PIL moved by NGO in Kerala HC seeks to prevent children from performing ‘Theechamundi Theyyam’

The NGO has contended in its plea that this practice adversely affects the well-being of the children participating in the dance.

BySouth First Desk

Published May 16, 2023 | 3:57 PMUpdatedMay 16, 2023 | 4:01 PM


An local NGO has moved a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Kerala High Court seeking to prevent the participation of children in the Theechamundi Theyyam — a ritualistic dance in the north Malabar region of the state — alleging that they are thrown onto embers 101 times as part of the performance tradition.

A bench of Justices Anil K Narendran and Kauser Edappagath on Tuesday, 16 May, asked the petitioner NGO to implead the Malabar Devaswom Board and the trustees of the temple under which this dance performance is conducted.

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‘Adversely affects children’

According to the plea by NGO Dhisha, the Theechamundi Theyyam, also known as Ottakolam Theyyam, is held by the Chirakkal Kovilakam and Chirakkal Temple Trust in connection with their annual function.

The NGO has contended in its plea that this practice adversely affects the well-being of the children participating in the dance and also compromises their basic right to life.

It also alleged that children selected to dance belonged to the backward community and the performance was a “relic of the feudal past”.

The plea, filed through advocate AK Preetha, seeks a ban on the dance performance with children as participants.

The court listed the matter for further hearing on 22 May.

Offering to Narasimha

Theechamundi, also known as Vishnumurthy and Ottakolam, is an offering to Narasimha, the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

The boy getting ready for the performance. (Supplied)

The boy getting ready for the performance. (Supplied)

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

The artist 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.

On 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.

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Child rights panel registers case

Taking suo motu cognisance on 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.

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A volte-face after the 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.

They celebrated the announcement as history was being revisited.

Boy Theyyam

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

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 the subject of a heated debate in 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.

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 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.

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.

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

(With PTI inputs)