In his compelling new book, Nine Lives, William Dalrymple, acclaimed travel writer, historian and observer of this country for the past 25 years, explores the worlds of people deeply engaged with the sacred in a fast changing India. He delves into the lives of nine seemingly ordinary but remarkable individuals, among them Hari Das, a prison warden transformed into a deity incarnate for two months every year. This exclusive extract tells his extraordinary story:
In the midnight shadows of a forest clearing, bounded on one side by a small stream and a moonlit paddy field, and on the other by the darkness of a rubber plantation and a green canopy of coconut palms, lit only by a bonfire and a carpet of flickering camphor lights, a large crowd has gathered, silhouetted against the flames. Most have walked many miles through the darkness to get here. They are waiting and watching for the moment when, once a year, the gods come down to earth, and dance.
For 20 minutes now, a troupe of six sweat-glistening, half-naked, dark-skinned Dalit drummers have been raising their tempo: the insistent beats they are rapping out on the animal-hide chenda drums with their small, hard tamarind-wood drumsticks are getting gradually yet distinctly louder and faster and more frenzied. The song telling the myth of the god about to be incarnated has been sung, and in front of the shrine, at the centre of the clearing, the first of the dancers has just been possessed—seized by the gods, as they put it. Now he is frenetically pirouetting around the clearing, strutting and jabbing, unsheathed sword in one hand, bow and a quiver of arrows in the other. Instinctively, the crowd draws back, towards the shadows.
Behind the shrine, on the edge of the clearing, there is a palm-leaf hut, and this has been commandeered by the Theyyam troupe as their green room. Inside, the next dancer to go on, a fanged female figure representing the Goddess Bhagavati, with a red painted face, supporting a huge red-gilt, mirrored head-dress, is getting ready to summon the deity.
“How does it feel to be taken over by God?” I ask. “I get tense,” replies the Vishnu-to-be. “I’m not nervous of the god coming. It’s more the fear that he might refuse to come.”
Immobile at the rear of the hut lies the dark and muscular figure of the man I have come to see. Hari Das, one of the most celebrated and articulate Theyyam dancers in the area, is naked but for a white mundu, and he is lying on his back as a young boy applies make-up to his face and body. His torso and upper arms are covered with yellow paint, and his cheeks are smeared with orange turmeric, which gives off a strongly pungent smell. Two black paisleys are painted around his eyes and a pair of mango-shaped patches on his cheeks are daubed with bright, white rice paste. On these, using a slim strip of coconut leaf, the make-up boy is skilfully drawing loops and whorls and scorpion-tail trumpet spirals, then finishing the effects with a thin red stripe across his cheekbones.
I sit down on the mud floor beside him, and we chat as the make-up boy begins the slow transformation of Hari Das into Vishnu. I ask whether he is nervous, and how the possession comes about: what does it feel like to be taken over by a god?
“It’s difficult to describe,” says Hari Das. “Before it happens, I always get very tense, even though I have been doing this for 26 years now. It’s not that I am nervous of the god coming. It’s more the fear that he might refuse to come. It’s the intensity of your devotion that determines the intensity of the possession. If you lose your feeling of devotion, if it even once becomes routine or unthinking, the gods may stop coming.”
He pauses as the make-up boy continues applying face paint from the pigment he is mixing on the strip of banana leaf in his left hand. Hari Das opens his mouth, and the make-up boy carefully applies some rouge to his lips. “It’s like a blinding light,” he says eventually. “When the drums are playing and your make-up is finished, they hand you a mirror and you look at your face transformed into that of a god. Then it comes. It’s as if there is a sudden explosion of light. A vista of complete brilliance opens up—it blinds the senses.”
Even though theyyams are Dalits, even the most casteist and bigoted Namboodiri will worship them during season, queueing up to touch their feet, kneeling before them for a blessing.
“Are you aware of what is happening?”
“No,” he replies. “That light stays with you all the way during the performance. You become the deity. You lose all fear. Even your voice changes. The god comes alive and takes over. You are just the vehicle, the medium. In the trance, it is god who speaks, and all the acts are the acts of the god—feeling, thinking, speaking. The dancer is an ordinary man—but this being is divine. Only when the head-dress is removed does it end.”
