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A Tale Of Two Poorams

May 08, 2024 14:00 IST
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If you have an appetite for crowds and the visual spectacle of many focused on one task or activity, a pooram will engage you, notes Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: The materials used on caparisoned elephants kept for public viewing at an exhibition ahead of the 2024 Thrissur Pooram. All photographs: Shyam G Menon

In Kerala, pooram fundamentally means a gathering.

Within the world of religion in Kerala, it signifies the gods and goddesses residing at temples in neighboring localities, converging for a day of celebration. These festivals are found mainly in Palakkad, Thrissur, Malappuram and Kollam districts of the state.

In terms of size and scale, the mother of all poorams in Kerala, is the Thrissur Pooram.

Beholding it over April 19-20, 2024, my gaze was closer to tourist (I feel comfortable hovering between agnostic and atheist with definite curiosity for the universe). Thousands of people reach Thrissur for the annual pooram.

Eventually what stayed as lasting impression in my brain was the sheer intensity and intimacy of the event -- I had never been around temple elephants this way before.

The stamp of elephants on the pooram start ahead of actual festivities with the arrival of the animals in town. I saw some of them roll in on trucks aptly named Elephant Express.

IMAGE: An elephant arrives for the Thrissur Pooram on a truck aptly named Elephant Express.

The use of elephants in temple festivals is a controversial topic in Kerala. Critics slam the practice as an insensitive act perpetrated on animals that ought to be roaming free in forests.

It is improbable that animals love the crowded, high decibel environs of a typical festival. For them, it must be a sensory onslaught.

On the other hand, devotees in their urge to read divinity into everything, find saintliness and godliness in how the animals seem to accept the temple way of existence.

It is a belief that stays unshaken despite the occasional instance of an elephant run amok.

IMAGE: People gather to see the elephants who have arrived for the 2024 Thrissur Pooram on the eve of the festival.

For devotees, the magnificence of the elephant carrying the main deity, matters. There is the hero-worshipping of temple elephants based on their size, height and overall personality.

It is not much different from machismo's tendency to admire alpha males except, in the case of elephants, a degree of subordination to human commands and willingness to fit in with tradition are also perhaps essential to win praise.

Not that this side is a must -- the partly blind Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran, rated to be the tallest temple elephant and deemed an emperor among his pachyderm-contemporaries, enjoys a huge fan following despite having killed several people.

At the 2024 Thrissur Pooram, Ramachandran made only one appearance and it was alone, without accompaniment by other elephants and not for the main event of the festival.

For his fans however, the mere appearance seemed enough. As one of the commentators remarked on television, the crowd of spectators reaching to see Ramachandran was a pooram in its own right.

"It is not that Raman comes for any pooram; the pooram is when Raman arrives," he said enthusiastically.

IMAGE: A caparisoned elephant and its mahouts.

For me, partial to the first school of thought (which says that elephants ought to be free) and yet not above admiring the visual magnificence of a caparisoned temple elephant, the most unforgettable aspect of Thrissur Pooram was realizing the ability of elephants to be quiet. Deadly quiet.

More than once on the grounds of the Vadakkumnathan temple, my friends and I had elephants steal upon us, their approach betrayed solely by the sound of their chains. Had it been a forest with no chain for warning or mahout to control, we would have taken flight!

On another occasion, I was watching the repeat processions of April 19-20 night (a good thing about Thrissur Pooram is the second chance offered to catch a glimpse of what you missed during the actual pooram) when at the junction where MG Road joins the city's main circle, a rather tall elephant crept up from the side startling me.

Its height and gait reminding of a basketball player, it proceeded to take its place in a line-up of pachyderms. Although a largely quiet animal, once in a while at the pooram, one heard an elephant's voice. It was deep and gurgling, a guttural sound.

IMAGE: That's how close people are to elephants at some spots, during the Thrissur Pooram.

Sometimes, on narrow roads overflowing with people, the proximity to the animals worried.

As people literally squeezed past elephants, one prayed nothing went astray. Norms exist on the minimum distance to be maintained from elephants. In ultra-crowded circumstances like a pooram, with religiosity to boot, I suspect, applying the norms is a tough job.

In Kerala, things do go wrong in the world of elephants and people. My friend's family, with who I stayed in Thrissur, was once at the receiving end of a panicking pachyderm in a previous edition of the pooram.

It left two family members injured. Both have since recovered fully and recall the incident with sympathy for the animal that panicked.

"The poor animal, succumbed to panic, was clearing its path with its trunk. It may not have seen me. I got lifted up by the trunk and thrown to the other side of the road," one of them said.

