Gods Amongst Men
Late one night several years ago, while drunkenly sprawled out on my couch, flicking through a slog of 2AM infomercials and overly-lit diabetes PSAs, I caught a documentary about holy men in southern India, men who would become possessed by gods and spirits in ancient theyyam rituals. I vividly remember their creepy red and yellow faces with blackened eyes and silver fangs, like scrawny, Indian Darth Mauls, wearing towering, fanciful headdresses. To the rhythm of thunderous chenda drums, the possessed dancers snarled their teeth and spoke in tongues, violently flailing torches and swords around roaring pyres, beneath swaying coconut palms in moonlit sacred groves…
Amidst the exhaust-choked congestion of Mysore bus station, I sat on my backpack, poring over a small map of south India, trying to determine my next move.
‘Go to Gokarna,’ was the prevailing wisdom, a sun-drenched backpacker beach lair—but I was tired of chilling out.
‘Go to Pondicherry,’ people insisted, an elegant, French-colonial center of meditation and New Age culture—but I could already envisage the nightmarish bus ride there: swarms of misty eyed Caucasians asserting how best to solve world hunger through yoga and mood rings, while I silently twitch several seats back, pretending I’m Carrie, trying to set the bus on fire with my eyes.
I put the map down. It was all starting to feel banal. I wanted a break from the Disneyfied Backpacker trail—from its crowds, its hassle, its ravenous souvenir vendors, and its restaurant menus that assume my ignorance, calling naan ‘Indian bread.’
And then I remembered the documentary, and I suddenly pictured myself standing in the torchlight of demonic-looking men possessed by spirits. I lifted my map again, and began tracing a line with my finger to the north of Malabar, the heart of theyyattam country.
I was going to try to track down a theyyam.
I circled Kuruva on the map, a non-descript village wedged between Kannur city and the tropical beaches of Kadalai, and in many ways, the antithesis of the Backpacker’s Trail. It’s a place who’s Malayalam name, ‘Kuruva,’ literally translates to ‘Shortcut,’ implying that it only exists as a means for passing through—not an actual destination, but something transitional, a non-place.
There would be no sights or monuments, no air-conditioning or western toilets. Instead, I would find menus strictly in Malayalam, staring locals, and an utter lack of tourist infrastructure.
It sounded perfect.
“What’s there to do around here?” I asked Faiza, the housewife of my homestay, as I settled into my room. I hadn’t, until this point, taken the time to consider what activities visiting a ‘non-place’ would entail.
She stared blankly at the wall for a minute, and then adjusted her sari, seemingly struggling to understand my question. Finally, she nodded and gestured towards the porch, pointing to a row of canvas chairs that sat overlooking the driveway.
I craned my head to look past the chairs, searching for the object of interest, perhaps a hiking trail or a jaunty puppy—but there were no such things.
And so I sat in a canvas chair, staring blankly across the driveway for many, many hours, wondering what people were doing in Gokarna and Pondicherry.
In the afternoon, I followed the road down to an empty, postcard-perfect beach in Thottada, where I snapped a few photos of slanting palm trees and crashing surf. I then sat in the sand, immediately got bored, remembered that I hate sitting in the sand, and promptly marched back to my homestay, where I resumed staring vacantly across the driveway.
“So you came here to see a theyyam?” asked my affable host, Kurien. We were sitting over dinner; a home-cooked Keralan feast of spicy grilled fish and tangy calamari masala, served with sweet red spinach and soft Malabar rice, all on a banana leaf—per local custom. “I think you can see one in Thayyil Kavu,” he mused.
“When?!” I blurted.
“Tonight. Right now,” he smiled, “Do you want a map?”
My jaw unhinged as I inhaled the rest of my dinner, and a few minutes later, I was huffing through a terracotta-roofed village of little houses with orange glowing windows. I trained my flashlight on the map that Kurien had given me, which was quickly proving itself to be useless. It looked like a crayon maze, the kind you’d find at T.G.I. Fridays on a kid’s placemat. My only points of reference were crude dots denoting such unmistakable landmarks as “Vattakkulam Muthappan” and “Mele Chavve.”
It took over an hour, and the help of a dozen strangers—pointing me through pale forests of coconut palms, across creaky footbridges spanning starry, backwater canals–
“No, it’s that way.”
Passing dark, dilapidated schools and cow-infested soccer fields–
“No, back that way!”
Until finally, I reached Thayyil Kavu, where a very drunk man told me, “No! No theyyam. No, no, no. Two weeks, theyyam.”
Devastated, I gloomily turned back in defeat, retracing my steps home in the darkness, wondering what time I should catch the morning bus to Pondicherry. Then, in a moment of irritating symbolism, my flashlight flickered, and died, plunging me into blackness.
If there truly were gods in Malabar, they were giving me the finger.
