The art form is performed by the members of Pulaya community in the Malayalam month of Karkidakam.

All about Maaritheyyam north Keralas ritual dance that wards off sorrow sufferingAll photographs by SK Mohan
news Art Wednesday, August 02, 2017 - 15:40

Their faces are painted red and black; some are wearing a long mask, all are dressed in kuruthola (palm leaves). They’re wearing a giant head gear each, and are dancing to their heart’s content as they go from one house to another on foot.

The Maaritheyyam dancers are dancing to ward off the sorrow and sufferings that plague north Kerala, just as the monsoon showers recede.

The traditional art form of the Pulaya community, the ritual dance was performed on 16th day of the Malayalam month of Karkidakam - August 1 - in Kannur district.

What is Maaritheyyam?

Theyyam is a ritual dance popular in north Kerala. Maaritheyyam is also known as Karikadatheyyam, because it is performed during the month of Karkidakam.

"Maari" in Malayalam essentially means suffering, that could be caused by diseases or poverty. The month of Karkidakam, is generally known as "panja maasam" (a month of poverty) and is associated with illness and sufferings. The Maaritheyyam is performed so that all the sorrow is taken away and the stage is set to welcome the next month - Chingam - the month of Onam, the month of prosperity.

Maaritheyyam is performed in Maadayikkavu (a temple) in Kannur district on Karkidakam 16. The date is significant, for the monsoon would be heavy from Karkidakam 1 to 14, and the spread of diseases is at its peak by the 16th.

"Generally, theyyams are performed in temples, but Maaritheyyam goes from one house to the next, to take upon itself, all the sorrow that is plaguing the households. It is believed that the Maaritheyyam would take away all the evil, and discard it into the sea," explains Sanjeevan Azhikode, a folklore researcher based in Kannur.

The main characters in the theyyam are marikkaliyan, maamayakkaliyan, maarikalichi, maamayakalichi, maarikkuliyan, maamaayakkuliyan, Sanjeevan says.

Even today, the art form is performed by the members of the Pulaya community and is seen in areas around Pazhangadi in Kannur, including Vengara, Maatur, Madayi, Kundayi and Ittammal.


The origin of Maaritheyyam is said to be in the Dravidian culture.

"Ask any Maaritheyyam performer, and they would tell you that they are performing to ward off the sufferings of the King and the region," Sanjeevan explains.

Contemporary relevance

Apart from the fact that the community members still preserve the traditional art form, Sanjeevan points out the contemporary relevance of the art form.

"When you look at it, Maaritheyyam is a way of spreading the message of cleanliness and healthy living to people. With heavy rainfall lashing the region for a fortnight, the area would be all slushy and unhygienic, which naturally makes people fall sick. Ahead of Maaritheyyam, the people in the region clean their houses properly to welcome the performers. In that way, the art form is even today, conveying the idea of healthy living to people," Sanjeevan says.

(All photographs by SK Mohan)

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