Trance and possession in deep Kerala

We are up before 3am. The moon is only just past full and at this hour the jungle is quiet and deliciously cool. When we arrive thirty minutes later it seems like the entire village, from little children to the elderly, is in attendance.

The temple is situated in the centre of a raised concrete slab, called a kavu, in the middle of a field. Lit up with torches and coloured lights the kavu’s a bright island amongst the night’s black sea. The energy is palpable; the kavu’s edges are thronged with people, a large pile of embers smoulders before us and a troupe of drummers provide an energetic beat, accompanied by some kind of droning horn or trumpet. One ritual has ended and a Theyyam kneels before the temple doling out blessings to a queue of people while nearby a headless chicken bleeds from the stump of its neck.

For a moment I worry that we have already missed the spectacle, but soon a bunch of assistants wearing white lungis emerges. They remove the chicken and separate the embers into four separate stacks. The tempo of the drumming increases with their preparation. I can feel it building; I’m not sure what it is but the atmosphere carries charge. My skin prickles and my heart races.

I clamber on to a bench at the back of the crowd, now thronging with bodies, so that I can see. The assistants gather bundles of dried palm fronds and lay them on the embers. At the end of the long dry season the fronds are tinderbox dry and ignite in seconds. Flames roar into the night sky and even standing at the back of the crowd the heat is fierce on my skin. The surging fire carries the crowd with it as everyone cheers and hollers while the drummers are now going hell for leather. It’s show time.

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We are in the deep north of Kerala, ‘God’s own country’. It’s an apt description. We’ve travelled to beautiful stretches of beaches, along lazy backwaters riddled with canals and rustic villages; we’ve ascended mountains with sweeping views and visited picturesque tea plantations and relaxed cities (by Indian standards) all within the space of three weeks. The Malayalam people are gentle, relaxed and welcoming; their cuisine is redolent with fresh coconut, cardamom and chilli while the juices are fresh and the yoghurt lassies sweet. There is a 90% literacy rate here, the highest in India, and an unabashed pride in Keralan arts and culture: Kathakali, Kalariapayattu and Theyyam, rituals drenched in in meaning and mysticism. Kathakali is famous the world over for the subtleties and constraints of its movements and Kalariapayattu is one of the foundation stones of Eastern martial arts. For me, however, it was Theyyam, mysterious and less well known, that’s captured my curiosity.

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From behind a bamboo partition the Theyyam emerges into the crowd covered in intricately styled red makeup and wearing an elaborate costume. Twin painted cobras adorn his chest, interweaving in helix pattern. The drummers and the trumpeter swarm around the Theyyam, as the assistants help affix his oversized headdress. Then the crowd parts and the musicians step back leaving the Theyyam standing alone before the fire. In the fiery light he appears demonic, spectral.

With two assistants holding each hand to support him, the Theyyam sprints forward and leaps through across the bonfire, through the flames to the other side. The villagers go berserk, screaming and yelling, urging the Theyyam on. With barely a moments rest the Theyyam spins around (or is spun around by the assistants) and leaps back through the flames. And then again! Again and again, the Theyyam runs and jumps through the fire, turns around and jumps through again. Between jumps more palm fronds are laid on to the fire, stoking it higher, flames licking the night sky above the temple’s roof. With every pass across the fire the drumming gets louder and wilder and the droning horn a hypnotic dervish. The crowd, myself included, are peaking in a state of rapture. There is some divine possession going on here and it’s not just the Theyyam who is feeling it. We are borne into a collective trance by the music, by the intensity of the flames and the manic intensity of the Theyyam leaping through the fire before us.

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In age, Theyyam predates Hinduism although the latter has assimilated it. The word itself derives from ‘Deivam’, the Sanskrit word for god. Theyyam performers become possessed by the deities whose legends they re-enact (generally avatars of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and the like) in order to bless the village and its inhabitants before the coming monsoons. They are held in family kavus in rural villages and are massive deals for the local communities. The success of the rains and the villages’ fortunes depend on the successful completion of these rituals. People return home specifically to watch and participate in the Theyyams. We met villagers now living in Bangalore, Mysore and further afield who had come back to their ancestral homes just for these Theyyams and do so every year. The rituals are accompanied by music, feasting and communal celebration. There’s a party atmosphere, a strong sense of community and tradition and a definite quality of aliveness to Theyyam. There’s an energy and realness that’s absent in the dead-handed rituals of Christianity and other Western ritual traditions. I have blogged before about participation mystique and the Theyyams are participation mystique of the highest order: a collective trance in which one individual is possessed by an avatar for the ongoing wellbeing of the community.