I stumbled my way to a crossroad and stopped to recollect.
That’s when I heard it—a faint, but distinctive pounding of chenda drums. My heart raced. I cut left, following the sound, wandering into a network of dirt backroads. The music grew louder, and the shrill wail of kuzhal flute pierced the night. I abandoned the road, forging a path across a stony field, then through people’s yards, before a myriad of fluorescent bulbs appeared ahead of me, suspended in trees.
It was a kavu, a sacred grove. I paused for a minute, afraid to intrude. Perhaps it was a private event (I’m not too familiar with the etiquette of attending exorcisms). I nervously edged into the light.
A large pyre crackled in an open, dirt courtyard, in front of a ramshackle temple. Women in bright, floral saris sat on plastic chairs around the perimeter, and shirtless men in traditional longyi huddled around the doorway of a nearby hut. A few heads turned, equally amused and surprised, staring at me. I turned to leave, but someone grabbed my arm.
“Excuse me! Sir!” said a stern voice. It was an old man with an orange tilak smeared across his forehead.
“Hi, I was just—”
“You are hungry!” he informed me.
My stomach groaned, on the verge of bursting with grilled fish and calamari. “Oh, no I’m not,” I smiled, “I’m alright, I’m just heading back to my ho—”
“Would you like eating something? There is food,” he declared.
Suddenly more people appeared, a group of smiling teenage boys and college students, surrounding me. “Where are you come from?” “How are you?” “What is your good name?”
“I’m from America,” I sputtered, “I’m fine. My good name is Steve McDonald—“
They screamed in astonishment.
“Steef Midurnl!” attempted one of them, clearly impressed.
“Such beautiful name!” shouted another, “I am Vipin!” he exclaimed, extending his hand. Vipin was loud, vivacious, and in his twenties, looking trendily cool and uncomfortably sweaty in blue jeans and a snow hat.
“I am Jishnu!” cried a younger boy.
“I am Lionel!”
Suddenly I was pelted with names from all sides, and before I could manage another word, I was ushered in grand procession into the main courtyard, where other villagers ambled towards me. Fathers and elders addressed the boys in Malayalam, gesturing towards the pale and lanky outsider. The boys chattered back, and the men nodded and smiled at me, as I caught words like “Amrika,” and “Steef Murdunard.”
“Would you like eating something?” a few asked.
“What is your job?” “What is your family?” “Are you married?” asked others.
Then: “What caste are you?”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
One young man simply queried, “Mythology?” To which I asked for clarification, but received only a vigorous head wobble.
Finally I blurted, “Excuse me, but is this a theyyam?”
They looked to each other.
“Baali theyyam,” whispered Jishnu. “The tiger spirit!”
I flinched a little bit, and suddenly put on my cool face, trying to temper my excitement. “Oh… Where is he?”
“He is drinking alcohol!” chimed Vipin.
“It is easier for the spirit to enter his body once he has drank lots of toddy,” he explained, referencing the potent, fermented coconut spirit popular throughout South Asia. “He will be here soon.”
And sure enough, the chenda drums sounded around 11PM, and a wobbly man in terrifying paint and a massive kireetam headdress entered the courtyard. He bowed to the temple, performed a quick puja, and then began a dance characterized by turning in circles and occasionally attempting squats.
Suddenly, he snarled and charged into the crowd.
“The spirit has entered his body!” announced Vipin.
The theyyam then illustrated this by grabbing a man’s cellphone (mid-call) and pantomiming at it for five minutes, stressing to the crowd that he certainly had no idea what such a contraption was.
As the chenda drums rolled and the pyre roared, he repeated this same charade with a woman’s flashlight.
And then again with an orange balloon.
Vipin casually lifted a bulky paper bag.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“We’re going to throw fireworks at him.”
“To make him angry,” Vipin explained, and distributed the explosives amongst the guys. “Here, take this one,” he told me, holding up a menacing string of firecrackers.
As the theyyam danced in circles, squatting intermittently, Jishnu hurled an M-80 the size of dynamite.
BOOM! The entire state of Kerala was now awake. Vipin lobbed another.
BOOM! The theyyam jumped and the audience laughed wholesomely.
Then the theyyam tackled Vipin.
He charged him, pulled him into a headlock, and dragged him to the ground, as the audience chuckled and clapped.
After midnight, another theyyam appeared, a yellow one this time, carrying two swords.
“Blind theyyam,” announced one of the boys, pointing to the man’s eyes, which seemed to be twitching uncontrollably.
“He hates fire,” explained Lionel.
The theyyam performed a puja before the temple, and then began to dance.
“He really hates fire,” Lionel repeated, as two priest-looking characters in longyi appeared, and began waving lit torches in the man’s face.
“Are they making him angry?” I asked.
“Yes,” nodded Vipin.
This was nothing like the documentary.
