Before the emergence of ‘Thrissur Pooram’ as Kerala’s most extravagant temple festival, there was the festival at Arattupuzha temple, also in Thrissur district. One of the oldest Hindu temple festivals in Kerala, the Arattupuzha Pooram is attended by two dozen temples in and around the district and witnesses the parading of close to a 100 elephants, making it a spectacle like no other.
But in 1798, when Sakthan Thampuran ruled over the kingdom of Cochin that encompasses the region of central Kerala including Thrissur, there were heavy rains. When a few temples participating in the Arattupuzha Pooram reached late that year, they were denied access. Miffed, the administrations of those temples were said to have approached Sakthan Thampuran to find a solution. The benevolent king, taking cognizance of the sentiments of the temple officials, decreed that they would have a bigger and expansive temple festival of their own, naming it ‘Thrissur Pooram’.
Over the centuries, the Pooram event has grown larger in size, with extensive funds being spent by the participating temple administrations and attracting scores of domestic and foreign tourists in the process. While the Pooram itself is just one day, preparations begin months in advance. Seven days before the Pooram, flags are hoisted at the two main participating temples, the Paramekkavu Bhagavathi Temple and the Thiruvambadi Sri Krishna Temple, officially kick-starting the proceedings. The Pooram consists ten temples, including the two mentioned above, in and around Thrissur and is considered to be a ceremony where these deities come together to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva at the Vadakumnathan Temple, located in the centre of the town.
It has to be underlined that the Pooram, though a Hindu ritual, has grown to encompass all religious and cultural strains of Kerala. Both the Muslim and Christian communities participate in the festival in a variety of ways. In essence, the Pooram is not just restricted to reflecting a Hindu ritual, rather, it has ended up becoming a banner highlighting secular credentials of the state.
Finest percussion ensemble
One of the hallmarks of the ‘Thrissur Pooram’ is the percussion ensemble consisting of traditional instruments like chenda, maddalam, edakka, thimila and kombu. In traditional ‘panchavadyam’ and ‘pancharimelam’ styles, percussionists with decades of experience between them produce a spellbinding orchestra which has to be seen and heard to be believed. Over 200 artistes are known to participate in the rituals.
The Ilanjithara Melam, or the orchestra performed under the Bullet-wood tree in the courtyard of the Vadakumnathan Temple, is the highlight of the Pooram. Peruvanam Kuttan Marar, a senior percussionist who plays the chenda, has been leading the ensemble for over three decades. The orchestra is of the ‘Pandi Melam’ style known for it’s technical brilliance.
It’s an elephant show
Another pull-factor of the Pooram festivities is the presence of elephants, who have been a constant part of ritual Hindu worship in Kerala. The replica of the deities, participating in the Pooram, are carried atop the elephants as they proceed towards the Vadakumnathan temple. While 30 elephants are part of the main Pooram festivities, another 60 or 70 tuskers form a part of the smaller processions of the participating temples.
Both the Paramekkavu and Thiruvambady administrations spend months to design the golden caparisons (nettipattam) and other accouterments such as ornamental fans made of peacock feathers (aalavattam), royal fans made of yak hair (venchamaram) and sequined silk parasols (muthukuda). All of these accoutrements are displayed by men, sitting atop the elephants, during the special ‘kudamattam’ ceremony which takes place towards the evening.
The festival organisers believe that no Pooram is complete without the astounding protechnic display. There are two rounds of fireworks, the sample vedikettu which takes place on the fourth day after the flag is hoisted, and the main round which is held on the main day of the Pooram. The fireworks displays have attracted controversies every year, with a significant section of Pooram watchers voicing that it can be avoided. Aside from air and noise pollution, they cite danger to human lives as well.
Both the Paramekkavu and Thiruvambady administrations organise fireworks displays competitively.
This year, Thrissur Pooram will be held on May 13.