G.’s Blog

Vishnumoorthi Theyyam and the Legend of Paalanthaayi Kannan

Posted by G. on April 26, 2009

Spending another Vishu in a cold land where no Konna has ever flowered, my thoughts went to childhood summers of the past, spent at ancestral homes in Malabar. The air would be thick with the smell of flowering mango and cashew. Parts of the dry paddy fields would have been converted to cultivating cheera (spinach) and vellari (cucumber), irrigated manually from temporary shallow wells (called kooval) dug in the fields. The evenings would resound with the noise of kids with their soccer games, temporarily converting Korettan’s field into The Grand Koran Stadium. The temple festival season would be in full swing. And day and night, there would be the faint sound of chenda, from theyyam at one or the other of the thousands of kaavukal that dotted the landscape. 

There are literally hundreds of theyyams, each with its own story, history and lineage. Most the stories have a “traditional Hindu” connection, showing lineage from Parvathi, Shivan, Vishnu etc. But they also have connections to local myths and legends, and as is usually the case with most folklore, they sometimes describe episodes in local history.  

Photo by Rakesh Ayilliath

Vishnumoorthi is a ubiquitous theyyam, with the Narasimhavatharam as its essence. It is a theyyam of the Malayar people, and is performed in the daytime. A Vellattam is conducted the night prior to the actual theyyam, where the thottam paattu is sung describing the origins and history of the theyyam.

***

“Varika varika venam Vishnumoorthiyaam paradevatha
Ningalithoru palliyara naalu bhaagam adichu thelichu
Naalu bhaagathum naalu ponnin nanthaar vilakku vechu
Naduve azhakithoru velli shreepeedhamittu
Velli shreepeedhathinmel madakkiyittoru

kolavarikan manja chittaadayum poonthukilaadayum
Chukappilitta koorayum Naagamanimothiravum Nerpulithandayum vechu
Njaan ningale, thottathe vara vilikkunnen a
adimoolamaayiripporu Paradevathe”

*** 

The thottam paattu has sections on Narasimhapuranam and Prahaladolpathi. But it also explores the story of Paalanthaayi Kannan.

***

“Karumanayil Paalanthaayi viruthanaayulloru Kannan
Karumam palathum palarodum cheythathukondu
Kuruvaadanumaayi thangalilidapaadundaayi
Tharavaadum naadum vittu Vadakku nadannu.
Mangalapuramavide chennittangane pala naal chellum kaalam
Sangathiyaal paradevathakkoru komaramaayi.
Drishtaantham palathum palavaka drishtaanthamathaakkiyozhichu
Pottallithu pattaanennu palarkkum thonni.

***

The thottam mentions that Paalanthaayi Kannan, after getting into a fight with Kuruvadathu Kuruppu, went north to Mangalapuram, where he became the Komaram for the  Paradevatha (Vishnumoorthi). (Although the thottam itself doesn’t provide more details, local folklore  is a bit more descriptive. One version says that Kannan was a cowherd for Kuruppu. One day, while Kannan was sitting on a mango tree, the Kuruppu’s niece went by and a mango fell on her. Assuming that Kannan had thrown the mango at her, she complained to her uncle, who beat up Kannan and had him banished from the land).

***

Ottu varisham naalingane ishtamode vaanoru shesham
Thattothoru Malanaattekku manassu ninachu.
Chathravumoru churikayumenthi shathrubhayam theerthu nadanni-
-ttathalezhum Kadalikkulamathilarikathambol.
Maravillathoru Nair Kuruvattu Kuruppathu kettu
Murukappoychennithu Kadalikkulamathilarike.
Paalanthaayi Kannan varavathu chelode kandoru Nair
Kaalam vaikaathe chennu pinakku kazhichaan.
Chilli Kadalikkulamathile vellathilerinjoru churika
Thullunnathu vellathinnude meethe churika.
Churikayilakkam kaanumbol Kuruvaadanu paaram paravashamaaki
Durithathinu kaaranamaakum vannam vannu.
kannum chila kaalikidaangal annanne chathu thudangi
Onnonneyaatithulli virachu thudangi”.

***

After a few years, Kannan decided to come back home. Upon reaching his native place, he kept his churika (sword) and umbrella by the side of the Kadalikkulam (a pond) and took a bath. Hearing of Kannan’s presence in the land, the Kuruppu came by the pond and beheaded him. Kannan’s umbrella was smashed to pieces, and his churika was thrown into the pond. But then, something strange happened. Kannan’s churika was seen dancing on the water surface. Cattle in Kuruppu’s household started dying, and people started getting sick. Kuruppu himself fell ill.

Kuruppu brought in an astrologer to see what was going on. 
 

***

“Kannan marichathinutharam chollanan vannam mudikkaanennu Paradevatha
Velli kondennude kolapradishtayum palli vaazhicha pallikkarakozhuvayal
Allaal Kuruvaadanude veedakam thannile thallayodum pillayum kannodu kidaangalum
Okkeyodukki vannugramathukaattinen”.

***

The Paradevatha asked for Kuruppu’s repentance for killing Kannan. As penance, Kuruppu was asked to establish a pradishta for Vishnumoorthi, and conduct the theyyam.

It is recognized that a Paalaazhi Parappil Malayan was the first to establish the theyyam as we know it, but I have been unable to find any details. 

 

Ref:

1. Dr. MV Vishnu Namboothiri, “Uthara Keralathile Thottam Paattukal”, Kerala Sahithya Academy, ISBN 81-7690-075-3
2. Photo of Vishnumoorthi by Rakesh Ayilliath, hosted at Trekearth.

 

 Notes:

1. Murali Rama Varma is a better writer than I ever will be. Go read his reminiscences of childhood Vishus here.

2. Kannuran has an entire blog (in Malayalam) on theyyam and their folklore.

3. http://www.theyyam.com/ seem to have a lot of general information on theyyam.

4. The Theyyam section in Wikipedia has a mention of the legend of Paalanthaayi Kannan in connection with Vishnumoorthy.

5. There seems to be a book written on the subject called “Vishnumoorthi: More than a Myth”, by Nandakumar Koroth. I’m trying to see if I can locate a copy.

6. Last year, I managed to catch a couple of theyyam festivals at home. It had been approximately 14 years since I had been to a kaavu. It seems the mukhathezhuthu is done using artificial colors nowadays. I remember, as a child, watching the Vadakkunkooran of the time holding a piece of broken tile over a lamp to create soot, to be used as black coloring, while casually mentioning  that he was the theyyam in the movie  My Dear Kuttichathan… There also seemed to be a lot of tourists, with official “Theyyam Tours” being organized by several travel agencies…

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