The description had me look up the Internet for insight into the physiology of an elephant's trunk and the subsequent discovery that it housed 40,000 individual muscles. Compared to that, the human body has around 600.

IMAGE: A scene from the 2024 Thrissur Pooram.

A close second to elephants for me at Thrissur Pooramwere the musical ensembles. They are among the best and what makes the ambiance of their performance special is the assembled army of temple music afficionados.

They feed off the rhythms and those drumming the rhythms, feed off the encouraging fans. It is a symbiotic relationship, the symbiosis quite visible to everyone around.

IMAGE: Many temple processions reaching the main town square make up the Thrissur Pooram. Such a contributory temple procession reaching the centre of Thrissur for the 2024 Thrissur Pooram.

All of which, fits in with a general observation I came across -- that the people of Thrissur take their elephants, fireworks and drum rolls, seriously.

With so many people gathered for the pooram, candidates standing for the 2024 election to Parliament from Thrissur, also made sure to join the crowds.

It was the season of being one among many; votes earned so being a bonus, I guess.

IMAGE: Folk singers reaching Kavalappara for the 2023 Aryankavu Pooram.

Not all temple festivals in Kerala seek elephants.

At least one that I came across, shunned the use of elephants for reasons rooted in the traditions associated with its deity.

A year earlier, in April 2023, I had joined another friend and his family at their house in Kavalappara (near Shoranur) for a taste of the Aryankavu Pooram held at the nearby Devi temple.

As in my friend's case, the festival dates worked as magnet for people to visit home. During the days preceding the pooram, his house received visits from folk singers; vestiges of an old tradition.

Specifically at the festival, the centre of attraction was horses made of wood, bamboo and fabric. They arrived from different places (traditionally called desam) nearby.

Carried on the shoulders of men, the horses moved slowly to the temple. It was never a straightforward progress; a surge forward was followed by several steps backward.

The back and forth-movement repeated many times made for a slow, time-consuming progress to the temple.

IMAGE: A wooden horse enters the premises of the Aryankavu temple for the 2023 pooram.

Sometimes, the bearers moved the horse sideways on the narrow road lined with onlookers. At other times, they held it up above their shoulders like a trophy. It was clear that a lot of local pride was attached to each horse.

Residents told me that it wasn't uncommon for competitions to erupt during the progress of the horses. Within the team assigned for each horse, people took turns at shouldering its weight.

IMAGE: A percussionist plays the maddalam at the 2023 Aryankavu Pooram.

A couple of senior citizens (veterans of many a pooram) that I spoke to, estimated the horses should weigh around 150 kilos. The horse itself was built to be light but it rested on a stout and sturdy structure similar to a palanquin.

Not just that, the aggregate momentum of several men carrying the structure and executing the back-and-forth progress, required people at either end devoted to pushing back the horse and checkingits momentum so that a reversal of direction was possible. The strain, I was told, was felt most at the ends.

The high point of the horse's progress happened close to the temple, when the men carrying it threw the whole structure up and caught it on the way down, multiple times.

According to the seniors, the teams work without much preparation going into the pooram. A team of people carrying the horse is usually a mix of those who have done it before and those new to it. They learn the techniques and teamwork on the go, the seniors said.

IMAGE: A big wooden horse enters the premises of the Aryankavu temple during the 2023 pooram.

Once inside the temple, the horses go around the sanctum sanctorum, their bearers throwing them up and catching them on the way down, several times.

All that done, the horses park themselves on the premises. Except for one, all the horses that arrived were male. I saw the lone female parked outside the temple.

There was also a bull arrived for the festivities. In what may be a pointer to the future, it was mounted atop a platform with wheels.

It is a moot question if the use of wheels and mechanical propulsion would erode the human teamwork seen in horse carried on people's shoulders and the synchronization that goes into throwing it up and catching it on the way down.

To my mind, more than anything else, this teamwork appeared the heart of the Aryankavu Pooram.

IMAGE: The musical ensemble in action at the 2023 Aryankavu Pooram.

Needless to say, the festival had its share of village fair and musical ensembles. The latter, I remember, was a treat to listen to.

My friend, a lover of temple music, joined the gathered afficionados in that symbiotic relationship, known to permeate such performances.

IMAGE: The cymbals section of the musical ensemble at the 2023 Aryankavu Pooram.

So, if you have an appetite for crowds and the visual spectacle of many focused on one task or activity, a pooram will engage you. My phone-camera agrees.

What makes the Aryankavu Pooram ideal foil to contrast the Thrissur Pooram is that the former does not feature elephants.

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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