Oh, My God! Singed Kerala boy puts Marxian dictum on religion back in spotlight

A boy, aged 14, suffers burns after performing the risky 'Theechamundi theyyam', even as the government sits on a long-pending Bill.

ByK A Shaji

Published Apr 11, 2023 | 10:00 AMUpdatedApr 11, 2023 | 2:16 PM

Primary and secondary colours are used to paint the theyyam performer's face and body. (Supplied)

A fire is lit as the clock tick-tocks into the 10th night of the Malayalam month of Thulam. The faithful have gathered at kaavus — or sacred groves — and shrines for direct communion with gods.

It is the night of Pathamudayam, auspicuous for Malayalis, especially farmers.

Songs accompanied by the rhythmic beats of percussion instruments, chenda, thudi, veekuchenda, ilathalam (miniature cymbals), and kuzhal, a wind instrument, along with a crackling bonfire, set the mood.

The world turns mystic to the crowd waiting in anticipation. And then, ending their wait with bated breaths, the gods appear in flesh and blood.

Theyyam, mostly performed in North Kerala and parts of Karnataka, is considered divine, an intermediary of the deity or the god itself.

As the music reaches its crescendo, the theyyam performer breaks into a frenzied, high-octane Hindu shamanic dance.

Related: ‘Human sacrifice’ murders turn spotlight on pending black magic bill

Tree-climbing frenzy

Wearing a diadem made of vegetation, and face and body painted in primary and secondary colours, and mostly clad in red clothes and leaves, the theyyams dance throughout the night.

As many as 456 different forms of theyyam have been documented so far.

The devotees talk to the theyyam to unburden their woes and apprehensions, even as scared little children hide behind their parents.

The music, screams, and roars, mixed with the jingles of bangles called katakam, chutakam, and small anklets add to the frenzy. The dance in the light of flames reaching up to the night sky leaves the audience in a trance.

The frenzy is such that the performer often throws caution to the wind. Instances of theyyams climbing tall coconut trees and falling off have been reported, the latest one in February this year.

The theyyam season, which starts mostly in October lasts till mid-Edavam (May/June), another month in the Malayalam calendar. The performances often grab headlines for the wrong reason — like in the cases of coconut trees dropping theyyams.

One such instance in the ongoing season shocked Kerala. Questions were raised over the ritual’s several unsafe practices — and their rationale.

Also read: How superstition reveals the other (ugly) side of progressive Kerala

A shower in fire

Faith often elbows logic out. It happened when the festival committee of a temple at Chirakkal on the outskirts of Kannur city in North Kerala conducted the ritualistic Perumkaliyattam last week after a hiatus of 45 years.

Boy Theyyam

The 14-year-old boy performing the Theechamundi theyyam. (Supplied)

Perumkaliyattam is a non-stop performance by 38 different theyyams for five consecutive days.

A Theechamundi theyyam performance was the highlight of the festival at Chirakkal. Theechamundi, also known as Vishnumurthy and Ottakolam, is an offering to Narasimha, the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

It depicts the number of times Hiranyakashyapu flung Prahlada into the fire, as mentioned in the Hindu epic, Bhagavata Purana.

The artiste flings himself into embers multiple times. Tender leaves of plantain and coconut palms are his only protective gear.

Theechamundi theyyam is frequently staged and it has seldom sparked an outcry. But this time, the temple allowed a 14-year-old boy* to perform the dangerous act.

By Friday, 7 April, visuals of the Class 8 student performing the Theechamundi theyyam and suffering burns in the process went viral on social media.

The teen was visibly exhausted and singed after jumping into the fire 101 times at the Chamundi Kottam Festival Ground opposite the Chirakkal Temple, videos revealed.

Also read: Kerala to bring in law to abolish superstition, black magic

Child rights panel registers case

Taking suo motu cognisance on Saturday, 8 April, the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) registered a case against the child’s father Murali Panicker, the organising committee convener, Suresh Verma, and those who assisted the boy to perform the stunt.

Videos showed a few adults dragging a spent child through the fire.

The child protection body refused to consider the performance as an act of tradition and found it a clear violation of the rights of a child.

The adolescent belonged to the Malayan community. Traditionally, seniors from the community perform Theechamundi. They claimed that a minor last performed the Ottakolam 250 years ago.

