Devakoothu: Valliyamma and the breaking of gender barrier in Theyyam

Malayanvalappil Ambujakshi practices the art form after seeking the blessings of the Pallimaala text during the 41-day penance. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

Theyyam, the trance in which men become gods, has a new entrant, who broke through the gender barrier.
Ambujakshi of Malayanvalappil at Madayi in Kannur "reincarnated" as goddess Valliyamma, a portmanteau of Malayalam words Valli (creeper) and Amma (mother), and graced the Devakkoothu at the Koolom Thayakav Temple in the Thekkumbadu eyot.

Devakkoothu is the only theyyam — meaning god — performed by women, even as men traditionally wore the mudi (crown) to present even female deities.
On Thursday, December 21, Ambujakshi transformed into Valliyamma for the seventh time.

Valluvakurup ferries Ambujakshi across the river after receiving her at Valluvankadavu. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

The myth of Valliyamma
Thukkumbad, surrounded by water, was once a beautiful, verdant island. Once, a group of goddesses in Devalokam, the celestial abode, saw the enchanting garden. They wished for at least one flower from the island in the mortal world and descended on Earth.

While searching for flowers, one goddess lost her way and was caught in a forest of creepers. After searching for her for a long time in vain, the other goddesses tearfully returned to Devalokam.

Valluvakurup ferries Ambujakshi across the river after receiving her at Valluvankadavu. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

The trapped goddess prayed to Narada Muni, the carrier of news. Narada led her to Koolom, where she changed her clothes in the confines of a makeshift room made with coconut fronds. She later took a boat to cross the Thekkumbad River to the Valluvan Kadavu at Ayiramthengu and departed for Devalokam.
She is known as Valliyamma since she took refuge among the creepers.

Ambujakshi aka Valliyamma
Devakoothu came like a divine call to Malayanvalappil Ambujakshi after Kattuparambil Lakshmiyamma, who performed the ritualistic art form for 14 years, decided to call it a day. Ambujakshi is the wife of Kannan Panicker, son of the elder brother  of Lakshmiyamma's husband Kelu Panicker.

Ambujakshi inside the Kuchil on the temple premises. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

Performing the Devakoothu was not easy. Ambujakshi, a sweeper at the Pazhayangadi RS Post Office, donned the chayilyam, or makeup, using natural pigments, after observing penance for 41 days.

She performed first in 2021, with the support of her husband Kannan Panicker, and children, Ajith Panicker, Abitha, Ajina, and Abhilash. Kannan Panicker and Ajith Panicker played thakil — a dholak-like instrument — and chenda, respectively, providing the perfect soft staccato-like drum beats, even as Ambujakshi transformed into the goddess.

Devakoothu Theyyam. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

The penance
The preparation for the performance began with a 41-day penance. Ambujakshi observed the penance on receiving the sacred Pallimaala text from Kannan Panicker of Kattuparambu near China Clay at Pazhayangadi. The ritual text, Pallimaala, details the vratha — or penance — that has to be followed.
On receiving the Pallimaala, she began the tough penance, abstaining from non-vegetarian food, and other earthly pleasures.

The training
The training began during the 41-day penance. Ambujakshi woke up early, and after seeking the blessings of the Pallimaala, she recited the mantra to invoke the gods and trained daily. She also lit lamps for Pottan Theyyam, Vishnu Moorthi and Kundor Chamundi at dawn and dusk, while practicing for the big day.

The circumambulation
After observing the 41-day penance, Ambujakshi, decked up in the ritualistic ornaments, left Kattuparambu for Ayyothu, carrying the Pallimaala and flowers on the fourth day of the Malayalam month of Dhanu. At Ayyothu she offered rice and flowers to Valluvakurup, the traditional head. She circumambulated a peepal tree before performing Devakoothu.

Ambujakshi performing the Devakoothu. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

At Valluvan Kadavu
Valluvakurup — the revered head — received Ambujakshi at Valluvan Kadavu — or river bank — and ferried her in a canoe across the river. Her entourage followed in another canoe. The Kurups received the platter containing the Pallimaala and flowers from Ambujakshi once she reached Thekkumbad.

At Chaniyattu Tharavaadu
The Kurups escorted Ambujakshi from Thekkumbad to the portico of the Chaniyad Tharavaadu, their ancestral home by evening. After accepting a lamp from the family, she rested in a temporary pandal. At night, she proceeded to the Koolom Thayakav Temple, accompanied by thalappoli and musical instruments.

Naradana Muni appears before the goddess carrying new clothes, kohl, and a mirror while she meditates among the creepers in the Tekkumbad garden. Devakoothu elegantly presents the arrival of Naradan — played by Ambujakshi's son-in-law Amal Suresh. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

At the temple, the Paniyas — or guards — received Ambujakshi, clad in silk robes as Illathamma, and escorted her in. She went to the Koochil after offering the Pallimaala and rice to the deity.

Ambujakshiyamma. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

The Koochil
The Koochil is a temporary room made of coconut fronds on the temple premises. She stayed in the Koochil till the end of the rituals. The night before the performance, she remained in the Koochil, mentally preparing for the big day.

Early on Dhanu 5, she put up the facial makeup after performing the rituals. Clad in the ritualistic dress and ornaments, she arrived before the deity. The ritualistic dance began by describing the abundant floral wealth of Thekkumbad island.

The 41-day penance encompasses one year in the life of the goddess. During the penance, the reflection on the mirror is of the mortal, while in the Kuchil, it reflects the divine. It is the reflection of the spatial distance between the mortal life and the divine being — the birth and life of Valliyamma and those of Ambujakshi. Photo: Dhanesh Ashokan

The devotees soaked in divine glory as she danced to the rhythmic song. After Devakoothu, she removed the ritualistic ornaments and makeup. The next morning, she broke the penance at the Valiyaveedu Tharavaadu by consuming the fish caught by the Valluvakurup.
The Pallimaala was then shifted to the puja room. It will be taken out only before the next Devakoothu

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