the cult of Theyyam. Now the Velan community is divided into two groups known as Anjutton and Munnutton in Kolathunadu. According to tradition this division is based on the character of their offerings to the deity. The Munnutton section committed only three offenses (such offerings are offences to Brahmins) namely killing of *censored*, goat and buffalo, and the Anjutton (five offences) namely killing of *censored*, goat, buffalo, elephant and human being. Some of the Theyyam ritual songs describe that earlier the priest or the dancer had even sacrifices human beings in favour of the deity.
Ezhimala described in the Sangam literature and ruled by Udayan Venman Nannan is situated in Kolathunadu, near Payyanur. Therefore the Tamil Sangam culture with variations still continues in this region. The dance of Velan had taken new forms and developed into the present day cult of Theyyam over a period of 1500 years. This uninterrupted continuity of the Sangam tradition makes Theyyam a prominent religious system of north Kerala. As a religious and social institution it has significant place in the cultural history of region.