A hundred elephants gathered there,
swayed their trunks, heads held high,
i feared they may touch the sky.
I could see a hundred hands, rising & falling all at once,
the drums then made music so loud,
Sounds that your imagination can never fathom.
The elephants leading the procession around,
Swaraj Round is now an ocean of heads,
their hands in air, and spirits much above air.
The temple atop the hill, now bright with lights all around.
A wise kings’ move, for two centuries of peace.
A festival more secular than the scriptures it celebrates.
They shouted to the pipe, waved hands to the beats.
Me a christian, dressed in a hindu tradition,
And a muslim brother standing by my side.
And i watched it all with the eyes of a kid.
The dark grey sky was now bright with light,
The signs on shops trembled with the sound,
Explosions tore the night apart, with no vengeance –
but smiles & awe as the fireworks progressed into the night.
It all started in late 18th Century when the present state of Kerala didn’t exist, when few princely states with powerful rulers ruled with dignity & courage. Then Ramavarma Kunjhipilla Thampuran (commonly known as Shakthan Thampuran meaning the Strong King) ruled Cochin from Thrissur (about 70 kms from present day Cochin (Kochi) city. The festival (pooram in malayalam) at Aarattupuzha was the biggest festival but the procession from the temples of Thrissur were denied entry as they were late. Devotees complained to their king and he started the Thrissur Pooram.
What amaze me about Thrissur Pooram is the wisdom of the ruler to utilize the opportunity in a multi-faceted way. By this festival, he brought together the entire community, their petty issues and fights where resolved in friendly competitions of music & processions, without any bloodshed!
Thrissur Pooram (often known as Poorangallude Pooram meaning festival of all festivals in malayalam) also was instrumental in making Thrissur as the cultural capital of Kerala. Every year for the past 200 odd years, this festival happens with greater vigour and colour, with oneness beyond culture and religion, strengthening strained relationships of different communities.
Apart from an amusing history, the festival is a sacred ground for music lovers & wanderers in search for colour & culture. The festival used to happen for days but now is limited to a week. Much has been written about how the festival proceeds and i will refrain myself from writing about it. You can refer to the links at the end of this post for detailed information or wait for my next post on how i believe you should plan your visit (meanwhile you can write to me for more information).
I am ashamed to say that, in my (close to) 2 decades of Cochin life, i never thought about going to Thrissur Pooram. It took almost 8 more years of wandering in North India and attending Mahakumbh Mela before i decided to visit this 36 hours of visual delight. Even though Mahakumbh is massive and last for almost a month, i think Thrissur pooram is a bigger event considering the density of the crowd in a limited time period.
So me and my brother started from Cochin for Thrissur on 21st April, 2013.
The main events of the festival last for around 36 hours starting on sixth day with the processions of idols from 10 different temples to the Vadakkunathan Temple. Lord Shiva is the main deity of this temple and is situated at the centre of Thrissur City with a huge a ground and a road circling the temple. The temples are divided into two groups and all competitions happens within this two groups. Each procession enters from the designated gates (eastern or western gates) and leaves through the southern gates after paying their respects to the main deity of Vadakkunathan Temple. We reached in time to see the processions and then rushed into the temple to see (rather listen) to the highlight of the hour.
Inside the temple happens the Orchestra of five traditional instruments known as Panjavadyam. Though its a must watch, the crowd would be a big hurdle for you. A long line will wait you at the gate which can last for hours. The best way for one to enjoy the festival ‘smartly’ is by acquiring a time table of the events and rush from one place to another, before the crowd starts to move.
You will be surprised to know that millions of people come to the festival to see the best elephants in the region (a criteria to select the winners) and to listen to the best Panjavadyam which happens inside the temple. We were late and we loitered around the temple grounds, listening to Panjavadyam while making new friends amongst the locals. It was they who advised and told me as to how i can beat the crowd by moving ahead of them to the ground for the 2nd best (in my opinion) event of this festival.
Once the processions are over, you can rest for a while at the temple grounds while the processions gear up for the next big ritual and most probably the second best of all the rituals in the festival. Its known as Kudamattom where selected elephants of both group are placed at opposite corners of the ground outside the western gates facing each other. Once the ritual starts, the mahouts and their assistants start changing the umbrellas atop the elephants (i counted till 30 umbrellas) in tandem to the music played by the Panjavadyam;.
This is a competition and the group which has the best elephants, the most beautiful umbrellas (some with laser beams & hydrogen balloons in the shape of hawks) and the best coordination wins. The ground will be filled or rather stacked with people and Sun will be shining at his best. I saw people fainting, but the spirit of the crowd will keep you alive. Be prepared for a harsh sun, humidity, a possible stampede, dehydration, and of course… a visual & musical extravaganza.
While enjoying the Kudamattom, me and my brother got split by the crowd and mobile phones didn’t work thanks to the network congestion. However, we had fixed a spot where we would meet if we split (as a precaution) and luckily i found him there atop the entrance of a sub-way.
As the sun left for his chambers in the western horizon, thousands of people wandered around the streets waiting for the next main event – the Vedikkettu (the light show or the fire works) at around 2 AM the next day. Some folks were smart enough to book a room in advance while lot of us slept on the road like the homeless. The ground was more active than any other day with hawkers, police, processions and people…thousands of them, or maybe lakhs of them.
After midnight people started moving and occupying the best spots to experience the fire-works. The fire-crackers (which is a very wrong term as they are explosions not crackers) starts from two ends and meet at the centre, along the periphery of the ground. People are made to stand away as the sound & force of the explosions are powerful to kill if not hurt you.
The glass windows of the shops shattered and the signboards vibrated as the fireworks started. The dark sky lightened up and smoke shot up the sky, sounds unbearable that after few seconds you turn deaf. But one still feels the intensity of the fire-works from the brute force with which the air hits and the brightness of the explosions which almost blinds you.
People raised their voice and opened their mouth, i guess they were shouting. It grew louder and brighter, sky was filled with coloured stars (fire & sparkles from the explosion). Then with a big bang lasting for seconds, it ended…silence prevailed, nobody talked. Everyone was at peace!
Suddenly the crowd started running, i thought it was a mad elephant (which is usual in festivals) but then someone shouted Police. Apparently it was neither, some youngsters decided to scare the crowd and started running for no reason, shouting that police is charging on people. They almost initiated a stampede, idiots!
Smaller fire-works were happening and the rituals will carry on, however, me and my brother decided to leave before the crowd, else we will have to wait for hours to find a transport back home.
I cannot tell you the flow emotions in me while returning on the bus. I was up for 36 hours, tired, hardly ate anything and weak. Weak not because i was tired but weak because i witnessed something unbelievable! The concept of a wise and opportunistic king, a show of power and belief, secularism within a religious festival, and much more…had instilled humility with such force that i was shattered and moulded again…my ego & arrogance lost somewhere on the way for now.
I silently promised myself that i will return again, every time when i think i have seen much.
The next pooram is on 9th May, 2014…so who is going?
Some links for reference:
For more pictures, visit my album in Google+ (here): https://plus.google.com/photos/102270927511532497591/albums/5879147812156694417