“What is it like when you come to from the trance?” I ask.
“It’s like the incision of a surgeon,” he says, making a cutting gesture with one hand. “Suddenly it’s all over, it’s gone. You don’t have any access to what happened during the possession or the performance. You can’t remember anything that happened in the trance. All there is, is a sensation of relief, as if you’ve offloaded something.”
The second dancer is now gazing intently in a small hand mirror at the entrance of the hut, identifying himself with the goddess. As I watch, the dancer stamps his feet, ringing the bells and cowrie shells on his anklets. He stamps again, loudly and more abruptly. Then he jerks his body suddenly to one side, as if hit by a current of electricity, before stretching out his hands and sinking into a strange crouching position. His body is quivering, his hands shaking and his eyes are flicking from side to side. The figure who had been still and silently staring only seconds earlier is now transformed, twisting his head in a strangely eerie series of movements that is part tropical fish, part stinging insect, part reptile, part bird of paradise. Then he is gone, bounding out into the clearing, under the stars, closely followed by two attendants, both holding burning splints.
Hari is now getting to his feet and preparing to put on his own costume. I ask: “Is this a full-time job, becoming a god?”
“No,” he replies, a little sadly. “For nine months a year, I work as a manual labourer. I build wells during the week, then at the weekend I work in Tellicherry Central Jail. As a warder.”
“You are a prison warder?”
“I need to make a living. I am poor enough to be ready to do virtually anything if someone pays me a daily wage. It’s not for pleasure—it’s very dangerous work.”
“In what sense?”
“The inmates rule the jail. Many have got political backing. No one dares to mess with them.” He shrugs: “Every day the local paper has some new horror story: they are always cutting off the noses and hands of their political rivals on the parade ground, or in the cells at night.
“In fact, there are actually two jails around here: one for the rss in Tellicherry, and the other in Kannur for the Communist Party. The two parties are at war: only yesterday the rss attacked a cpm village near Mahe, killing three people with homemade bombs. If a Communist ever ends up in Tellicherry or an rss sevak is put in Kannur, you can guarantee he won’t last 24 hours—or at least will have lost several body parts by the time he comes to eat his next breakfast.”
When not theyyam, Hari Das is a jail warder, Narasimha a waiter, Chamundi a wedding decorator, Bhagavati, a conductor.
“Can’t this be stopped?”
“Occasionally someone tries,” says Hari Das. “One day a new superintendent came here from Bihar and severely punished one of the big gang leaders. Before he got home that night, that superintendent’s home had been burned to the ground.”
Hari Das laughs: “All the prisoners have mobile phones and can order any sort of act from inside the prison. The head warden once brought in a jammer to try and stop them, but within the week someone had got to it and poured sea water into it so that it jammed itself. That was the end of that.”
He smiles. “I keep my head down. I never beat any prisoner, and just try to avoid being beaten up myself. We all just try to get through the day alive and intact.”
“And all the Theyyam dancers lead double lives like this?”
“Of course,” says Hari Das. “Chamundi over there makes wedding decorations and Narasimha is a waiter at a hotel. That boy playing Bhagavati is a bus conductor and Guligan the destroyer,” he nodded at another dancer still putting on make-up in the back of the hut—“is a toddy tapper. It’s his job to pluck coconuts and collect the fermented coconut water from the top of the palm trees.”
“So you are only part-time gods?”
“It’s only during the Theyyam season—from December to February. We give up our jobs and become Theyyam artists. For those months we become gods. Everything changes. We never eat meat or fish and are forbidden to sleep with our wives. We bring blessings to the village and the villagers, and exorcise evil spirits. We are the vehicle through which people can thank the gods for fulfilling their prayers and granting their wishes. Though we are all Dalits (untouchables) even the most bigoted and casteist Namboodiri Brahmins worship us, and queue up to touch our feet.”
