Posts Tagged ‘theyyam’

Rails and Ritual

I’m a bit of a train buff. Not obsessively so, but given a choice I’ll take a train rather than a bus, and often a train rather than a plane, and in 2004 I spent seven months traveling 17,000 miles from Scotland to Saigon entirely by train.  So of course I was intrigued to read that the Konkan railway, running down the west coast south from Mumbai, was an engineering triumph with good scenery, and I wanted to ride it in daylight. I did the first leg, from Mumbai to Goa, back in 2001, but having slept badly in Mumbai, I spent much of the train ride asleep and missed the scenery. This time I traveled from Goa to Kannur (formerly Cannanore) breaking the journey part way at Mangalore.

St. Aloysius College Chapel

Maybe I should give up on the Konkan railway. Neither the train ride nor the stopover lived up to expectations. On the Goa to Mangalore leg I had a lower side berth in AC3, and so I had lots of room. What I didn’t have was lots of scenery, as I was on the landward side, and the people in the section opposite me drew their curtains. On the Mangalore to Kannur stretch I had a window seat on the seaward side in AC2, but the angle of the afternoon sun turned the view hazy. I did see stretches of flat, sandy coast with lots of palm trees, interrupted by several wide rivers whose lazy estuaries ended in sand bars. Perhaps the really good scenery is further south…

A school outing to Sultan's Battery

I can’t recommend either the Gateway hotel in Magalore, or the town itself. I thought the frescoes at the St. Aloysius College Chapel far from “brilliant” (perhaps Lonely Planet just meant the colors), and the Sultan’s Battery, a long rickshaw ride north, a sad remnant. In fact, the only reason to visit Sultan’s Battery is to see the river, otherwise obscured by run-down or industrial buildings. For almost the first time in India I drank a correctly-made macchiato in a coffee shop in a mini-mall, but the experience was spoiled by deafeningly loud music and surly service. (Mini-malls, air-conditioned, and often with a western restaurant (likely pizza), are scattered among the usual hole in the wall shops in Indian cities and are recognizable by the tinted glass fronts.)

The driving beach

As the tide of development has spread south in Goa, those in search of solitude have fled further south ahead of it. Personally, I’m not opposed to a bit of development – I like a few creature comforts – but I definitely prefer fewer people on my beach. When I looked south my first pick was Gokarna, with a important temple as well as beaches, but then I read about theyyam in Dalrymple’s “Age of Kali”, and realized I would be able to witness the ritual if I stayed around Kannur. Theyyam (see http://www.malayalamresourcecentre.org/Mrc/culture/artforms/theyyam/theyyam.html ) is a religious ritual involving music and dance during which the main performer goes into trance and becomes the deity he or she is portraying.

At first I thought this was a religious symbol...

I picked Ezhara Beach House mostly based on a fodors.com poster’s recommendation for its hostess, and while I certainly enjoyed Hyacinth’s company I should perhaps have paid more attention to descriptions of the house itself. Although it wasn’t especially hot while I was there, it was humid, and I would have been much more comfortable with AC, not so much at night, when things cooled off and a fan helped, but during the day. I quite liked the sound of the waves breaking on the shore coming through a permanently open window, but others might need earplugs.

Each floor has two rooms sharing a basic bathroom – fortunately I was the only guest during my stay, which also allowed me to use the clothesline in the common hall in lieu of the missing wardrobe. My bag lived on the floor. But if you don’t mind the simple accommodation and the mosquitoes Hyacinth is an attentive hostess and an interesting companion, the food was very good, the price was right, and the beach was indeed deserted – although I noticed pollution on the water one beach south and wouldn’t advise swimming.

Keralan Christmas star

One reason it’s deserted may be the distance from Kannur, which turned out to be a much bigger place than I had expected. It took the rickshaw which met my train 30 minutes to reach the beach house, partly through town, and partly through countryside notable for red volcanic soil and a profusion of green trees. The last stretch was through a small village, home to a Muslim community, and I was shocked to see the women wearing black burkhas in Kerala’s heat and humidity.

Hyacinth's beach

Hyacinth took me sight-seeing by rickshaw: a neighboring stretch of beach where vehicles were allowed to drive; the rather disappointing market in Kannur; an ayurvedic lunch (the only difference to a regular thali seemed to me to be the ginger drink), a seaside fort, and a weaving operation using 50-year-old industrial looms to produce towels, tablecloths, mats and the cloth for lungis. And she took me to a temple for a theyyam performance.


Hyacinth stayed with the rickshaw (being ritually impure at the time) and I walked alone down a long street of shops selling religious paraphernalia and souvenirs. Leaving my sandals in an echoing ante-room I entered, a little self-consciously, a big, high-ceilinged room that opened onto water at one end and housed a small wooden building at the other. The edge of the raised sections on either side provided the only seating, and since I was early I was able to claim a prime spot under a fan. On the women’s side: sex segregation was strictly maintained by a middle-aged man in a brown uniform. As the room filled I exchanged smiles with the women near me, but no-one spoke English.

Eventually, the myriad small lamps covering the front of the wooden house were lit, half a dozen men, naked to the waist,  processed in, their hands beating a loud rhythm on their elongated drums, and the performers completed their preparations inside the little building. The senior priest, a gold plaque tied over his forehead, brought out a two-tiered, elaborately decorated, silver headdress, blessing it with fire and flowers. Then the man who would channel the god appeared, painted yellow, with signs on his chest and arms, wearing a long red skirt with a red ruff round his hips, and false white lips. The priest lowered the towering headdress into place, and the two began a slow, stylized, shuffling dance. A sword and a bow appeared at one stage, but although the drumming was continuous, the dance remained stately. Towards the end the “god” went round the room blessing the crowd, some of the men individually, but the women collectively and from a distance.

Unfortunately, although I was very interested in the proceedings, I did not personally get a spiritual vibe from them. Perhaps I should have come later in the season, when some of the rituals take place outside. I imagined the same performers treading the same steps, but on red earth in a clearing in the lush forest, lit only by the flickering lamps and a rising moon. Perhaps then I too would have felt the arrival of a Presence.

Looking out to sea

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