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'Can you imagine a Thrissur Pooram without fireworks?'

April 21, 2024 15:22 IST
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Devaswoms are meant to manage temples, not the faithful.
Why didn't they simply stick to their set of responsibilities and execute it well and efficiently?, asks Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: The Thrissur Pooram being celebrated at the Paramekkavu temple in Thrissur in 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

It wasn't the ending Kerala's most famous temple festival hoped for.

At the 2024 Thrissur Pooram, neither the generally upbeat tenor of proceedings nor the Thiruvambadi Devaswom's questionable resort to images of Ram and Ram temple in the umbrellas used in the festival's finale, betrayed the confusion that followed.

For this writer, who watched a fantastic musical ensemble performance near a temple just outside the city's main circle in the intervening night of April 19-20 and left the premises once the procession with caparisoned elephants that the ensemble was part of departed for the main temple, the first signs of things gone wrong surfaced less than half an hour later.

Into the early hours of April 20, news spread of the above said procession cut short, all festivities halted and uncertainty cast over the famous fireworks display that traditionally closes the annual event.

Thousands of people arrived in Thrissur for the finale and the fireworks, hung around in town, a veritable bundle of unpredictable passions close to elections and in times when politics unashamedly leverages religious sentiments for electoral gain.


IMAGE: The normally illuminated tower (pandal) at the end of the road with its lights switched off following the protest by devaswoms, as people wait anxiously on Thrissur's MG Road in the early hours of April 20, 2024. Photograph: Shyam G Menon

To comprehend the sensitive situation, one must first comprehend what the Thrissur Pooram is and means.

Called the pooram of poorams, it witnesses many smaller temple processions reaching town, the location for the mother festival of it all.

Doing so, over two days, the centre of Thrissur transforms into a massive churn of thousands of people and up to 80 elephants.

The intensity and intimacy of the experience -- one sees the elephants at close proximity -- is unique and unparalleled.

As intense as this human-animal engagement, is the scale of parade and procession.

The accompanying music is top-notch, the line-up of elephants among the biggest in the state and the crowds and the fireworks as maximum in dimension.

The core architecture involves three big temples; two of them, active participants, the third providing venue.

The two active participants -- Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu -- have separate managements (locally called devaswom).

IMAGE: People sitting on MG Road, Thrissur, as they await word on the 2024 Thrissur Pooram fireworks display. Photograph: Shyam G Menon

At the time of writing (April 20 noon), it was still unclear what exactly happened.

The generally held opinion was that the police, who were in charge of crowd control especially with an eye on complying with court-mandated rules to follow for elephant processions and fireworks display, became overzealous in the discharge of their responsibilities.

What happened as a consequence was bizarre. The devaswoms -- Thiruvambadi in particular -- took offence at the inconvenience caused to the faithful.

Thiruvambadi switched off its share of illumination and cancelled festivities including the fireworks.

Gloom and uncertainty descended. Thousands of people arrived from various places to enjoy the pooram, wandered on the streets aimlessly or stayed put unsure of what next.

Meanwhile, discussions got underway and word on the streets (as well as in the media) was that Paramekkavu was game to continue, but not Thiruvambadi.

Adding hues was the Parliament elections on Friday, April 26. Campaigning was underway and Thrissur as one of the seats fancied by the BJP, was witnessing a tight three-pronged contest.

The state government in the dock automatically disadvantages the Left Democratic Front candidate while lending voice to the aggrieved faithful has long been BJP's chosen style of game.

IMAGE: Crowds of people on the main circle around the Vadakkumnathan temple in the early hours of April 20, 2024. Photograph: Shyam G Menon

All this for a backdrop when viewed through conventional eyes, made the thousands stuck on Thrissur's streets seem incendiary.

Potential risks ranged from stampedes as a product of rumours, to anything worse.

Miraculously, the people held calm. Some found fun in singing songs.

Many slept by the roadside or just sat down on the road, waiting for an official decision on the fireworks to emerge.

On MG Road, I came across a large group of young people merrily dancing to film music.

Stalls selling tea, juice and small snacks did business. What was however overwhelmingly felt was -- disbelief; disbelief in what had just happened to the festival Thrissur most identified with.

"Can you imagine a Thrissur Pooram without fireworks?" a policeman I spoke to asked.

On MG Road, a sad police force chatted and joked with the people who approached them. Amidst this, some people also elected to leave.

IMAGE: People on MG Road, Thrissur, waiting for official word on the fireworks display of the 2024 Thrissur Pooram. Photograph: Shyam G Menon

Eventually, with just an hour or two to spare for dawn's first light, it was announced that negotiations had been successful and the fireworks would take place.

Around 7 am on April 20, the two temple managements got their pyrotechnic displays underway.

The sound was as booming as ever. But the sun overpowered all its colourful light and aesthetics. It was light versus light with our nearest star easy victor.

IMAGE: People watch the fireworks display of the 2024 Thrissur Pooram from the terrace of an apartment complex on the morning of April 20. Photograph: Shyam G Menon

As I joined the disappointed in the walk back home, my mind struggled with two questions.

First, devaswoms are meant to manage temples, not the faithful. Why didn't they simply stick to their set of responsibilities and execute it well and efficiently? Be good in the specific services they offer?

Second, the most dangerous part of the pooram is fireworks. In Kerala, some terrible accidents have occurred in the past due to fireworks gone awry.

When you countdown to the act that demands your greatest attention, would you load the stress further by forcing question marks over the whole event and likely squeezing time to execute, in the process?

Strangely one of the media reports during these troubled hours even mentioned that once the final arrangements for fireworks are made, the temple management has no option but to proceed. If this was the case, why threaten cancellation at all?

God knows.

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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