His costume is now on and he picks up the mirror, preparing to summon the deity: “For three months of the year we are gods,” he says. “Then in March, when the season ends, we pack away our costumes. And after that, at least in my case, it’s back to jail.”
* * *
The landscape of Kerala seems the most gentle, benign and benevolent landscape imaginable; yet in reality the state has always been one of the most socially oppressive and rigidly hierarchical societies in India.
When the British traveller and doctor, Francis Buchanan, passed through the area at the beginning of the 19th century, he found caste inequalities and restrictions so severe that a warrior-caste Nayar was considered within his rights to instantly behead and kill a lower caste man if the latter dared to appear on the same road at the same time. The exact distances that the different castes had to keep from each other were laid down in arcane law codes, as was the specific way that different castes should tie their mundus or dress their hair.
As late as the early years of the 20th century, lower-caste tenants were still regularly being murdered by their Nayar landlords for failing to present sweets as tokens of their submission. Today people are rarely murdered for violations of caste restrictions—except sometimes in the case of unauthorised cross-caste love affairs—but in the presence of persons of the upper castes, Dalits are still expected to bow their heads and stand at a respectful distance.
These inequalities are the fertile soil from which Theyyam grew, and the dance form has always been a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life: for it is not the pure and sanctified Brahmins into which the gods choose to incarnate, but the shunned and insulted Dalits. The entire system is free from Brahmin control. The Theyyams take place not in Brahminical temples, but small shrines in the holy places and sacred groves of the countryside, and the priests are not Brahmin but Dalit.
“When the make-up is finished, they hand you a mirror and you see your face transformed into a god’s. Then it comes.”
The word theyyam derives from ‘daivam’, the Sanskrit word for ‘god’. Some scholars maintain that the theyyams of north Malabar are a rare survival of some pre-Aryan non-Brahminical Dravidian religious system that was later absorbed into Hinduism’s capacious embrace. Others argue that the theyyams were tolerated as an acceptable safety valve to allow complaints against the misdeeds of the upper castes to be expressed in a ritualised and non-violent manner. Either way, there is no doubt that today they are a stage on which the social norms of everyday life are inverted, and where for a short period of the year, position and power are almost miraculously transferred to the insignificant and powerless.
The stories around which the theyyam performances are built range from tales of blood-drinking yakshis and witches, and the myths of serpent and animal deities, to the deeds of local heroes and ancestors. Many, however, concentrate on issues of caste, and of the social and moral injustices that caste tensions have provoked. Frequently, they question the limits of acceptable behaviour—especially the abuse of power as the upper castes struggle to keep their place at the top of the caste pyramid. In many of the theyyam stories, a member of the lower castes infringes or transgresses accepted caste restrictions and is unjustly punished with rape (in the case of women) or death (in the case of men, and sometimes women too), and then is deified by the gods aghast at the injustices perpetrated by the Brahmins and the other ruling castes.
This obsession with caste infringements and the abuse of upper-caste power, with divinity, protest and the reordering of relations of power, is something that Hari Das believes lies at the heart of this ritual art form, and he sees Theyyam as much as a tool and a weapon to resist and fight back against an unjust social system as a religious revelation. Two months later, when I next met Hari Das again to ask him about all this, he was not wearing a Theyyam costume; indeed he was wearing nothing but a grimy loincloth, and his torso was smeared with wet mud.
“I didn’t think you’d recognise me,” he said, wiping sweat and mud from his forehead. He indicated to the well from which he had just emerged, pickaxe in hand. “There was one Brahmin last month who worshipped me during a Theyyam, reverently touching my feet, with tears in his eyes, kneeling before me for a blessing. Then the following week I went to his house to dig a well as an ordinary labourer. He certainly didn’t recognise me.”
“How do you know?”
“There were five of us in the team, and he gave us lunch. But we had to take it outside on the veranda and there was no question of being allowed into his house. He used an extra long ladle so that he could serve us from a safe distance. And he used plantain leaves so that he could throw them away when we had finished: he didn’t want to eat on anything we had touched, and he told us he didn’t want us to come inside the house and wash the dishes ourselves. Even the water was left for us in a separate bucket, and he did not allow us to draw water from the well we had dug for him. This happens even now, in this age! I can dig a well in a Namboodiri (Brahmin) house and still be banned from drawing water from it.”
