Tale of Hem Vayanattu Kulavan Theyyam, the toddy bhuta

Shruti and Smriti are two wise sisters. Smriti or Memory comes to you while you are reading things. You remember her wise lines long after she’s gone. Shruti or Listening comes to you anytime, on the road, in a movie, while you travel. She tells you secret things brought from the Wells of the Wise. After you hear them, she smiles and sprinkles the dust of Forgetfulness. So all you remember is that you heard something somewhere which changed something in you. The tale I try to tell you here, is of the latter kind. It was told to me while I was sitting somewhere, with hypnotic drums playing in the backdrop. It was told to me by a stranger. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if this is how it was told to me. But something of it (which I try to retell) stayed with me. Don’t miss the videos in the end of this blogpost.


Sort of facts:

It is a festive night as people start to gather in front of a small temple in Kannur, Kerala. The drums are beating fast and slow. The occasion is a ritualistic dance of Theyyam, or bhuta-in-human form, which comes to the coastal Malabar area of Kerala every year from January to April. There are more than 500 bhutas in the district, all can solve (or bring) a particular type of a problem, disease, dosha. These bhutas have been there since a long, long time. They are mentioned in the Mahabharata. They have lived in these places since times immemorial, since people had problems. We are waiting for the bhuta-of-the-night, Hem Vayanattu, to come and retell his story, like he does every year.

I sit in a makeshift greenroom outside the temple. This is where a man who is about 40 years of age is dressing up in elaborate costumes. He has bright vermillion lips and dramatic eyes drawn with black charcoal. His whole body is green with bright white light-like dots on his slightly protruding stomach. He’s a mere man right now, being dressed up by his father (who is 60ish) and his son (who is in his 20s). In a few moments from now, he will become a host to the Bhuta. When he’s ready, he will become a vehicle for Hem Wayanada. He will become a source through which the spirit can retell its story, reenter the world of the living and talk to the people. He knows it will happen and so readies himself. There’s excitement in the camp. There’s also nervousness. Mere men are never comfortable when a spirit from another world is about to enter their world. He wears the heavy headgear and swathes of colourful clothes in the sweaty balmy night. He’s in the theyyam-becoming business so knows that this is his moment—when he becomes god-like, from the mere man he is. He’s sweating and looks tense. He takes a sip from something that looks like toddy. I am assured it’s a kind of ginger tea.



The story retold:

An hour later, Hem Vayanattu comes. He hunches and sits down next to me. He spits. I turn to him and try to take a photo. He shakes his head. Listen, he whispers. His breath smells of toddy and his eyes glitter dangerously. I become a little wary. I have to be, being a female in today’s time. I smile hesitantly. He grins and begins.

A long, long time ago Hem used to be a mere man. He doesn’t remember when. All he remembers was that he lived in a village next to the Forbidden Forest, where no humans were allowed. Rumour was that the Forbidden Forests was the abode of Lord Shiva himself, who came there in the nights and made merry with his ganas, his hordes of bhuta and preta. Anyone who would go there would die. He never ventured close to the forest.

Then one day a sweet breeze from the Forbidden Forest ruffled his hair. A flame hit his heart. He became restless and angry and frustrated. He would catch himself walking to the end of the village everyday where the Forbidden Forest stood. He stood there for hours at the Edge, trying to peer inside the forests, to see what it was that made it forbidden. One night, as his family slept (did he tell you he had a family? A wife and two children) he stood up and left. He took a deep breath, and entered the Forbidden Forest. There was no trail to show him the way, since no one had entered the forests before. No human that is. He walked on. The forest thrummed with a rhythm. It grew dense and dark. So dark that even black kajal would shine like a lamp in there. He was scared, his heart thumped up and down rhythmically like a drumbeat from his stomach to the middle of his neck. The hair on his back and arms stood on attention, as if they were trying to guard him from evils around him. He knew that he was in danger. In those times, real tigers and poisonous snakes and other things roamed the forests. They weren’t afraid of people. They ruled the forests.  He walked and walked. He doesn’t really remember why.

Then he suddenly came across a clearing. Moonlight blinded his eyes as they became used to the light. He saw Lord Shiva dancing with his ganas. Bhutas, pretas, deformed creatures of the night were laughing, screeching, drinking and merry-making. But he wasn’t afraid. Lord Shiva turned to him, his eyes glittering. “Do you want to join us, Hem?” he asked kindly. Hem nodded, mesmerized. What else could he have said? So he became a Gana, a creature of the night. For a thousand years, he danced, drank and made merry. It was a happy time.

Then Lord Shiva left without saying a good-bye. The Ganas were devastated. Every night, they started to keep 108 pots of fresh toddy in earthen ware to call Lord Shiva back to the Forbidden Forests.

“Do anything but don’t drink from those pots, Hem,” warned a Gana as he was about to reach the pot, “They are a prasad for Lord Shiva.”

One thousand another years passed. Lord Shiva didn’t come. Every day, the ganas would keep those 108 pots of toddy reserved for him. Every night he wouldn’t come and the toddy would go waste. Meanwhile, the forest begin to change. It leaves turned yellow and brown spots appeared on its feet. It begun to die, being rhythmically cut by humans whose population was growing stronger. All the Ganas, except Hem, one by one left the Forests to go deeper into the lands of the Earth. But Hem didn’t leave. He sat in the clearing alone, under the moonlight, looking at the toddy that was going waste every night. He was so thirsty. He wanted a sip.

One night, as he sat alone in the forest, waiting for Lord Shiva, he felt so thirsty that he couldn’t resist. He wanted a drink, so he went and picked up a pot of toddy meant for Lord Shiva. Then he drank. He drank and drank till his sweat became stinky. He drank till his eyes dilated and he fell on the ground. He drank till his bloodstream and piss was full of toddy. That night, Lord Shiva came to the Forbidden Forest. He saw the empty pots and a dead-drunk Hem. He got angry and with a flash of thunder, tore out Hem’s eyes. For he had sinned and taken the toddy that belonged to Lord Shiva.

Blind and bleeding, Hem roared through the Forbidden Forest. He fell and tripped on branches. He was bitten by many insects. He couldn’t see. He was angry! What kind of a Lord is so wrathful that he cannot share a mere drink with his servants? As his anger softened, he felt remorse. He realised that he had done wrong. He prayed to Lord Shiva for forgiveness. He was after all a man, a spirit, not a god. He was prone to mistakes. A thousand years more he prayed and Lord Shiva came. He smiled and said:

“Hem Vayanattu (for that was the name of the Forbidden Forest), I will give you divine sight so you can see. Stay here and see what is Real. See into other men’s hearts and tell them what they want to know. Show them their deepest desires and fears and guide them.”

So Lord Shiva left and Hem Vayanattu was left behind to handhold the people living beyond the Forbidden Forests.

Hem lights up a beedi and smiles with his crooked teeth, “I am not a man or a god. I am just someone who has to do Lord Shiva’s work. I am just someone who crossed a line, twice and lived to tell the tale. And now I come here to guide my people. What do I know about choosing the right path? I just like to come here and drink toddy that is offered to me.”

His eyes are sharp. They hit my heart like daggers. His powdery lips bend like a bow into a frozen smile. He gets up, rubs off the dust and hollers. The audience shivers as the drums start to beat faster and faster. He dances and dances as the night falls darker and darker.


I am willing to bet that I have got this story wrong somehow, but then, I am a storyteller and forget and make up with other things. If Hem Vayanattu Kulavan Theyyam (or someone who knows his story) has a different tale to tell, I would love to listen.