Although these are private rituals everyone is welcome, even us Western interlopers. Still, these are not rites for touristic consumption and at some Theyyams we are the only Westerners in attendance. Yet we are never given anything less than a warm welcome even if in some instances we watch from outside the temple grounds because of custom. Generally though, our presence is met at first with bemusement, followed by curiosity and then heartbreakingly beautiful levels of hospitality. “When you are our guests we treat you like family,” we are repeatedly told. We are proffered with copious amounts of chai, fed, led into family compounds and treated as if hospitality was a sacred, devotional act. It feels as if we have been admitted to a beautiful, intimate theatre.

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After more than a dozen leaps back and forth across the fire the assistants suddenly block the avatars passage to prevent him making another jump. The Theyyam yells and tries to push through them, raises his staff in anger and beats his chest. It’s pure theatre but all part of the ritual. Who are these mere mortals to try and interfere with a god’s will? The assistants relent and open the passage to the bonfire, where the Theyyam makes another series of jumps, still helped along by his two minders. After one pass, the Theyyam runs up to the bonfire and tips it up with his staff. He bends on one knee and salutes the stars above as fiery embers rain down upon the ecstatic crowd.

Flames soar deliriously high into the night sky and the pile of fronds is running low. The assistants form another blockade in front of the Theyyam. Enraged, the Theyyam pushes and breaks their ranks with his godly might. The noise from both instrument and human is crazy. The drumming is the tempo of your average psytrance track. Accompanied on each side he makes one last dash through the flames. He raises his staff to the sky and utters a demonic roar. The god is in the house.

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Despite their wild design Theyyams possess a very formal structure. Make up and costuming can take hours to prepare. The performer’s face is painted with a variety of natural pigments such as coconut oil and turmeric. The designs vary but always include elaborate and detailed filigrees, each with their own mythological import. Likewise, the costumes are elaborate, made from natural materials and suffused with mythological meaning. The whole act of preparing the Theyyam for the performance is an integral part of the ritual, allowing him to settle towards the receptive trance state required to become an avatar of the god.

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After the avatar appears, the Theyyam circles the temple and bestows his blessings upon it and its priests, as well as the sacred objects within the temple’s nave, the idol and the yoni and lingam. Then the villagers line up, proffering rupees at the Theyyam to receive their own blessings or admonishments. It’s somewhat anticlimactic after the intense spectacle we’ve just witnessed, but a critical part of the ritual. There’s an important social function to this, an inversion of the usual caste hierarchy, as the Theyyam performers hail from the Shudras, the lowest caste. These are hereditary positions, handed down from father to son, and have been so for hundreds of years. The Theyyams are universally men; our guide through the proceedings, Nayalam, informs us that there is only one Theyyam that involves women performers.

As the Theyyam disburses his blessings I watch as the temple priests decapitate another chicken with a machete to appease the angry god. The machete is blunt and it takes several hacks to cleave the neck. Real ritual is hard and bloody work but it cannot omit sacrifice.

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In two days we attended seven Theyyam performances. Not all of them were as dramatic as Kandanar Kelan, but there were commonalities in each, including the types of trance entrainment technologies at play. These included:

  • fire and flame
  • polyrhythmic drumming
  • physical discomfort (through distension of the arms and legs, wearing heavy and cumbersome costumes or headdresses and weights)
  • sleep deprivation
  • spinning, stamping and shaking
  • mantra and repetition
  • blood sacrifice

Most of these are designed to help the performer reach the necessary trance state to transform into an avatar. They remove the egoic personality of the performer and allow the trance to deepen or the god to enter (depending on your belief system). More than a few are also aimed at the crowd. Within the drumming I observed that there is always one drummer who is maintaining the steady rhythm of a heartbeat. This entrains the body to the rhythm and tempo of the music and from here it’s very easy to manipulate the crowd into a trance state.

