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Theyyam Rituals of Kerala: Photographs by Daniel Nadler

In the south Indian state of Kerala, the worship of theyyams (local deities) represents a regional form of popular Hinduism featuring theyyattam, literally “god-dance.” Incorporating aspects of indigenous animism, the theyyam rituals center on spirit possession and are performed by men of particular castes traditionally considered lowest in the social order. In a highly ceremonial act of putting on elaborate makeup and costume, the performer literally becomes the god, incarnating its divine power and consciousness to interact directly with devotees.

During the festival season, from October through May, hundreds of theyyams, each with unique makeup and costuming, are performed at thousands of shrines throughout northern Kerala. At each shrine the gods are brought to life according to a stipulated order, beginning with a preliminary, more simply adorned form, known as torram or vellatam (depending on the god), then culminating the next or subsequent days in a fully elaborated theyyam costume performance. While some theyyams are performed annually, others might occur only once in many decades.

This selection of photographs by Daniel Nadler, Class of 1954, of three theyyam rituals captures the drama, energy, and artistry of this exceptional form of worship.

Ellen Avril
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art