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The teyyam, ritual art specific to Kerala, hides under its dramatic aspect a majestic updating of the tantric approach. The author shares here what was revealed to him in the space of timeless nights as only the East still knows how to transmit it. His intimacy with Kashmiri Shaivism as well as the visible consequences of the practice of combat arts, allowed him to be close to a troupe of dancers and access to around thirty teyyams. The preparations, the accomplishment and the dissolution of the ritual act could be observed in complete freedom. The photos presented here illustrate teyyams taking place around Telicherry, the geographical base of this exploration.  



During the dry season, far from the tourist waves, the districts of Kasaragod and Kannur, in the North of Malabar, become the territory of the great Goddess. Chosen from the lowest castes, heirs to ancestral knowledge transmitted from father to son with the greatest devotion, men embody, at the request of a temple, an individual or on cyclical dates, various forms of Kali and other deities or heroes of the past. After hours of preparation, the gigantic costumes and the magic make-up completed, these men transformed by trance will dance for hours, to a rhythm specific to each of the deities they will embody. 

In this expression of local myths, the revelation of man's divinity is unsuccessfully hidden. The extraordinary appearance of a teyyam  plunges us into a world of extreme subtlety, from the make-up often reminiscent of that of the South Pacific, to the headdresses sometimes exceeding ten meters in height, to the handling of the traditional weapons of Kali. This carnal archetype of man's apparent duality and resolution is pure vision, darshan. Hearing the musical rhythms fed by drums, chenda, cymbals, kuzhittakam, costume bells and other instruments, consumes the thought and opens the intimate areas of the brain, doors of Consciousness. Sound and visual movements resonate with the infinite possibilities of immensity. Openness to this magic is blessing, joy without ego, listening unfurnished by  personality. Astonishment and admiration then present the extreme form of non-thought,  


The young officiants, so open and sympathetic during the rituals of preparation for the sacrifice, reveal themselves, during the taking possession, as avesam, plenary Goddess without concession. After the incarnation they find themselves vacant and tired, again common mortals, free from a magic of which they still bear the traces. From the beginning of the trance, each step, each look is so codified and integrated that it appears spontaneous and free. Everything is rhythm. As in spite of himself the whole body resonates with this vibration. After the performance, the actor seated on his jackfruit wooden stool, pidam, blesses, predicts, advises the female sex as well as some men and children in need of divine influx. Long after the last seeker of graces has passed away, the Goddess continues to incarnate  : Intense tremors, cries and jerky movements always cross his slave. Echo from the deep worlds defying at that time any codification, gestures and sounds are the last manifestations of the Goddess who will soon leave her prey.


The creation theory of Kashmiri Shaivism, âbhâsavada, recognizes the reality of apparent existence. As the reflection draws its life from the mirror, the unreal reality, the basis of tantrism, is excellently expressed in the teyyam of Kerala. Untouched by the modern world, this pre-Aryan ritual, which incorporates many Hindu deities, still conceals a magical expression imbued with great metaphysical sense.  : the insignificance of the person and the omnipotence of the Goddess.

Like any actualization of this evidence, the background of the teyyam, never formulated and always present, is the free space of quality, the abhuta-parikalpa.


Like Kali in Bengal, Chamunda in Orissa, Tripura in Kashmir, the Goddess in the aspect of Bhadrakali chooses the land of Kerala to transmit her blessing in the form of the magical art of teyyam. Its most extreme appearance will be the red Chamunda, Rakta Châmundi. Apart from his description of the twelve heart Kali of the Kashmiri Krama, Abhinavagupta evokes the terrible form of Chamunda in his Tantrasara. Like most tantric goddesses, Bhadrakali comes mainly from Aditi and embodies her principles of infinity and limitlessness. Kali, free from time, is its most explicit representation.


Bhadrakali, with Bhagavati the most represented deity during teyyam, is another appellation of Rudrakali, identified by Abhinavagupta with the ultimate reality, parasamvit. Beyond all comprehension, it is the primordial energy, âdishakti, identical to the Consciousness, parashiva. Mahakali, the creator of  gods, simultaneously with and without attributes, is pure Consciousness, samvit expressing itself as essence, prakâsha and its echo, vimarsha. 

Aham - A and HA, Shiva and Shakti - is the secret form of the Supreme Goddess, Ahamatmika, of which Bhadrakali is the fierce expression. This union is that of the Ultimate. The absolute respect shown to the actor of teyyam is only incarnated when the Goddess inhabits him. This incarnation begins only during the vision in the mirror that will be held out to the actor, the beginning of any teyyam or, according to the deities, of the taking possession of the silver eyes. The celebrant is reflected in the magic mirror, mukhadarshanam and only sees the Shakti there. This reflection eliminates the one who sees, to leave room only for the Goddess.

