It was 3 in the morning when I stepped into the tranquility-steeped temple. My half-asleep eyes had tantrums to the vivid shades of the divine atmosphere as they adapted from the dark corner of the car. I was in the village of Kannur, in Northern Kerala, with images of Theyyam in my mind woven from narratives I heard about the ritual art form. The loud colors of red adorned by the artist had hushed stories of culture and history to unveil. It was the third day of my expedition, and I’d learned how Theyyam was safeguarding the diminishing sacred groves so far. That morning, with the smell of burned oil lingering in the temple surroundings, I witnessed my first Theyyam performance.

Theyyam is an ancient ritualistic art form performed in temples and sacred groves in the Northern Malabar region of Kerala. Theyyam might be a fascinating performance to most, but for the people of Malabar it is an emotion, I was told by Cherish Manjooran, the founder of Cherish Expeditions, a responsible travel company that conducts impact-driven experiences. 

There are more than 400 Theyyams with their own individual folklores, out of which many have been left to fade. “Theyyam stories have different interpretations as the geography changes, and the best way to identify the authentic story of each Theyyam is to listen to the Thottam Pattu where the story of Theyyam is narrated,” says our guide, Gokul. With a bunch of creatives from different walks of life, Cherish Expeditions drove us across the interior villages of Kannur tracing the kinship between Theyyam and sacred groves. 

Naturistic Artform

Though I was born and brought up in Kerala, I wasn’t aware of Theyyam’s synergetic link with nature. Theyyams are human gods and the performing artist is believed to be possessed by the deities once they are clothed and staged in the red costumes. The possessed deities are grounded in the mythical stories of sacred groves, or Kaavu, which are small rainforests spread across the Malabar Coast.

The more I understand about Theyyam, the more I appreciate our forefathers who used nature-worship to safeguard trees. The sacred groves provided a home for the dancing gods to reside and in return, Theyyam prevented the destruction of sacred groves, which was and is our last refuge for biodiversity. But the fondness toward urbanization led the faith to start shedding its layers, making the deities shift their seat to brick-and-mortar temple complexes leaving their green adobe at the mercy of pickaxes. As a way of giving back to nature, our journey set by Cherish Expeditions intended to travel back to our roots in search of the unheard stories of Theyyam and revive the last of sacred groves which is the need of the hour.

Be sure to read all about The Chai Story: a History of India’s Most-Loved Drink

Reviving the Sacred Groves

I walked along a narrow trail lined with dense trees on both sides in the Mapitachery sacred grove at Kannur. For a first-timer like myself, the sacred groves seemed to be something out of a vintage photograph, thick with a green cover containing a forest path connected with rare trees listed in the extinct category. 

There I was, standing with my feet grounded like any other tree inhaling a gush of fresh cold air. I was so excited to be a part of the Grow Our Dying tree campaign by planting 100 Rare Endemic and Threatened Species trees selected by MSSBG, an NGO working toward protecting biodiversity alongside Cherish Expeditions. The campaign has been carefully curated to fall under the 1 trillion tree campaign by the World Economic Forum and to attain the long sought after United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 15. 

As a part of research prior to the expedition, I came across a shocking fact that Kerala has witnessed a drastic reduction in the number of its sacred groves, which has reduced from 10,000 to just 1,200 over the past six decades. And there I was, with a handful of fellow volunteers, holding a rare ardisia elliptica waiting to be planted in an effort to revive the last remaining sacred groves.

Though the stories and myths have certainly colored my thoughts on sacred groves, it took the second day of my expedition to learn the crucial role they play in the balance of our ecosystem. As the groves are open to human touch only during the Theyyam season, these virgin forests are left to flourish with rare and endangered species of birds, mammals, reptiles and other amphibians, making them incredibly rich in biodiversity. As the groves thrive without human intervention, it also improves the microclimate allowing the vicinity to adopt the cool temperature of its environment by regulating the soil temperature, acting as windbreak and sun trap. 

As Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher mentioned, “For every human illness, somewhere in the world there exists a plant which is the cure,” sacred groves are one of the last storehouses of many Ayurvedic medicinal plants, which were previously found in forests. 

Where Man Transcends God

I could see a red figure with enormous headgear made of bamboo, decorated with white and red colored fabric walking towards the ground centre. The slow chit chat of the devotees swiftly went silent as a sign of respect and the anklet sound of the red-figure pierced into the stillness of the grove. 

I thought to myself, Is this the same bare-chested man who was wearing the white dhoti and praying as I entered the grove? How is it possible for a human to carry such a heavy ornament on his shoulders? My thoughts went as wild as the wilderness of the grove. 

Theyyams are performed by lower members of the community who practice routine chores by day, and practice the powerful ritual of Theyyam by night. Once the Theyyam artist gets into his red attire, he is a human transcended god for the devotees in whom they find their solace. 

“Will you come back to my jungle once your wish is granted?” the Theyyam asked the last of his devotees.

“Yes,” they sincerely replied. 

“You should. Nature is the ultimate solace. It is not you who is protecting nature. But it is nature that is protecting us. Do a favor by not destroying it.” He replied before blessing the worshipper and gently disappearing into the forest. 

How to Watch Theyyam and Visit these Sacred Groves?

As these sacred groves and Theyyams need special permission to enter, the best way to travel and experience this type of journey is to join an expedition organized by Cherish Expeditions. Cherish Expedition is an impact based travel initiative that offers immersive, sustainable and transformative experiences. The expedition is focused on visitors who believe in traveling with a purpose to work on a cause and uplift the livelihood of local communities.

What is the most moving experience you’ve ever had? Let us know on Twitter!