The next morning after the fire Theyyam I had that washed out feeling that comes from a massive ritual, party or acid trip. The previous night’s events seemed like a surreal dream. I’d come down.

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Kandanar Kelan was a mythical warrior god. Wandering through the forest he got trapped in a forest fire and climbed a tree to escape. There were two snakes in the tree. The fire consumed the tree, Kelan and the two snakes. Soon after another wandering warrior god came across the burnt body of Kelan and resurrected him.

The Theyyam ritual shows Kandanar Kelan’s anger towards the fire that burned him and the two snakes.

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Two things struck me with the Theyyams: the universality of different trance tools in ritual acts and the importance of ritual as an expression of community cohesion.

There are tried and true techniques that we can use to construct ritual and magick. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; such tools have been used by humanity for thousands of years to attain altered states and make contact with different entities and modes or states of being. To the trained eye the devices used in the Theyyam rituals are precisely designed to alter the ordinary waking state of consciousness in performers and witnesses alike. Without this there can be no acceptance of the Theyyam as an avatar. To witness the Theyyam is not to watch some performer fall into a trance but to literally feel a god, or an aspect of a god, in my vicinity. And by feel I mean as deeply embodied as you can get. This feeling is necessary for the ritual’s success as a critical aspect of any magical act is the total conviction that the magical act is real. I can mentally deconstruct this as much as I like after the fact, but in the moment I must feel it totally and without hesitation in my heart, guts and everywhere else in between. The mind and inner critic must disappear at this juncture. If I had questioned any of the villagers as to whether they believed that a god was in their vicinity I doubt that anyone would have said no.

I also think it’s interesting to see how magical ritual is employed as a way of developing and maintaining community. Our Western communities are atomised and I think it’s no accident that there is a correlation with that atomisation and the anaemia of our social and cultural rituals. There are few, if not any, rituals in the West that engage us in trance and altered states of consciousness to create community.

I am reminded here of the sense of group resonance and cohesion that follows a gnostic mass or after several days of hard partying at a festival. If you accept the prevailing views of brain entrainment (check out Psychedelic Information Theory for a good overview of this) then groups engaged in common tasks tend to harmonise in their brain wave patterns. We all know those times when we’re in a group and it seems to function seamlessly and wordlessly. This is group resonance at work. It makes sense then that powerful ritual will act as group brain entrainment devices. Our communities require powerful trance-based rituals in order to come together and harmonise.

I should be clear that I’m not trying to romance the native here or suggest that we steal Theyyams from Keralan culture. I have no doubt that Keralan communities are plagued with the kind of social issues that plague all communities. They’re also stricken with the kind of poverty we in the West barely touch in our entire lives. What I am suggesting, however, is that we in the West need rituals that allow us to achieve mutually altered states of being, that show us the depth and reveal to us the full spectrum of conscious. Such rituals bind us together, creating a kind community Mystery School that helps build magic and social cohesion through participation in the sacred. We are a deeply disembodied culture and we need rituals that bring us back to ourselves that open us to feeling and being and which we can share in with others. Such rituals of course won’t remedy all social ills but they are an important step in uniting us through a shared experience that is outside the mundane. Given the universality of trance tools it’s not to great a leap to suggest that we employ some for our own purposes.

Imagine: instead of Great Uncle Kevin ruining every Christmas with his crass racism and drunken lechery, we could use him as a medium to bring our ancestors into the community for a visit. And instead of the usual inane banter across the neighbour’s fence or at the school gate, what if there was some consciously dedicated time to engage in some ritualised glossolalia and see what trance state we can attain and what it might reveal? Divination, group enchantment, the summoning of folk spirits… the ways are practically limitless.

There are Western analogies for these kinds of rituals. Bush doofs and festival culture comes immediately to mind, but the rituals I’m talking about don’t necessarily have to involve drugs or the messiness that bush doofs and festivals entail. Anything that invokes an altered state of conscious in participants is useful and, as I’ve noted above, there are many tools to achieve this that can be universally applied. Our Western world needs magic but we don’t need to search in other cultures to find it. Magic is as intrinsic to us as our humanity if we just open ourselves to the possibility.

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