Prologue

Thirayattam is a divine ritual dance-drama enacted in courtyards of Kaavukal and temples of Kozhikode and Malapuram districts of north Kerala, to attain the grace and blessings from the deities of the land. This vibrant art form has great resemblance to the traditions and customs of the ancient civilizations; this confirms the belief that Thirayattam had its origin some where in these ancient ages. The cultural, traditional and social evolutions in the society has substantial impact on Thirayattam attaining it’s current stature.

Traditionally the Peruvannan community has the inherent right to perform this magnificent art form in Kaavukal and temples. Today, the members of Panan and Cherumar communities also perform Thirayattam. The legends of this art form are same, but each community has their own unique beliefs, styles, costumes and customs for performing Thirayattam.

Most Kaavukal, where Thirayattam is performed belongs to the main “Tharavads” (ancestral home) of the land. The natives of the land, both young and old celebrate Thirayattam festival with great devotion and fan-fare. Usually, one amongst the deities of the Kaavu, Devan or Devi will have greater prominence than the others. In some other places the Devan or Devi will find their platforms outside the Kaavukal. These deities are considered as Shiva Shristikal (formations of Lord Shiva) or Shiva Bhavangal (facets of lord Shiva).

The popular male Koolams (deities) are Karumakan, Kariyathan, Thalachilon, Mundiyan, Peerilan, Kandakarnan, Vettakkoru Makan, Veerabadhran, Kirathan etc. Female deities include Bagavathy, Badhrakaali, Ittikurumbi, Raktheswari, Rakthachamundi, Pulichamundi, Nagakaali, Oodakaali, Neelabhattari etc.

In addition to divinities, legendary social figures also adorn venerated stature in many of these Kaavukal, their heroic exploits also form themes for Thirayattam in some occasions. In ancient days the karanavars (elders), both men and women, who were skilled in Mantra, Thantra and medicine were held in the highest veneration in all Tharavads and clans. On their demise, their idols “Kudivacha Moorthikal” were installed and worshiped in these tharavads or temples. These Kudivacha Moorthikal are also enacted in Thirayattam; Guru Muthappan, Kandath Raman, Paragodan Moorthy, Peruvannan Moorthy, Chetty Moorthy etc are the popular male Koolams and the females are Kadavankkode Makkam, Panthapurathu Panchali etc.

The auspicious Thirayattam season in main temples and Kaavukal are scheduled between Thulam (October) to Edavam ( May), the busiest season being the harvest period between January to April. Thirayattam is the common name for all Koolams whether it is a Deiva Moorthy ( Divine) or a Maushya Moorthy (human). There are two main variants in Thirayattam, the “Vellatt” and “ Thira”, that depicts the infancy and teenage years of the Moorthy. The Vellatt is enacted in the day time with minimum costumes and little fanfare. It is believed that it got the name Vellatt, since the costumes used are usually white. Another belief, it got the name since it is enacted in the day time after the dark night. Thira is the deity dance performance in the night, illuminated by torches made of clusters of dried coconut fronds.

Each Koolam or Moorthy has their on unique costumes and ornaments that are colorful and attractive. Mughamezhuthu (facial paintings) and melezhuthu (body paintings) are two vital aspects of the koolam’s costume and it can be done only by a seasoned artist with skill and experience. Naturally derived colors and articles are used in the make up, usually leaves and barks of Bamboo, Coconut and Arecanut trees are used to make masks, hairs and beards.

Enacting Thirayattam requires highly flexible physique, being an ancient art form; it could be the cause of origin of many martial art forms of today. “Val” (sword),” Paricha” (shield), ”Shoolam” (Trident), “Kuntham” (Sphere), “ Ambum Villum” (Bow and arrow) etc are the commonly used weapons in Thirayattam.

Thirayattam is usually performed in the midst of strident musical instruments like Chenda (Big drums), Ilathalam (cymbals), Thudi (Small drums), Kombu ( pipe) and Kurum kuzhal ( flute). The enthralling music of the instruments, the festive mood of the believers and the excitement in the air, incite the Thirayattam performers to assume the roles of the divinities they hold in veneration and create a virtuous ambiance. The spiritually frenzied Thirayattam performer kicks and even walks on the glowing jack wood ember.

The performer comes into a trance with the Moorthy or deity whose Koolam is enacted and moves vigorously exhibiting belligerent mannerisms and gestures, believed to be divine. This frantic movement is referred to as thullal . In this state of ecstasy the Moorthy delivers the Mummuzhi (oracle) to the devotees.

The temple art form like Padayani of central Kerala, Theyyam of north Kerala and the Mudiyette, Paranette, Kaalioutte etc have resemblance to Thirayattam in one way or other. Thirayattam is more dependent on the performance when compared to the great dependency of Theyyam to its costumes.

Inherency

Based on a myth, the Peruvannan community has the inherent right to perform the Thirayattam ritual in the Kaavukal and temples. The myth goes on, this community was created from the right thigh of Lord Maha Vishnu, on request by Lord Shiva to take care of the laundry activities that were involved with his young wife Sree Parvathy attaining pubertal maturity.

When epidemics like small pox devastated the word, this community was entitled the responsibility of cleansing the land. The main duties of this community were “Alakk” (Laundry), “Vaidyam” (medicine), dressmaking, Masonry, “Mantra vatham” (Black magic) etc. Since all these jobs were associated with the hygiene and cleanliness of the community the right to cleanse the society spiritually by performing Thirayattam also became their responsibility. Hence Thirayattam is considered a divine ritual that purifies the body and mind.