I tried to imagine my church summoning the spirits of Jesus Christ and the disciples, and then harassing them relentlessly. I tried to picture Father Max muttering softly into the microphone, “John the Baptist used to hate wet-willies,” before an alter boy jams a finger into the cringing apostle’s ear.
Perhaps Vipin sensed my disappointment, because he immediately started mumbling to the other guys. A moment later, he turned to me as they all stood up. “Come, we are going now.”
“But… Why? The theyyam?”
He scoffed. “This is little theyyam, for families. Later we show you a very good theyyam, fire theyyam!” He helped me up. “But first you come and eat with us. You are our guest.”
“Thanks, but I don’t know,” I uttered. I was still painfully full. Furthermore, I was wary—I had heard numerous stories of foreigners being invited on short notice into strangers’ homes for dinner, only to wake up the next morning in a park, having been drugged and robbed of everything.
“Come on, Steef!” urged Jubin, a software engineer around my age who was visiting home from Bangalore. The guys smiled at me expectantly. They seemed genuine.
“Do you like chicken?” Vipin’s eyes lit up. “And paratha?”
There was no point in trying to resist. As always is the case, the hospitality of the subcontinent is as flattering as it is relentless. They were the hosts, and you were the guest. Especially in India, this is was as non-negotiable as the monsoon.
As Vipin busied himself with preparing dinner, I sat out on the stoop with Jishnu, Lionel, Jubin, Jaswant, Vipul, and a half-dozen other guys, as they demonstrated to me their knowledge of America, via YouTube videos of break dancers and high-octane Nascar collisions.
When dinner was prepared, I took off my shoes as they invited me inside. A table had been set with a dozen banana leafs piled high with food. This appeared to be an uncommon occasion, because despite there being a dozen or so diners, their modest kitchen had only three chairs.
“Sit here,” demanded Vipin, pulling out a chair in front of the leaf with largest pile of food.
“No, someone else can, I’m not that hun—”
“NO! SIT! YOU SIT! YOU ARE GUEST!” the gallery roared in protest.
“I can’t eat that much,” I argued.
“No, special! Special!” some of the guys shouted, pointing to my banana leaf.
“I don’t understand,” I smiled.
“That one’s special for you,” stated Vipin, pointing insistently.
Then I noticed that the banana leaf appeared to be hovering an inch or two above the table. I curiously peered underneath, and realized why they were making such a fuss.
Perhaps to make me feel welcome, or to feel more at home, the guys had taken a Western-style, porcelain dinner plate and carefully placed it beneath my banana leaf.
“Special,” the younger boys pointed austerely.
I laughed and thanked them, before we all tucked in to a spread of sabzi (curried vegetables), deliciously flaky Keralan paratha bread, and not chicken—but beef curry.
My bloated stomach said no, but my heart said yes. Oh, yes. I tried to pretend the beef was a burger, but there was no need—it was divine, curried with sweet onions and crisp green peppers.
As we ate, Vipin watched hungrily—per Indian custom, the host must wait for all his guests to finish eating before serving himself. To shorten his suffering, I hastily forced down my food and insisted I was finished, but this only prompted him to come back around with the pot, and despite my cries of objection, dump another ladle of curried beef upon my banana leaf. “Eat. Eat!” he laughed.
With distended stomachs and cheerful spirits, we stumbled back to the tumbledown temple, where the late night hours evaporated in the flickering radiance of the fire, amidst frivolous chatter and laughter, abundant picture-taking with cell phones, and the glimmering colored sparks of Vipin’s fireworks.
“Have you seen Step It Up 2?”
“Does it rain in America?”
“Do you know Mr. Bean?” “Is he dead??”
“Do you enjoy our company?”
Around 2AM, a group of guys in their late twenties invited me to join them via a (very inebriated) representative, whom I had met earlier. He stumbled towards us from the shadows and excitedly cried, “Steef! Do want to drink alcohol with us?!” He whipped out a bottle of Honey Brandy from beneath his longyi with a cackling laugh.
Truth be told, I would have loved a drink. But I could feel Vipin, and Lionel, and Jishnu, and Jaswant and the guys looking at me expectantly. If I wanted a beer, they clearly wouldn’t be joining me.
Vipin shouted something at the drunken ambassador in Malayalam, before I briskly thanked him for the invite, but told him I was all set.
“You are our guest,” said Vipin defensively, putting a hand on my shoulder, and I laughed.
Around 5AM, crowds began to reappear, all falling silent as the chenda drums hammered to life. Suddenly the fluorescent lights flickered and cut out, abandoning us to the ember glow of the dying pyre and the pale grayness of pre-dawn. It took me a moment to realize that a theyyam had entered the courtyard, veiled by red clothes held up by attendants. A tall, elaborate, chatriyya-esque headdress rose up from behind the curtain, and below, two feet plodded heavily; festooned with thick, silver hoops that clinked with each step.