Hari Das shrugged his shoulders: “Many of the upper castes have changed the way they behave to us Dalits—but many others are still resolute in their caste bigotry, and refuse to mix with us or eat with us. They may pay respect to a Theyyam artiste like me during the Theyyam itself—but outside it they are still as casteist as ever.”
We sat down by the edge of the well, and Hari Das cleaned his hands in a bucket of water that one of his team brought over. “Theyyam turns the world upside down,” he explained. “If the Brahmins advise you to be pure and teetotal and vegetarian, a Theyyam deity like Muthappan will tell you to eat meat, to drink and be jolly.”
“You think the Theyyam can help the lower castes fight back against the Brahmins?”
“There is no question that that’s the case,” said Hari Das. “Over the last 20-30 years, it’s completely altered the power structure in these parts. The brighter of the Theyyam artistes have used Theyyam to inspire self-confidence in the rest of our community. Our people see the upper castes and the Namboodiris bowing down to the deities that have entered us. That self-confidence has encouraged the next generation so that even those who are not Theyyam players have now got themselves educated and gone to school and sometimes college. They may still be poor, but their education and self-esteem has gone up—and it’s Theyyam that has helped them to do it.”
* * *
Nine months later, I was back in Kerala for Christmas, and went up to Kannur to see Hari Das. It was again the Theyyam season, and I timed my visit to coincide with the day that Hari Das was again performing in the same forest kavu (shrine) where I had met him the previous year.
I arrived early one morning. People were milling about the clearing in the teak forest, plumping themselves down where they thought they could have the best view, or in the case of some of the ladies, moving white plastic chairs under a tarpaulin which had been erected to one side.
They were still talking when the drumming began. Within a few minutes, it was loud enough to hurt the ears and thumped into the body with an almost physical impact. This time, Kali-Chamundi was the first deity out, a much more sinister Theyyam than anything I had witnessed the previous year. Red-faced, black-eyed and white-armed, with rouged lips, large red-metal breasts and a halo of palm-spines that looked like a giant circular sawblade, the deity emerged into the clearing rattling her bracelets and hissing like a snake. She circled the shrine, her face distorted and twitching from side to side, like a huge lizard. There was something agitated, disturbed and unpredictable about this eerie figure strutting malevolently around the edge of the crowd, glaring every so often at some individual who met her gaze; yet there was also something unmistakably regal about her, demanding attention and deference.
Two priests, stripped to the waist, approached her, head bowed, with a bowl of toddy, which she drank in a single gulp. It was as she was drinking that the drums reached a new climax and suddenly a second deity appeared, leaping into the open space of the clearing with a crown of seven red cobra heads, to which were attached two huge round earrings. A silver applique chakra was stuck in the middle of his forehead, and round his waist was a wide grass busk, as if an Elizabethan couturier had somehow been marooned on some forgotten jungle island and been forced to reproduce the fashions of the Virgin Queen’s court from local materials. His wrists were encircled with bracelets of palm spines and Exora flowers. It was only after a minute that I realised it was Hari Das.
He was unrecognisable from before. His eyes were wide, charged and staring, and his whole personality seemed to have been transformed. The calm, slightly earnest and thoughtful man I knew from my different meetings was now changed into a frenzied divine athlete. He made a series of spectacular leaps in the air as he circled the kavu, twirling and dancing, spraying the crowd with showers of rice offerings.
After several rounds in this manner, the tempo of the drums slowly lowered. As Chamundi took her seat on a throne at one side of the main entrance to the shrine, still twitching uneasily, the Vishnumurti theyyam approached the ranks of devotees, in a choreographed walk, part strut, part dance. All of the devotees and pilgrims had now respectfully risen from their seats and from the ground, and were now standing with heads bowed before the deity.