Related: Shocking details of murders, from sexual perversion to cannibalism

A volte-face after celebration

When the temple committee announced its decision to allow the child to perform the dangerous ritual, it became a sensation in the local media.

The boy getting ready for the performance. (Supplied)

The boy getting ready for the performance. (Supplied)

They celebrated the announcement as history being revisited.

The district administration, the police, and child rights activists felt nothing wrong. Even after his performance, news reports were eloquent about the bright colours and the elaborate makeup that made the performance distinct.

They also spoke about the energic steps of the boy, which they claimed were in sync with the rhythm of traditional drums.

However, things took a dramatic turn when videos of the performance turned viral on social media, and they explicitly showed the boy sustaining burns and collapsing after the performance.

Soon after the KSCPCR registered the case, the local media, police, and district administration took a volte-face.  The media, which till a few days ago was ga-ga over the planned performance, listed the violations.

With child and human rights activists getting involved, the issue became subject of a heated debate in the Kerala, where orthodoxy often wins over reasoning.

The legend of Vishnumurthi

As per local legends, a Vishnumurthi Theyyam is centuries old and is performed by Malayan community members.


Theechamundi theyyam. (Supplied)

Some 250 years ago, the then Kolathiri — or ruler — felt the theyyam lacked intensity. The unimpressed ruler wanted a performance with mighty raging fire and risk.

A tall bonfire was arranged in the paddy field opposite the temple, and the ruler challenged all the senior performers from the Malayan community.

No one was ready to accept the challenge, but for a Malayan child from North Varadur. He fearlessly jumped into the fire, and the ruler conferred on him the title, Balaperumalayan.

No other child has performed the ritual since then, and now the teen has almost successfully re-enacted it.

Till the early hours of Friday, the boy has been performing less risky theyyams such as Vedan, Gulikan, Kuttichathan, Pottan, and Uchitta.

The child trained in the risky act under the tutelage of his grandfather, Krishnan Panicker.

The child’s father, Murali Panicker, said the boy did not sustain any serious burns and the fatigue was temporary.

My son, the God

Murali added that no harm was caused because the boy had turned God during the performance.

A Theyyam ritual in progress at the temple. (Facebook/AjithMadhavan Aji)

A theyyam ritual in progress at the temple. (Facebook/AjithMadhavan Aji)

KSCPCR chairman KV Manoj Kumar confirmed to South First that he had registered a suo motu case against temple committee convener Suresh Varma and the child’s father based on news reports.

He also directed the district Child Welfare Committee (CWC) to lodge a police complaint. The district police have already served a notice to the organisers for conducting such performances using children.

The district police chief and child protection officer visited the child and his family, and recorded their statements.

The family reportedly told the police that traditional medicines would heal the burns. They also told the officials that no child right was violated, and they acted only as per the God’s will.

Child rights activists said children have been subjected to cruelties in the name of faith.

Also read: A temple ritual started by a Muslim divides legal fraternity

Opium des volkes?

The ruling CPI(M), apparently, “believed” in Karl Marx’s 1843 dictum, “Religion is the opium of the masses (Opium des volkes).”

Karl Marx

Karl Marx. (John Jabez Edwin Mayal/Wikimedia Commons)

Despite having a comfortable majority in the state Assembly, the CPI(M), that boasts of its progressive outlook, has not yet taken any concrete steps to pass the Kerala Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices, Sorcery and Black Magic Bill, 2019.

The Bill has been kept in cold storage, reportedly due to the pressure from theyyam performers and practitioners of similar rituals like Kuthiyottam, Shoolam Kuthu, Agni Kavadi, Kollamkodu Thookkam, and Garudan Thookkam.

The Kannur district, where the 14-year-old boy performed the Theechamundi theyyam, is a CPI(M) stronghold.

The legislation drafted along the lines of a similar existing law in Maharashtra remains on hold despite promises of passing in the Assembly. The government fears a backlash from the devotees, if it passes the Bill.

Even Marx has to step aside when religion takes centre stage in CPI(M)-led ‘progressive’ Kerala.

Progression in reverse gear

Kuthiyottam is performed by 1,000 boys every year during the occasion of Pongala in the famous Attukal Devi Temple.

Boys ahead of performing Kuthiyottam. (Dvellakat/Wikimedia Commons)

Boys ahead of performing Kuthiyottam. (Dvellakat/Wikimedia Commons)

Claimed to be representatives of the wounded soldiers of the presiding Goddess, the boys were required to follow strict discipline and stay inside the temple for seven days before the ritual.