Priests appeared with torches, muttering and chanting. Then a kuzhal shrieked and the drums boomed, as the theyyam ripped down the cloth, charging forward like a raging bull, bucking and bounding to the music.
If the other theyyams were creepy, this one was downright terrifying.
He wore a rustling, red waist dress, and his chest was bare, scrawled with sharp black and red harlequin patterns and adorned with a heavy silver neck-collar. His face was the predictable demonic-red, but his jawlines were exaggerated with strips of white fur, lending him an alien appearance. But it was his pearly-silver eyes—eerily inhuman and unseeing—that demanded silence and fear from the crowd.
The theyyam moaned, and the air electrified. There were no fireworks, no chuckles. The crowd fell hush. This was the real deal.
When the deity entered the theyyam’s body, nobody needed to tell me, because the theyyam made it perfectly clear—and in a far more alarming way than gesturing at a cell-phone.
Before I realized what was happening, the theyyam threw himself into the pyre. When the blistering coals reached up to his ankles, he began angrily kicking them in every direction, igniting the air around him with bursts of purple flames.
“Is he alright?” I gasped to Vipin, over the murmur of the crowd.
“He is barefoot,” he murmured, leaving it at that.
Seemingly unfazed, the theyyam charged off to dance around the courtyard, as the coals were raked back into a pile. Then elders stepped forward to receive blessings from the god. One by one they took the theyyam’s hand, and together they circumambulated the pyre, before the men bowed and shuffled off.
Eventually the sky lightened, and an attendant appeared to exorcise the theyyam. The music quickened as the two locked arms, and began leaping and spinning in circles.
This went on for quite some time before their movements slowed, and then suddenly, like lightning strike, the air changed. They both stopped, and the theyyam released the attendant, who crumpled to the ground, unconscious…
My eyes were burning when I checked my watch, and announced to the group that it was nearly 8AM.
“Before you go, you should let the theyyam read your fortune!” suggested Jishnu, to nods of approval from the rest.
The theyyam was sitting on a marble stool, panting and looking generally winded. He gave me a quizzical eye, before I slipped him ten rupees, and his eyes rolled back as he apathetically muttered my fortune. When he finished, the guys smiled, and went about translating what was said.
I only vaguely mentioned leaving, before cell phones appeared and numbers were exchanged. I watched my phone make it’s way from person to person, before Vipin handed it back, with the screen blinking: ‘Save Contact: Vipin frnd.”
Other villagers wandered over, and after mulling around for a few minutes, postponing the awkwardness of ‘goodbye,’ I announced that I was leaving. The boys shot out their hands for me to shake, and the fathers and elders clasped their palms in ‘Namaste.’ Some of the guys pulled me in for hugs.
Then turmeric appeared, and Vipin gave me a tilak on my forehead, to which someone shouted “So beautiful!” and another cried “You look like Jason Statham, have you seen ‘Transporter 2??”
I thanked everyone as I waved goodbye, then turned and made my way home, past the creaky bridges and placid, backwater canals, finding the dilapidated, old school, and climbing a small hill beyond the terracotta-roofed village.
From the top of the hill, I could see Kurien’s house far below, as well as a sweeping view that had eluded me in the night. Before me, stretching all the way to the beaches of Thottada, a lush sea of droopy coconut palms rustled in the seabreeze, glowing golden-lime in the morning sun. I grinned ear to ear, feeling exuberant, charged with boundless energy—not so much by the view, but by the overall profundity of my night in Kuruva, of the things I saw, and the genuine, selfless kindness I’d experienced.
When the theyyam had finished muttering and released my hand, he handed me a small, red blossom, plucked from his waist dress, before the boys translated:
“He says you are blessed. And that your life will be happiness.”
And while that seemed a bit simplified (considering how long the theyyam went about muttering), I wasn’t about to complain.
As of right now, looking down from my grassy vantage point, over the bucolic lushness of Kuruva and the rhythmic waves breaking in the distance, I could easily believe both of those things to be true.
It’s a pity that most people blaze past the ‘non-places,’ like Kuruva, or Juhu Beach, or the slums of Mumbai. I find it a mystery why travel companies and guidebooks typically shunt them to the curbside. Sure, they might lack in physical sights or places of immediate interest—but there’s an unmistakable magic floating in the heat. The charms of such places are subtler, but by no means less spectacular. Given the right circumstances, a roaring fire and a bag of fireworks can be more revealing than any museums. And in the right context, a banana leaf, generously piled high with food, can prove more stirring—more indelibly unforgettable—than any monuments, temples, or ruins.
For another amble off the beaten path, check out my disastrous attempt to hitchhike across the Gobi desert in “The Long Road to Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia”
Or for another tale of “startling” hospitality, head to Pakistan in “Kidnapped in Alipur”