heels on fire: 05/10/06

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Thrissur Pooram – The Mother of all Poorams

7th May 06

Rest Day

We leapt ahead of our planned running route to take in the sights and sounds of the 'Thrissur Pooram' (meaning festival), Kerala's grandest and best-known temple festival. Thrissur is the cultural capital of Kerala. As a city, it comes across as unassuming and dusty, however it's grandeur emerges head and shoulders above many other towns each year in May during the Thrissur Pooram.

Not really knowing what to expect is probably the best way to approach such a Pooram. The little I did know about the Thrissur Pooram was that it was chaotic and that it is considered the 'Mother of all Poorams in Kerala'.

I also knew that the fireworks show had been cancelled this year. Kerala' s state and district newspapers (of which there are many) have been running stories about the dangers of easily flammable homemade fireworks, often exploding in the day’s heat. Indeed seven people had died in a fireworks related accident on the 5th May.

So the Heels on Fire team headed off decked in sun hats, sun cream and laden with water and cameras. Arriving into Thrissur, we were received by an officious police sergeant who set about asserting his authority until Des turned the situation and charmed his way through the red tape allowing us to park relatively close to the temple.

We walked on the first traffic free roads yet, and what a pleasure it was to be free of constantly having to look out of the corner of your eye for buses, 'Hero Honda' motorbikes and bright yellow rickshaws beeping their piercing horns. Masses of people were milling around everywhere. They were wearing the standard cardboard visors, at times somewhat comically (but very wisely) - one worn as normal and another at the back of the head covering the neck. The vast majority were furiously fanning themselves in the heat. We were slowly melting.

It didn't take long to find some elephants. There they were, the kings and queens of the day basking in the shadows of Banyan trees (one tree per elephant). Caretakers milled around them, pampering and scrubbing them with buckets of water and hand feeding them vast bundles of food.

Whilst looking in wonderment at these fantastic animals I had the good fortune to meet two brothers, Prasad and Prakash Cherpu. Both are full time IT solutions experts and part-time elephant enthusiasts. They were highly knowledgeable about the festival. I learned more from Prasad and Prakash than any guidebook that I had come across.

Elephants - Revered and Beautiful
The brothers gave Rahul and I a tour d' horizon of life and times of an Indian elephant. Did you know the male elephants, which are many more than females in Kerala are called ‘tuskers’? Often they live to ripe ages of 60 or even 70 years. The gestation period - the duration of an elephant’s pregnancy is 22 months. A healthy female elephant can give birth to an average of seven calves in their lifetime. Believe it or not, Kerala has special medical institutions with qualified doctors, veterinarians, handlers and even an insurance scheme for elephants! Despite the fact that elephants are competitively judged, there are no breeding programmes. Indeed most elephants in Kerala are either brought in from Tamil Nadu, or they 'simply come out of the forests' as one moustached gentleman told me.

During the festival the elephants are judged on a number of criteria: the size and shape of their ears (the larger the better); their colour (the darker the better); the number of toe nails (18 or 20 toenails being good to perfection, 17 being ok and 19 being inauspicious); the size of the head; and of course the shape and curvature of the tusks. A beautiful elephant may well perform at between 100-120 festivals of varying sizes throughout the year. Their food will be provided for by each of the festival organisers. I gathered that Prakash and Prasad were keen to see one elephant in particular – one they had heard of but had never seen. Ervaputta Ayappan named after his home village was coming to head the elephant procession for the day. His reputation and beauty preceded him.

So we ventured deep into the temple complex, all six acres of it. According the unwritten records this was either the 201st or 202nd year of the Thrissur Pooram. We walked to the eastern corner of the complex to be confronted by an amazing sight of wall of bare-chested musicians carrying medieval style instruments (horns, clarinets and drums). They stood in front of a line of 15 Elephants dressed in gold, red and luminescent finery. Atop each of the elephants stood three men in orange dhoti's, at various times holding a long poled amazing colourful parasol and yak hair pom-pom. There was a wall of sound as the musicians beat and wailed their way into frenzy. Amidst the noise and movement, the elephants stood calmly. The leader of the pack at the centre of the line was Ervaputta Ayappan. He looked huge and majestic, and somewhat beautiful even to the untrained eye. There is no doubt that Ervaputta Ayappan knew he was the king of the day!

So the Pooram was celebrated in its traditional magnificence and splendour with a series of military like movements and processions that culminated in a battlefield scene reminiscent of Waterloo. Two rows of brightly decked elephants stood in long lines facing each other from a distance of 150-200 metres. The eclectic musicians (or Marars as they are known) banged their drums in front of their elephant generals. In the space between the two mighty forces, a mass of what looked and felt like some 50,000 – 100,000 people shook their hands in the air with increasingly frenzied excitement (the ancient Indian technique of head-banging). Those atop the elephants regularly changed their increasingly enchanting and colourful umbrellas (different umbrellas are made by different villages). With each changeover the music built, the crowds got louder and the atmosphere intensified. It built and built to a crescendo worthy of Mozart. Bodies writhed, sweat spilled and umbrella manoeuvred, and then just at the crescendo, it all pulled back from the abyss.

Never in my all my years on earth have I ever seen such a sight. Throughout the day, all of our mouths remained agape at the sights on offer. Our senses rolled and shimmied in delight. Truly the Thrissur Pooram is a sight to behold and experience. I recommend it to each and every one of you.

Post Script
The religious meaning behind the festival is worthy of another article. I hope that the images and descriptions do some justice to the Thrissur Pooram before that article is completed.


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