They must sleep on the floor, follow strict diet restrictions, and bathe three times a day. They also needed to prostrate 1,008 times before the presiding deity on all these seven days.

On the day of Pongala, the child’s body is pierced with a small hook and knotting a thread to symbolise his bond with the Goddess.

Four years ago, the Child Rights Commission registered a suo motu case against the Kuthiyottam ritual, but no progress was achieved because of the opposition from religious groups.

The commission found that piercing children’s sides with a hook violated their rights.

Incidentally, the Attukal Pongala festival is regarded as the biggest congregation of women for a festival in the world.

The former director-general of police, R Sreelekha, dubbed Kuthiyottam a crime against children. Nothing changed though the temple is barely five kilometres from the state Secretariat, the seat of power.

More piercings

The Shoolam kuthu ritual is observed in different temples of Lord Muruga across the southern parts of the state.

Shoolam Kuthu (Facebook/Kedakulam Murukan Temple)

Shoolam Kuthu (Facebook/Kedakulam Murukan Temple)

A miniature spear, or vel, will be pierced through the cheeks or tongue of the chosen devotee, who must dance with a kavadia decorated arch-shaped heavy object — on his shoulder during the Thaipooyam festival.

Kavadi commemorates Goddess Parvathi gifting a vel to Lord Muruga to defeat a demon. The chosen devotees, who also comprise children, are required to undergo 41 days intense of penance to perform kavadi.

The devotee who performs the ritual is considered devoid of all evil thoughts and actions through the painful act of self-punishment.

Young boys get their bodies pierced with the vel, and its length varies from centimetres to a few feet.

In agni kavadi, devotees walk over a bed of burning coals. Participants should walk over the embers to complete their pledge to God. It is believed their soles won’t get burnt if they complete the ritual with ardent faith and devotion.

Infants fly in Kollamkode

Kollamkode thookkam is observed at Sree Bhadrakali Temple at Kollamkode village, which borders the Kanniyakumari district of Tamil Nadu.

An offering to Goddess on the Meena Bharani Day festival, the event’s devotees constitute mainly married couples.

They offer thookkam for their babies, who are hardly a year old.

On the third day of the event, the thookkakar (performers) are deputed by the temple committee. They undergo a mandatory medical check-up before performing the ritual.

The performers must remain in the temple complex until the thookkam ends. During the performance, the babies would be wrapped in cloth and protective gear.

The babies would tied in a bundle and handed over to the registered thookkakkar.

The thokkakkar would be tied to a villu (a long pole of the chariot), supported by a safety belt.
Each chariot will hold two to four thookkakkars.

They and the babies would be lifted to a minimum height of 30 feet, and the chariot would circumambulate the temple complex.

Though there have been no casualties to date, there are demands to ban it as it involves huge risk.

On a hook and a prayer

Garudan thookkam is a unique offering performed to appease the Goddess Kali. It is normally observed in temples in Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam districts.

The most popular is the Garudan thookkam at the Elamkavu Devi Temple at Vadayar in Vaikom.

The devotees are pierced on their backs with hooks, and hung in the air from a shaft. They look like eagles, and hence the name Garudan thookam.

The participants would then be taken around the temple in a ceremonial procession accompanied by the beating of the chenda, a local percussion instrument.

As per the myth, Vishnu deputed Garudan to quench the thirst of Kali as her thirst could be quenched only by the mythical bird’s blood.

Though the recent human sacrifice in central Kerala prompted the government to enact legislation against black magic and sorcery, it feels such a Bill would turn communities against it.

In the case of theyyam, there had been attempts to promote it as a dance form at venues outside religious places.

But orthodox Hindus opposed the move to showcase theyyam as an art form outside temple premises. And the government succumbed to the pressure.

Theyyams have also sparked law and order issues. A Kasaragod village witnessed tense moments in 2022 when the theyyam performer picked up a stick and started beating up the gathering.

A commotion broke out when the devotees questioned the “godly” beating. Eventually, the police had to intervene in the “divine” but painful act, before the situation spun out of control even as the injured devotees started questioning the “god”.

*The identity of the boy, who performed the Theechamundi theyyam, has been withheld since he comes under the purview of the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act, 2015.