Bhadrakali brings prosperity to his worshippers. Described in Abhinavagupta's Tantrâloka in its terrible form, it is represented in Kerala in its dramatic expression, one hand brandishing the shield, shetakam, sometimes coupled with the trident, the other, the sword, palli-val, or the Kali's club, both protection against and destruction of dualizing thought. The sword represents the free internal vision of the objective world, as the ashes of the ascetic, bhasma, symbolize the intuition which removes all veil. The crescent moon, Chandrakâla, which adorns many of her headdresses, manifests the source of the divine nectar, amrita.  


The representative of the Goddess embodies self-sacrifice, ātmavalī, the offering to the divinity of one's ability to think, to feel, to act. The teyyam is the realization of the evidence of non-separation, advaita brahma sâdhanâ, which, if it is expressed at the beginning of the process as a dualistic movement, is revealed, in clarity, in non-personal identity with life. .


Some forms of teyyam are here very arbitrarily differentiated to underline their extreme variety.  : 

Auspicious, to inaugurate a new house. 

A welcome return worker from the Middle East. 

Comical, bordering on circus, when the children are the prey of laughter and sometimes small exciting scares when the deity tries to cover them with smelly black earth while intense explosions shoot out of coconuts and throw clouds of smoke. 

More religious in appearance, when the Goddess is embodied in a perfect and almost cold codification in front of a famous temple. 

Pompous, when hundreds of multicolored umbrellas carried by women reveal all the adoration of the villagers. 

Gigantic, expected for long periods, when thousands of followers gather for several days on dates ritually chosen at intervals of years like the Kumba-mélas. 

Mystical, the spectators torn between fear and the irresistible attraction to take a few steps hand in hand with the red Chamunda. Babies screaming in terror, offered to this same Goddess for a few

moments, will surely keep the indelible mark. A trembling brahmin lays his head on his chest and gets up, his face flooded with tears, his heart boundless. The extreme intensity then deaf from the presentiment of the omnipotence of life and the abolition of the mask of our miseries. 

Spectacular, when animal sacrifice reveals this same evidence in the most colorful way  : chicken with its neck broken by the jaw of the Goddess, its head imprisoned in the mouth of the celebrant who twirls it for long minutes until the neck breaks, decapitation of extreme dexterity by the sword, nandaka-val, or by the sacrificial knife, churikâ. The blood collected in a large container is mixed with water made sacred by the mantras. The cosmic spectacle will reach its climax when the priest, servant of the Goddess, will jump with both feet into this water drunk with life and will splash with strength and joy the assistance of this elixir.

The sanctuary of teyyam, kavu, is the space of Kali where all difference is consumed, akuladharma. Fulfillment takes place under the stars. Blocks of earth, sixty centimeters high and of varying lengths, painted white or red, are the only material expressions of this ritual. In this sacred space located in front of the temple, we place the oil lamps as well as the weapons and headdresses of the officiants.  

The temple does not contain any iconographic representation, except, rarely, a benign form of the Goddess. Only the oil lamp remains there, Pure Consciousness, and the weapons  – swords, clubs, bows, arrows, shields, tridents and other sacrificial knives and clubs – as well as the most modest headdresses in volume. The ubiquitous oil lamps throughout the teyyam space celebrate Consciousness in the most direct way. Some temples are only materialized by oil lamps forming their enclosure. 

At night, this enchantment of light participates in the passage to another time and another space. Constantly supported by the drums, the rhythms contribute to this same opening of archaic brains. Light, music, explosions, shouts, songs in Malayam or Sanskrit, bells on the actors' jewelry, everything is rhythm  : the Goddess manifests herself without restraint. 

Burning torches attached to the robes of the most extreme deities are regularly fed with camphor oil. They often ignite the costumes of the actors, requiring water spraying as frequent as the oil that feeds the torches. The ballet of celebrants who try without much success to prevent the fire from spreading to the skirts of the coconut tree when others are feeding the incandescent torches with it, brings us closer to a beneficent madness. The vision of flames and swirling smoke, as well as that of running over hot coals or, sometimes, of resting on incandescent ashes, resonates with the same tactile exacerbation. 

At night, râtri is the domain of Kali, for the proportions of time are erased in the flawless darkness. It is at night that the most extreme forms of Kali, therefore of the teyyam, are actualized. The world of light is only the outermost expression of meditation on Consciousness as a small motionless flame, tejodhyana, as described by Patanjali, the Upanishads and the masters of the Kashmiri tradition. 

