Theyyams – Athena Kashyap

A ritual form of worship in Kerala where gods and goddesses enter the earthly realm by possessing the body of a dancer.
Temple courtyard, Kerala

Aniyara: the changing room

Still as chameleons changing
colors, they await
their transformation from just
one more painter in the city
nine months of the year,
to goddesses in their village shrine.
Their faces, milky-red, inscribed
with yantric cosmologies,
make them one
with the stars, enormous
eyes plummeting them
to depths where consciousness
sleeps and wakes.
A mountain, vast as Meru,
sit atop of their heads,
the ocean, where gods
churned Amrit, swirl
around their waists.

Tonight, on the border,
where farm greets forest,
the land glistens,
an ocean burning light.
Tonight, a thousand injustices
festering, bring brahmins
and dalits alike,
to this dalit shrine.
Farmers with broken faces,
empty wells with water stolen
reappearing in locked city taps,
money lenders, sweet vendors,
home-makers and mothers,
bored children in tow,
the odd tourist with camera
come with his city guide
translating, reinterpreting
village customs in a Western light—
all come to behold
the goddesses—
Makkam and Puliyor Kali
inhabit the earthly bodies
of theyyam dancers,
come for blessings,
await judgements
for good deeds and bad,
for the goddesses to
illuminate them
with their shimmering
beauty, dark fury.

Ready at last, the dancer
dressed as Makkam
looks in the mirror—
window opening to the sky.
At that very instant, the goddess
stops by in the sky, sees
her face in the mirror:
fanged mouth to devour
constellations, enormous eyes
that see beyond seeing.
A flash—faces blur, dissolve.
In the blink of a sky’s eye,
the world turns over
as Makkam slips through
the doorway of the dancer’s eyes,
electrifies his inert body
into cosmic motion.


good and evil flaring from
her slanted stare,
Makkam hisses and spits
one mountain step at a time—
to the thunder of the chendu
lightening of veeni.
Singers tell her story:
when the mighty Makkam
was a mere mortal woman
falsely accused of adultery
beheaded, along with her children
heads bobbing
in a dark, deep well
streaked with red—
like the red ribbons that once tied
her oil-glistening plaits.

Tonight, she dances—
a flickering flame lapping
the edges of the world.
She unfurls her fury—
skirt of fire
universe expanding
in her burning third eye
as she admonishes:

You—murderers of female fetuses
You—rapists in light and dark
In homes, on the streets, on rumbling buses
You—demanders of dowry with advanced degrees,
bespoke suits
You—voyeurs looking on in silence.
Take heed! I am all
women, and all women are
Makkam. I see you all
with daggers in my eyes.
Open your eyes—
See the darkness inside you.
I am coming for you!

Goddess Puliyoor Kali, the tiger goddess

Waiting in the wings,
a second dancer looks
into his mirror just as Makkam
takes her leave. Within seconds,
the goddess Puliyoor Kali
steps inside his eyes.
Her fire spreads across
his body as she leaps
into the courtyard.

Gamboling with the goddess’
giant steps, burning stripes,
a thousand smiles of gold
and lightning, suns track
dervish circles
around her head.
She purrs, snarls, growls
and with a deep, throaty roar
demands to know:

Where have all
the brave hearts gone?
When I along with
my four tiger brothers,
broke into a cattle shed,
Karanidhiri Kannan,
heroic human soul,
fought them and died
protecting his friend’s cows.
Today, our mother cries
mountain peaks of tears
for lost forests and groves—
for Akli, its pale yellow flowers
for Aini, hardy sustainers of boats.
Arayal, sacred heart-leaves fluttering
Peral, sprawling tree city
with branches for walls—
but no one listens.
Elephant, leopard, crocodile, tiger—
reduced to bags and shoes.
Only the oceans that dance
around my waist are full—
brimming plastic,oil and tears.

Swirling cartwheels of fire,
Puliyor Kali’s roar reverberates
through the forest.
Inside the cochlea of a shell,
sea meets shore. Yet,
non-believers still ignore
her dying roar.


Spent, the dancers crawl out
of their mountain dresses.
They remember nothing
of the dances, the goddesses
that spoke just a few minutes ago
through their mouths and bodies.
The crowds are already
starting to disperse.
Children nag to go
back to their televisions,
the tourist comes by
for a few final shots.
He thrusts a few rupees
into their hands. They take it,
ask for more.

Soon, the dancers must return
back to the city to repay
accumulated village debts,
back to scraping filth
from crumbling walls,
their own skin that can never
come clean. Already,
they long to return
to their village, return
their bodies back to the gods,
for them to make manifest
the world’s untold grievances
inscribed over centuries
with their bodies–
the goddesses pen—Ishika
rhythms, dynamic motion
burning, swirling
the cosmic script.

Athena Kashyap
Athena Kashyap is the author of Crossing Black Waters (SFA Press, 2012) and Sita’s Choice (SFA Press, 2019), both collections of linked poems exploring borders and women’s issues in India respectively. She was born in India, but currently makes her home in San Francisco, where she teaches English at City College of San Francisco.

Theyyam Artist
Aji Jayachandran

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