Spirit of the Sacred Groves: Thira of Northern Kerala

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Published on: 12 November 2019

Kirthana Devdas

Kirthana Devdas is a commercial photographer based in Chennai. She has worked for clients like Hidesign, Marico, Asian Paints, HCL, the Tamil Nadu forest department and has documented the work of NGOs across India. In 2016, she was a resident artist at the Fjuk Arts Centre in Husavik, Iceland. Her photographs are keepsakes from conversations with her surroundings. She is native of Mahe, in North Kerala, where she is documenting the practice of thira through the lives of the performing artists.

I watch him summon strength from the heavens and dance on endlessly; his heels drumming the earth, as the chendas (drums) beat harder. When Guligan performs, he is fierce and beautiful. His raw energy consumes the darkness of the night. The further he draws away from himself, the more I find myself drawn towards him. This brings me every year to my tharavad (ancestral home) to immerse myself in the spirit of Thira.


Thira is a ritual dance–drama where various deities of the land are invoked and they give divine blessings for the well-being of the land and its people. Thira is unique to the Malabar region in Northern Kerala, where it is performed in sacred shrines and ancestral temples located in ‘kavus’. Kavus are sacred groves with shrines dedicated to the family ancestors and the family deity most popularly the mother goddess, Bhagavathi or Muthappan. They are worshipped to ensure fertility of the land and protection of the village and the family that owns the kavu.

The ritual has its basis in the earliest beliefs of worship, revering forces of nature and the spirit of one’s ancestors. As the people's faith in this practice strengthened, it also evolved beyond worship, as a space to address any cause of distress or social injustice. Any violation that was faced could be questioned openly within this space by the deity without the fear of consequence. When the surge of caste oppression hit the Malabar region, the ritual evolved as a space to address this injustice through performance.  The stories of martyrs who were killed due to caste or gender injustice found their way into Thira. As social changes occurred, the stories evolved and today the stories that are told are those of Hindu gods in their many avatars. 


Most stories associated with Thira have been passed down through generations as oral histories. One legend has it that sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, Manakkadan from the Vannan community was challenged by the king of Kolathiri to perform 36 Theyyams in one night. It seemed an impossible task, but he succeeded and he was honoured by the king with the title of Gurukkal (guru or teacher). The present-day Thiras are thought to have been derived from those created by Manakkadan Gurukkal. The right to performance is held within communities like the Vannans,  Pulaya, Panan, Cherumar, Mavelan, Koppaalar and Malayan. Performers who invoke the gods endure training from a young age, initially as apprentices to senior performers in the family. Thira require years of rigorous mental and physical preparation and trainees must lead a life of strict discipline and chastity during the thira season.


Once a year, usually in January my family gathers at our ancestral kavu in Panoor town, in Kannur district.  The shrine is cleaned, the courtyard is cleared and decorations are added along the path leading to the shrine. Make shift rooms are set up for the artists' preparation and rest. The performer lies down on a bed of palm leaves, fully stretched as his face is drawn. Mughamezhuthu (face painting) and melezhuthu (body painting), are two vital aspects of the performer’s transformation and it can only be done by a seasoned artist with skill and experience. The craftsmen within the performing group create the elaborate costume, headgear, weapons and body ornaments from coconut leaf, flower and other natural materials. For the enactment of some particular deities, like Edalavuratha Chamundi and Guligan, performers wear elaborate masks made of wood and silver.

The initial stage of a performance is known as vellattam or thottam. This stage involves minimal make-up and body adornments. During vellattam, the performer narrates the origin and characteristics of different deities.  The dance is accompanied by musicians who play the chenda, elathalam (brass cymbals), thudi (percussion instrument), panchayudham (wind instrument) and kuzhal (double reed wind instrument). The purpose of vellattam is to awaken the deity in the kavu. Nanu Peruvannan comes to our kavu every year. A veteran in this field, Nanu Peruvannan possesses a wealth of information pertaining to legends, myths, and traditions to be followed while performing before various deities. He is a mentor to the following generation of performers.

Much of the Thira takes place at night, aided by the light of flaming torches made from dried coconut leaves. Some of the popular deities invoked during Thira are Guligan, Karanavar, Kuttichathan, Kandakarnan, Vishnumoorthi, Vasoorimala thambooraati, and Bhagavathy, among several others in the other kavus. As he invokes the deities, the Thira performer walks on red-hot embers without feeling pain, demonstrating his supernatural powers. At the end, devotees get a chance to come face-to-face with their gods. They speak their hearts out and seek advice in resolving any difficulty they might be facing. 

The Thira at our kavu goes on overnight for nearly 24 hours and winds up at around 3.30pm the next day. The head gear and ornaments of the Thira performer are removed and he erases the make-up in a ceremony called Chanthu Tekkuka (erasing the colours). Once the Thira is concluded, it is believed that the awakened deity of the kavu will revert to the shrine till the next Thira. At the conclusion of all ceremonies, a final prayer is made for the wellbeing and prosperity of the land, the people and the tharavad. Finally, the doors of the shrine are closed. 

The customs and beliefs of Thira have played a vital role in the preservation of kavus and the ecosystem within them. Hence, Thira is more than just a religious ceremony or a sacred performance. It establishes the ancient connection of man with nature. In the age of rampant environmental destruction, the kavus and their sacred spirit are a reminder of the delicate harmony of the natural world which sustains and nourishes us. This is the story of our gods. And this story, with countless others, continue to live on in the sacred groves of Malabar.