In one hand the Vishnumurti now held a bow and a quiver of arrows; in the other a sword. These he used to bless the devotees, who bowed their heads as he approached. With the blade of the sword he touched the outstretched hands of some of the crowd: “All will be well!” he intoned in a deep voice in Malayalam. “All the darkness will go! The gods will look after you!” Between these encouraging phrases in the local dialect, he muttered a series of Sanskrit mantras and incantations. The personality of the deity was quite distinct from that of Chamundi—as benign and reassuring as the latter was disturbing and potentially dangerous, even psychotic.
The deity now returned to the shrine, and taking a throne, looked on as the various priests and attendants now prostrated themselves before him, each offering a drink of toddy. Like Chamundi, Vishnumurti drank the offering in a single gulp. This was the signal for the spiritual surgery to begin and the devotees to queue up, and to approach the deities for individual advice and blessing.
After an hour or so of this, the queues began to dwindle, and the drums struck up again. Such was the reassuring calm of the gods’ surgery that nothing prepared me for what followed. As the tempo rose, the attendants handed both deities coconuts which they took over to a sacrificial altar and threw down with such force that the coconut exploded.
Then the gods were handed huge cleavers. From one side a pair of squawking chickens were produced. Both were held by the feet and were flapping frantically. Another attendant appeared, holding an offering of rice on a palm-leaf plate. Seconds later, the cleaver descended and the chickens were both beheaded. The head of each was thrown away and blood gushed out in a great jet on to the rice. Then, as the drums climaxed, both deities lifted the flapping carcasses up to their faces, blood still haemorrhaging over the costumes and head-dresses. Together, Chamundi and Vishnumurti placed the severed neck of each chicken in their mouth, drinking deeply. Only then did they put the carcass down, on to its feet, so that the headless chicken ran off, scrabbling and flapping as if still alive. Only after another full minute had passed did the chickens pitch over and come to rest at the edge of the crowd.
One last triumphal lap of the shrine followed, before the deities bowed to their devotees and headed back to the green room. There, as they stood with their hands raised in namaskar, their head-dresses were removed by the attendants. By the time I had made it over there, through the surging crowd, the Vishnumurti had gone, and Hari Das was back again. The make-up boy removed his busk and breastplate and he lay down on his back on a palm mat. He was spent, and lay there breathing heavily with his eyes closed. Finally, he opened his eyes, and seeing me there, smiled. I asked if he still felt any of the spirit of the deity remaining in him.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s all over—gone. Now there is no relationship with that state of being. All you feel is exhaustion, and lightness, and sometimes hunger too. But mostly, just deep exhaustion.”
“When is your next Theyyam?” I asked.
“Tonight. The kavu is about three hours away by bus.”
“It’s another all-nighter?”
Hari Das shrugged: “I’m not complaining,” he said. “The season may be hard work, but it’s what I live for, what I look forward to all the rest of the year.”
The boy who had played Chamundi had his costume off now, and was heading down to the stream below the clearing to bathe. He looked at Hari Das to see if he was going to come too, but the latter indicated that he should go ahead.
“These two months are very happy,” he said. “I am very satisfied. I love coming out to remote places like this to perform. Theyyam has made me what I am. All my self-esteem comes from this. I am here in a village far from mine, because of my fame as a Theyyam artiste. The rest of the year, no one here would even greet me or invite me to share a cup of tea with them. But during the season no one knows me as Hari Das. To them I am like a temple, if not a god. Suddenly I have status and respect.”
The make-up boy was now nearly finished cleaning the pigment, the sweat and the congealed chicken blood off his face.
“Is it hard going back to normal life?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Of course. All of us find it so.”
He smiled: “At the end of the season we just pack up our things and prepare to go back to our jobs—to being a bus conductor or a well-builder or life in prison. There is a total disconnect with this life. We are all sad. But at least we all know it will come back the next season.”
Hari Das got up and together we walked down towards the steps of the makeshift ghat.
“The other 10 months are very hard,” said Hari Das. “But there is no way around it. That’s reality, isn’t it? That’s life. Life is hard.”