A God who plays with the fire

It was three o’clock in the morning and most of the people weren’t sleeping. The brooding night of March was further intensified with the sharp rays of Tube lights, tied to the wooden planks outside the temple ground.

People were waiting for Agni Kanda Karnan to show up. It was no normal process. People were waiting for at least 12 hours until Kanda Karnan finally, in his flashing red robes and smearing palm-torches, decided to perform Kaliyattam.

Agni Kanda Karnan during the performance of Kaliyattam. Photo: Kamalesh

Agni Kanda Karnan is the local deity of Kannuveed, a coastal village in Kasaragod. He was incarnated as a Theyyam and performed here biennially since time immemorial.

When the first beating of the Drum was heard, people woke up from their slumber. They were sleeping next to the walls, spreading their mattresses and broadsheet newspapers to book the front row. As the Kanda Karnan entered the temple arena, started a commotion. People were literally wrestling each other to make room for them to get the best view of the Theyyam.

Agni Kanda Karnan, The Theyyam which loves fire, is only been performed in Kannuveed village in Kasaragod. There are over 200 Theyyams are performed in the Malabar region. But the ones like Agni Kanda Karnan are very rare and exclusive. And of course, it’s a matter of local pride.

Agni Kanda Karnan Theyyam after the day of Kaliyattam. People seeks blessings from the deity. Photo: Kamalesh

Theyyams are the cultural identity of Malabar region. Performed across the districts of Kannur and Kasaragod, Theyyam is an ancient art form, a testimonial to both the vibrant culture and aesthetical sense of art-centric Kerala. It hails local heroes, legends and communal harmony.

Here in Kannuveed – a remote village that doesn’t feature in the Google Maps and the houses have no border walls – Agni Kanda Karnan serves the role of a protector. This is in fact a reversal of a role for him.

According to the local legend, Agni Kanda Karnan, a deity of a sage known only as Swamy, who was killed in Kannuveed by a greedy Toddy-tapper, took revenge for his master’s death.

He along with five other spirits (Panchabhoothams) wreck havoc in Kannuveed. Finally People have lost the battle and built a temple to the satisfaction of Swamy and Agni Kanda Karnan. Since then, People have chosen Agni Kanda Karnan as their protector and dedicated a Theyyam to worship the deity.

A Theyyam performer before adorning the make up, performing the ritual of Thotam (a song of worship) Photo: Abhijith VM for Samayam Malayalam

There’s another more appealing story about Kanda Karnan. This one relates to Lord Shiva. Agni Kanda Karnan was the son of Lord Shiva. He was born inside Shiva’s Throat (Kanda) and ejected through his Ear (Karna) – thus the name Kanda Karnan.

He was born to cure the small pox of Goddess Kali. After Kanda Karnan attained the pursuit of his life – to cure Kali – he presented his father with more demands. Shiva gave him fire, but he wasn’t satisfied. He bargained with his father to grab many more wishes like sixteen torches, a fire-place in head among other things before set off his journey to earth.

People in Kannuveed prefer their version of Agni Kanda Karnan story than the one involving Lord Shiva. The temple in Kannuveed is dedicated to the Swamy who brought Agni Kanda Karnan to Kannuveed.

People began to turn out in big numbers when Agni Kanda Karnan started his performance. The Theyyam wears beautiful colors. It has a huge, 12 foot long tower like structure made of coconut leaves and bamboo placed in his head. It’s called the hair. Small lamps are flashing in this tower-hair. He also has the normal black hair, which is very lengthy, almost touching his feet. In the waist lane placed sixteen palm leaf-torches, all of them ablaze. His face has minimal makeup but eye lashes are neatly done. He wears a red dress, which is revealing in the back side. Looking to it one can see the sweating body of an ordinary man possessed by the unknown force of Agni Kanda Karnan.

Kanda Karnan prepares for the performance of Vellattam. Photo: Abhijith VM

The Ultimate performance of a Theyyam is known as Kaliyattam. But, acts like Agni Kanda Karnan has a special dress rehearsal of a performance called Vellattam. Vellattam is performed without the ornaments and accessories. It’s performed at least three hours prior to the main performance and lasts for an hour.

Vellattam is more a ritual oriented than Kaliyattam, which is on the other hand a spectacle. Agni Kanda Karnan literally owns the nook and corners of the temple ground when performing the Vellattam. As he has minimal properties and ornaments his moves are swift and steady. Normally his choreography is limited but at times, without any announcements he can unleash the flash jumps and sprints.

Drums set the mood of the performance. But it doesn’t stop Agni Kanda Karnan from breaking the rhythm to do something out of the text book. For example, we see him doing a simple routine like waving his hands to devotees and the next minute he sprints into the corridor to scare away the children and women sitting there. Vellattam comes to a close after Agni Kanda Karnan visits the Eramath Family home, a traditional family who holds special ties with the local legend.

Agni Kanda Karnan’s Kaliyattam is staged along with the eight other deities of Swamy Madom. But, the moment Agni Kanda Karnan steps into the arena, spotlight is naturally falls upon him and the rest of the acts are ignored. The performer in his charming ornaments and scary attire looks like a monster. He wears a red mask, which has details in silver. With two bulging eyes, a pair of extra ears covering the entire cheek area and long chin reaching to his chest, Agni Kanda Karnan’s face resembles that of a dragon fly.

An Artist at work. He is making the tower-hair to be placed in Kanda Karnan’s Kaliyattam performance.

He slowly floats in the arena with sixteen red-hot pal leaf torches, al blazing, attached to his waist. He climbs to a platform raised in the centre of the arena, blesses people by raising hands. As the Drums beat harder and aloud, he dances to the wild tunes of divinity. His assistants are anxious about the ordinary man inside the costume. They take extreme care to check on anything dangerous. They carry water, controls the torches without spoiling the performance.

As the performance reaches the climax, it’s the fire dominates the rituals. Assistants invite Agni Kanda Karnan to a stage resembling a fire place. He carefully climbs to a raised platform. Then the assistants set him ablaze. He takes a spin to splash the fire and douse it. Later he climbs down from the platform, crosses the fire and stands in the arena. Then with the charm of a dancer he shakes his body to eject the torches one by one. As the last torch is withdrawn from his body, he takes a tumble, lies close to the earth and the performance is declared over.

Theyyam performance is highly caste restricted. Not every community can perform every Theyyam. The right to perform Kanda Karnan is restricted to the Malayan community. In most temples the temple committees maintain a long term contract with a family of the community who can play the Theyyam there.

Kanda Karnan in his majestic Kaliyattam appearance. Photo: Kamalesh

Kannur’s Ilambichy family inherits the right to perform Kanda Karnan and many other Theyyams in Kannu Veed. This year 24 year old (Name Unknown) donned the makeup of Kanda Karnan. He is one of the youngest in the family to perform this Theyyam, says, Krishnan Perumalayan, his father.

The performers are being groomed by their families from a very young age. Theyyams like Agni Kanda Karnan is dangerous as the performers have to play with the fire. There have been instances where Theyyam performers injured and even paralyzed during the performance. But for People like Krishnan Perumalayan, that’s just an occupational hazard. He believes this is no risk at all rather a duty.

“It’s a destiny for us. I’ve been doing performing for decades now. I never felt this as dangerous. If you do it with sincerity and devotion there’s nothing to be afraid of. I teach this my children and they too, do it with sincerity”, he adds.


You can read the Malayalam Version of this article in this link.

ഈ ലേഖനം മലയാളത്തിൽ വായിക്കാൻ ഇവിടെ ക്ലിക് ചെയ്യുക.



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