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The Mammoth Attractions of Thrissur Pooram

July 2008
The Mammoth Attractions of Thrissur Pooram

By D.K. Bhaskar

Unique. Exotic. Surreal. These are some of the adjectives commonly associated with Indian festivals. What makes Thrissur Pooram—a festival of legendary temple elephants—unique, exotic and surreal even by the standards of Indian festivals, are the myth and legend surrounding it, the visual and auditory majesty of it, the competitions, and of course, the grand processions of pious pachyderms. Sure, the scale of the internationally renowned Kumbh Mela is much larger, but it is the mammoth spectacle of Thrissur Pooram that makes it what Keralans like to describe as the “Pooram of Poorams.”

Pooram, which literally means a congregation, in the context of this festival means a symbolic gathering of deities riding the sacred temple elephants. Picture a scene of dozens of richly adorned elephants (tuskers, no less), impeccably lined up in an open field to the backdrop of an ancient temple (projecting a visual of a majestic wall of elephants), with equally eye-catching canopy-like umbrellas over their mahouts, a slowly rising crescendo of varied acoustics and trumpets, and a frenzied throng of thousands of ardent locals as well as awestruck foreigners?and you just begin to get a feel for Thrissur Pooram.

Celebrated at the premises of the famous Vadakkunnathan Temple in the town of Thrissur (or “Trichur”), the festival has ten temples in the region participating, each with its own contingent of elephants. The spirited but divinely inspired competition for the most well caparisoned elephants and the grandest of fireworks give an edge to the festival while ensuring there is never a dull moment.

The event provides several thousands of its visitors an opportunity to mingle with the gentle giants. The Pooram remains a spectacular symbol of social and communal harmony as people across all ages, castes, and religions participate freely and joyously.

A tradition of more than two centuries

Poorams in Kerala started as long ago as the 4th century, but the Thrissur Pooram began to be celebrated sometime in the 17th century, thanks to Maharaja Rama Varma of Cochin, known for his great patronage of the arts.

Unhappy that the Namboodiris (the most orthodox Malayalee Brahmins) running the two temples of Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu had abstained from taking out their deities to offer prayers at the temple of Lord Shiva at Arratupuzha, 10 kilometers from Thrissur, the Maharaja decreed that the two temples would have to start participating in the worship. He chalked out a program with the authorities of the two temples to start what grew into the famous Thrissur Pooram. A dense, 70-acre forest in the middle of the town was cleared and converted into the beautiful Thekkinkadu maidan (meaning teak forest fields).

It was decided that the other eight small temples in the vicinity would also participate in this unique undertaking. The Pooram was to be held in the auspicious month of Medam (Aries) in April-May in the Malayalam calendar. The choicest of elephants, mainly tuskers, were to be an integral part of the Pooram, as the deities of these temples would arrive perched upon them.

Rhythmic ecstasy and elephant riding deities

Music is a vital backdrop of the Pooram. Panchavadyam and Chendamelam are the main orchestras at the festival. Panchavadyam is a unique and harmonious combination of five different instruments—one wind: the kombu (an almost circular trumpet), and four percussion: the long thimila and short edakka (shoulder-slung hourglass-shaped drums), the elathalam (small cymbals) and the maddalam (a large horizontal 2-ended drum similar to the mridangam). Chendamelam is comprised of chendas (loud cylindrical drums hit with curved sticks), kuzhals (small straight trumpets), kombus and elathalams. The symphony of the drummers takes the listeners to a world of rhythmic ecstasy. About 200 artists in traditional dress participate in this wonderful musical homage.

The forenoon of the day of the Pooram belongs to the eight invited deities from the smaller temples. From six o’clock in the morning, they start arriving at the maidan in a procession, carried on elephants. The main temples at the maidan provide additional elephants and decorations for them as they move towards the Vadakkunnathan temple. Until noon, the huge crowd of people thronging the maidan witnesses the processions of the mini Poorams.

Late in the afternoon, the jubilant crowd moves with the 15 chosen elephants of Thiruvambadi and the 15 of Paramekkavu carrying goddesses on their back, to reach the srimoolasthanam, and to prepare for the competition. In the western courtyard of the temple complex, over 80 musicians perform an hour-long Elanjithara Melam.

The two competitions: parasols and pyrotechnics

The variety, intricacy and splendor of the various elephant adornments give the festival its vibrant hues and character. Going into the festival, visitors by the hundreds at each of the participating temples preview these adornments, often while they are being created and crafted. The town dresses up for Pooram nearly a week before the festivities begin. Colorful pandals, colored lights, welcome arches, and flags strung all round the town monopolize the landscape.

On the penultimate day, at both the temples, there is a sample fireworks display and an exhibition of accoutrements used for the elephants—foreshadowing the two main elements of the festival.

The muttukudas, the trademark umbrella-like parasols, are significant amongst the caparisons that adorn the elephants. These parasols are central to the Kodamattam, an elaborate and symbolic process of sporting an array of muttukudas that the competing teams exhibit while perched upon the elephants.

Both temples go to great lengths to select the best elephants and accoutrements, especially the parasols. Around 5.30 in the evening, the elephants come in a procession out of the south door of the Vadakkunnathan temple (which is open only on the day of the Pooram), and line up next to each other, facing over a million-strong crowd in the densely packed maidan. A sea of humanity watches from everywhere—trees, balconies, shops, restaurants, and the grounds. It is a quite a visual treat to see this durbar.

The symbolic confrontation begins with the changing of colorful parasols on one team of elephants. The other side competes, changing its parasols to the cheerful shouts of the crowd. The contest goes on, with each of the temples changing at least 20 parasols. There are no fixed rules in this event. The crowd is always surprised by the turn of events at the Kodamattam, which draws to a close as the sun sets.

If the day belongs to the sound of the Panchavadyam, the night belongs to the spectacular fireworks, a distinctive feature of the Pooram. The competitive pyrotechnic display by the two temples at around 3 a.m. shakes up the small town like an earthquake. Two elephants, one each from the main temples, carry the deities as they stand at the fireworks display, signifying the presence of goddesses. Nearly a million people wait all night to witness this dazzling display of fireworks, which ends at the break of dawn.

The next day, the elephants assemble at the maidan with the orchestra and move towards the srimoolasthanam. The music continues until noon. Then the two sides stand face-to-face, bid farewell and pay homage to Lord Shiva. The two main elephants carrying the deities lift their trunks in unison, heralding the spirit of camaraderie between the temples and bidding farewell to the Pooram.

Everything is on a massive scale at the Pooram—the crowds are huge, the decorations magnificent, the sights breathtaking, and the music, ear-splitting. Truly, there is nothing petty about the Thrissur Pooram!

[D. K. Bhaskar is an Augusta, Georgia based widely published, award winning photojournalist whose work has also been featured in over 10 books, including “Visions of Wanderlust.”]

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