Just as Abhinavagupta affirms the possibility of revelation through meditation on pure Consciousness, nirmalasamvit, without any special training, the teyyam offers this revelation without having to accomplish anything except a look without reference, like a dazzled child. by his first lit Christmas tree.  

The extreme similarity of the teyyams of the same deity represented by different troops as to make-up, rhythms, expressions and updates, as well as their very great fidelity to iconographic representations on wood and bronzes from the 17th century and perhaps even earlier , underlines the precision of the transmission. The current iconographic perfection faithfully reproduces that of the four or five wooden sculptures representing different teyyams that are almost systematically found in the form of the Goddess, kimpurusha, who overhangs the facade of her temples. In some bronzes we find iconographies where the deity is mounted on a horse, or even rides a tiger in the oldest pieces. If the symbolism of the horse can be subject to interpretation, that of the tiger is undoubtedly the identification of the goddesses of teyyam with the great Durga, mother of the gods. The suit represents the entire cosmos. The lower body is bathed in primordial waters, the center is the earthly incarnation and the head, extended by the headdress, is the path to heaven.

Heir to an ancestral tradition, the actor of the teyyam generally wonders little about the metaphysical meaning of his art.  : no intellectualism, but unfailing devotion, years of work and a few rupees for a night. From the preparation of make-up to the making of the coconut leaf costumes, from the handling of the drums to the incarnation of all the possible teyyams of his lineage, from the impressive mastery of weapons to the skill allowing him to dance on high crutches three meters or more, the practitioner of the teyyam can fill all these roles with the same extreme quality. This actor must possess the same qualifications, adhikâra, as the tantrika  : to be free from personal request and to let life incarnate in him without restriction.  

Often located near places dedicated to these rituals, the numerous spaces dedicated to snakes, nagavana, as well as the forests which are reserved for them and forbidden to unfortunate humans, testify to a memory of the  inner meaning of this art. The presence of snakes on the old metal breastplates worn during certain teyyams, the sculpture of these same deities on the headdresses of the multiple forms of the Goddess, their frequency on the hilt of ritual swords and at the corner of shields, attest to the intertwining of this symbol throughout this expression. Energy is the Goddess, Goddess is the energy  : the unrestricted abandonment to a teyyam stimulates this internal awakening with as much intensity as the ritual practice of yoga.

In its essence, the teyyam contains numerous traces of the extreme path, atimârgi, of the aghoras, kapalikas and other kâlamukhas currents.  

Transgression in all its forms irrigates this art. Brahmans are, at most, servants of a teyyam. Bearing the arms of the Goddess, being the Goddess is the ultimate inversion. During the ceremony, freedom from convention is omnipresent. Just as there is no written record of the ancient sects, except from the pen of their detractors, in these rituals, history is to be discovered in the intimate presence in the expression and not in the texts, otherwise insignificant.

In the Tantraloka, Abhinavagupta emphasizes the understanding, avesha, that the apparent person is none other than Shiva. This same evidence is at the heart of the teyyam. The undifferentiated relationship of Shiva and Shakti, avinabhava sambandha, is the unformulated space of tantric ritual. Experienced in the awakening of beauty, surprise and emotion, the show frees from any objective understanding.  

Of course, most of the spectators of a teyyam are more in search of material abundance, bhukti, than freedom, mukti. This opposition, so essential in the moralizing Upanishads and Vedanta, is not recognized in Tantra and is therefore expressed here without conflict. The presence of one of the rare painted representations of Shankara in the temple of Todikkâlam is very particularly symbolic of the coexistence, in Kerala, of the purest non-dualist teaching with that, no less non-dualist, of Shivaite Tantrism. Even in its current form, the teyyam is steeped in left-hand tantrism, vama-mârgam, to use the brahma-yâmala codification.  

The joy of representation, ânandashakti, reflects absolute freedom, svâtantrya: duality dies in the I Am, Aham.

Like tantric yoga, the teyyam, despite its seemingly visible form, remains a secret ceremony, guhya-sadhana, the inner meaning of which is forever hidden from modern eyes. 

He who forgets the world for a teyyam follows the same impulse as the yogini who, having had the vision of the tantric ritual, karmachandalini, has left all ties. The transmutation of the body through the practice of yoga, kâyasâdhanâ, is  activated by listening to a show like the teyyam. After a night spent in this world, the body is emptied of substance as after the ritual practice of âsanas and prânâyâmas.

