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Eyewitness: 'People disappeared without a trace after the explosion'

By Shobha Warrier
April 11, 2016 19:28 IST
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A view of a collapsed building after a massive fire broke out during a fireworks display in Paravur north of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. Photograph: PTI

IMAGE: A view of a collapsed building after a massive fire broke out at the Puttingal temple during a fireworks display in Paravur, north of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Photograph: PTI


'I lost several of my friends, a lot of people I know are severely injured and in hospital. It will take time for all of us to recover.'
'You can't blame any single political party for using their influence to get the fireworks okayed. It is an election year and everybody wants to please the people.'

Lallu S, a journalist working for Asianet News, was born and brought in Paravur where the temple tragedy occurred on the morning of April 10.

Like previous years, he was on leave to be a part of the temple festival, and was witness to the gruesome tragedy.

In this interview, 35-year-old Lallu, below, left, talks about spending his childhood at Paravur and attending the Puttingal temple festival every year.

He spoke to Shobha Warrier/

My house is just one-and-a-half kilometres away from the temple. We have been staying in the house from my grandfather's days. This temple has been part of not only my growing up years, but even my grandfather's. Every year, my grandfather used to tell us stories of how it was in his childhood.

This is one of the oldest temples in the area and is very famous not only locally, but in neighbouring areas too. Its origin can be dated back at least 300 years.

It is said that originally the temple was built by the Nair community of the area, but there was a several decades- long dispute about the ownership which went up even to the Supreme Court.

I think it was less than two decades ago that the Supreme Court verdict gave the ownership to the four major Nair karayogams (community organisations) in the village. Till the verdict came, the temple was under the control of a receiver. Now, a committee constituted by members from each karayogam takes care of the temple.

After the Supreme Court verdict, the temple was renovated on a very grand scale.

The fireworks is an age-old tradition practised in the temple, perhaps as old as the temple. It is not something that began in recent times. It is believed that Goddess Devi is very fond of fireworks and even the vedi (dynamite, a very popular offering in all Devi temples in Kerala).

The seven-day festival at the temple attracts tens of thousands of people every day from the nearby districts of Alleppey and Trivandrum, even Tamil Nadu. The culmination of the festival is the competitive fireworks which is very unique to this temple.

When I say the Puttingal temple is one of the two temples in Kerala that has a Kampa pura (proper storehouse for explosives for the fireworks), you can imagine how important fireworks are to the temple festival.

Those who raised their voices against the fireworks are the people who came to live near the temple very recently. People like Pankajakshi Amma (the woman who complained against the fireworks) built the house just a few years ago.

When I was a child, there used to be so much vacant space around the temple we used to play cricket there. There were only 50 houses in the whole area, but today, there are many new houses built around the temple.

As this was the most sought after prime land in the village, people with money started buying land close to the temple, and then they started complaining about the fireworks.

Now the entire temple ground is surrounded by houses. They are the people who were against the fireworks because they feared it would damage their houses.

Lallu SThose who have grown up there never objected to the fireworks because it was part of our lives.

Every year, our friends and relatives from other parts come to our house to be a part of the festival. So, when those who came to settle here much later object to something that was part of our lives, those who have been staying here for decades used to get a bit offended.

All of us who grew up in the village make it a point to take leave and come to Paravur to attend the festival. We may miss Onam, but none from the village miss the temple festival.

The uniqueness of the festival is it is not just Hindus, but the entire village, Christians and Muslims included, actively participate in it.

There was a ban on fireworks in Kerala after a tragedy, which lasted for 10 years. It was only during that period that we didn't have any fireworks. Even then, people from other places used to come here anticipating at least small fireworks.

I still remember as children we used to wait eagerly till morning for the fireworks to happen. Even in those days, with the police around, there used to be at least a small fireworks display here.

This year when it was first announced that there would not be any fireworks as permission was denied by the collector, there was disappointment among the local people.

I was in Paravur on three-day leave. On the last day of the festival, by 7 in the evening, all the festivities end and the finale is the fireworks for which everyone look forward to. If it is music performances by well-known singers as culmination in other temples, it is fireworks for this temple.

I and my friends used to sit in an area near the temple, just opposite the store house. We had occupied a place there when one of my friends dragged us to his house. He insisted on all of us sitting on the terrace of his house, which was just 150 metres away from the temple.

It was past midnight that the competitive fireworks started and till 3 am, it went on well. That was when the explosion happened. The place where we had sat and all those who were sitting there disappeared completely without any trace after the explosion.

When we first saw the first explosion, we thought some of the explosives which had not burst initially must have burst. Only later, did we realise what exactly happened. Then we ran to the ground and what we saw was unexplainable.

Parts of bodies were strewn all over and people were wailing in pain. Those who were not hurt gathered the injured, and put them in buses and took them to hospital. Every single person who was there, irrespective of caste and religion, was involved in the rescue.

I lost several of my friends, a lot of people I know are severely injured and in hospital. It will take time for all of us to recover.

You can't blame any single political party for using their influence to get the fireworks okayed. It is an election year and everybody wants to please the people.

When people of the area want fireworks, the local politicians also will try to make them satisfied. The candidates from all the three major political parties worked to get permission and you cannot blame them for that.

See, till last year, everything was going on smoothly and nobody expected something of this sort to happen. If this had not happened, it would have continued next year too.

You cannot blame the temple authorities too as the pressure from people to have the temple festival in a certain way is too much.

At present, people of this village are in such a huge shock that they are not in a position to say whether they want fireworks again. But I am of the opinion that banning something is not the answer.

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Shobha Warrier /