Just as in the tactile exploration with a partner, the yogi resonates with the presence of the deity in the body of the adept, kâlanyasa, in the teyyam, the spectator resonates with the presence of Shakti in the one who incarnates it . In tantra, desire, kâma, represents the ultimate balance between Shiva and Shakti. Sexual exploration, kâmakalâ, is the conscious interpenetration of sat-chit-ânanda, existence-consciousness-bliss, in the form of Mahâtripurasundari. The representation of Bhagavati culminates in the exacerbation of the desire, the fervor of the adoration which shakes the spectator has nothing to envy to the tantric accomplishment.

Sexual union, adiyoga, actualizes the sacrifice which is the heart of the act. During this offering, the sounds springing up spontaneously constitute the mantric bases of the actualization of energy. This same verbal freedom is found in the noises free of codifications of the teyyams. As the intensity increases, the primordial cries multiply. At the time of the sacrifice of chickens, Putiya Bhagavati screams her joy. Supported by the rhythm of the drums, these moments, silence of thought, drink from the universal forces of openness. 

North of Calicut, some stone temples dating from the Middle Ages, presenting the rare iconography of adoration by the stimulation of the sexual organs, bhaga-lingamkriya, testify, already at that time, to the penetration of the tantric current of the hand left. 

The places of contact with the limitless, antartirtha, which form the essence of the human body, reflect the places of the Goddess who incarnate geographically very precisely. Kerala conceals many of these points of contact, which are updated during the teyyams, at times chosen astrologically.

Attending the teyyam brings back to the internal ritual, antaryaga. When the Goddess disembodies and the headdress and other attributes leave the celebrant, the spectator finds this space of silence within himself.

For Abhinavagupta, ritual sexual worship leads to detachment, the basis of fundamental intuition, just as the contemplation of the ritual spectacle leads to the realization of peace. 

If in the early stages the spectator emphasizes the spectacle, the emotion of the incarnation of the Goddess, the one whose eye is open will increasingly abandon the perception of the cosmic drama and, in his uninvolved listening , will embody the free space of ideation, prakâsha, in which the manifested world, vimarsha, apparently fulfills and engulfs itself ceaselessly. The evidence of the universe resonating in the body, dehavada, is then no longer a concept but a vibrant reality. This is the essence of the ritual spectacle. The Goddess having accomplished  its role - to bring the one who sees back to pure vision - the teyyam ends, dies in the heart of the spectator. Kali cut off his head. Nothing remains.  

Preserved by its location - far from the big tourist complexes - by its less social hours - the most intense culminating in the middle of the night - and by its atmospheres close to intoxication - in the figurative sense and sometimes in the literal sense - the teyyam resists better than other traditional forms to the seductions of the modern world. This purity can only be temporary  : already the loudspeakers sometimes cover the magic rhythms of their advertisements. The subtle light of oil lamps also suffers from the vulgar competition of almost unavoidable neon lights, so prodigious is the ability to fix them on any support.

Splendid imagery from the depths of consciousness, the teyyam can only attract a growing number of tourists thirsty for emotions. Just like the musician sadly strumming his sitar in an Indian restaurant, the Bharatanatyam dancer from Cochin, condemned to prostitute her art in front of hotel guests more interested in their whiskey and their photos of the back waters than in her elaborate choreography, or the painting of the katakâlî summarized in two hours, make-up included, the teyyam risks finding itself sooner or later reduced to the rank of artistic, cultural activity, a vestige of a past devoured by time.

We bet, however, that the Goddess still has more than one trick up her sleeve and that the decades will pass before the red Chamunda, drunk with blood, joy of Conscience, freedom of life and death, the one that blows heads of chickens and perhaps the ego of his admirers, is reduced to a cultural pantomime, like the increasingly commercial caricatures of the yogic, medical, artistic and martial traditions of India.

PS  : In this writing, many generalizations will seem abusive to specialists. These pages not being intended for them, it seemed more appropriate to prefer a simplification to underline the essential. The extreme complexity of the teyyam rite is such that most of the assertions expressed above can, in certain circumstances, be called into question.

NB  : Do not be surprised not to find here the mythological details of the adventures expressed by each teyyam. The subject, the story, the events narrated to the delighted spectators are indeed anecdotal. From the myths of local heroes to references to Puranic tales, all these decorative expressions are ultimately just variations of the eternal battle between light and shadow. Their progress and justification hide more than they discover this metaphysical evidence.

Teyyam rahasya

The tantric heart of the teyyam


India is the soul on fire  

Paul Martin Dubost

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