Monthly Archives: May 2011

Thrissur Pooram, Festival par excellence !

Kerala, the South Indian state, in spite of its tiny frame is a land of countless wonders and deep-rooted cultural heritage. It is also the land of the biggest gathering of people and elephants – the incomparable ‘Thrissur Pooram’, a cultural extravaganza par excellence, which takes place in Kerala’s Thrissur town.

In local language (Malayalam), ‘Pooram’ means ‘festival’ – the most important occasion in temples as well as churches, that occurs usually once in a year. But even the word ‘festival’ may fall short to describe the Pooram at Thrissur. This event is a class apart – “a festival of festivals”.

The town of Thrissur, located almost in the centre of Kerala state, boasts of many important temples, shrines and cultural institutions… and, is regarded as the ‘Cultural Capital of Kerala’. Whatever may be Thrissur’s assets, it was this mega-classic festival ‘Pooram’ that made this town internationally acclaimed.

A visionary venture by the then-ruler of erstwhile Cochin State, Rama Varma alias ‘Shakthan Thampuran’, Thrissur Pooram is studded with plenty of eye-catchers… such as;
# procession of 40+ decorated (with golden head-dresses) elephants
# colourfully crafted ‘kolams’ (floral patterns)
# ‘panchavadyam’ – a musical feast by traditional percussion instruments
# lavish fireworks display…. etc., being the highlights.

The ‘Pooram’ celebrations take place generally from mid-April to mid-May every year. Venue of this auspicious event is the sprawling grounds of Vadakkumnathan Temple, an ageless gigantic shrine situated right at the center of Thrissur town.

On the eve of Pooram, the whole town throbs with excitement. Two groups – representing the main geographic divisions of Thrissur region – engage in a healthy competition to add up the Pooram’s splendors. Two lines of 15 elegantly decorated tuskers, fielded by each group, stand face to face. Between these two lines of elephants stand the team of percussion instruments.

Each time this orchestra reach a crescendo (high point), a new display of brightly colored ceremonial-umbrellas pop up over the elephants – the ‘Kudamattam’ ceremony (changing of umbrellas) – delighting the onlookers.

This process goes on till sunset; afterwards the departure of elephants is marked by thrilling fireworks display – illuminating the night sky. A visual treat that has no equals.

The Pooram spectacle continues for a marathon 36 hours!

For the people of Thrissur, irrespective of caste and creed, ‘Thrissur Pooram’ is their most cherished occasion. Apart from the town-folks, people from all over Kerala, neighbouring states, and foreigners come to witness this grand gala show. As it is also a gathering of various merchants from everywhere, Thrissur Pooram grounds offer a variety shopping spree as well.

Thrissur Pooram, a festival with intriguing flashback

The festival of festivals… a celebration without peers… Kerala’s ‘Thrissur Pooram’ also boasts an interesting history.

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It is a peculiar ‘tale recipe’ of several ingredients — Hinduism’s caste system, which saw the wealth & power always rested with upper castes… The aristocratic Brahmin priests (most superior caste in Kerala) who treated themselves as demigods… A King who dared to redefine the society…

Locally, ‘Pooram’ means meeting or group. According to Hindu mythology, dynastic Gods / Goddesses from neighbouring provinces meet on an auspicious day annually. This day is generally regarded as Pooram celebration.

During medieval times, within a kingdom; small regions were controlled by Brahmin aristocrats who were  regarded as Local Chiefs. Some  of them were considered even powerful than the King.

Before ‘Thrissur Pooram’ originated, the major festive occasion in Thrissur region was the ‘Arattupuzha festival’ which took place in Peruvanam – a village located near Thrissur. Temples in Thrissur and surrounding regions used to take part in Arattupuzha festival.

Once, temples from Thrissur and Kuttanellur regions were denied entry to this festival by Peruvanam Village-Chief, perhaps due to some delay from those temples. To challenge Peruvanam’s authority in festival, the respective Local Chiefs of Thrissur and Kuttanellur jointly organised their own Pooram festival. But this celebration failed to sustain due to frequent quarrels between the Chiefs. When the situation went off the limit, the King (Rama Varma) intervened.

The Palace where King Rama Varma lived (inset: Rama Varma alias ‘Sakthan Thampuran’)

Ruler of the ‘Princely State of Cochin’ at that time, Rama Varma (AD 1751-1805) better known as ‘Sakthan Thampuran’ – meaning ‘Powerful King’ due to his daring administration – was averse to the increasing self styled aggressions of local chiefs.

Considering the traumatic situation, a resolute Sakthan Thampuran decided to redefine the society setup and organize Thrissur’s own kind of Pooram – a festival for all, irrespective of caste division.

To quell local powerhouses, the King wrested the control of Thrissur’s prominent temples – Vadakkunnathan, Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi, which were till then held by Brahmin chiefs. Further, he cleared the teak-forest that surrounded Vadakkunnathan temple, making a vast ground to hoist the Pooram.

Afterwards the King formed two geographical groups – ‘Eastern’ (headed by ‘Paramekkavu temple’ with four other temples from neighbourhood) and ‘Western’ (headed by ‘Thiruvambadi temple’ with four neighbouring temples) – combining all temples in & around Thrissur town, framing a mega festival plan. It is believed that Sakthan Thampuran also charted events and programs – to be conducted on Thrissur Pooram celebrations – making it a true fiesta.

‘Anachamayam’ – Collection of Elephant Caparisons on the eve of Thrissur Pooram

Close-up of an Elephant Caparison

Eastern and Western groups (with ten temples in total) make processions to the nerve-temple of Thrissur, ‘Vadakkunnathan Lord Shiva Temple’. It was so decided as the town of Thrissur literally got its name from this temple. Thrissur means ‘Thiru-Shiva-Perur’ (Abode of Lord Shiva).

Vadakkunnathan Temple and ground – venue of Thrissur Pooram

As Pooram approaches, deities from these ten temples proceed to pay respect to Lord Shiva, deity at Vadakkunnathan temple.

Image of each temple deity (of participating temples) is carried on elephants… Richly decorated elephants alongwith a team of percussion instrument experts make the procession a grand affair. These processions conclude at the ‘Thekkinkadu maidan’, the sprawling temple ground that encircle Vadakkunnathan temple – Pooram festival’s main venue.

The prominent participants, Eastern ‘Paramekkavu’ group and Western ‘Thiruvambadi’ group, then stand face to face on the venue; with each team fielding 15 elephants supplemented with percussion & wind orchestra team.

Paramekkavu Temple – a principle participant in Thrissur Pooram

Thiruvambadi Temple – another principle participant in the Pooram

These groups, in a positive spirit, strive to steal a match over one another by assembling the best elephants from all over Kerala and the best performers of percussion instruments…

Climax constitutes 30+ majestic decorated-elephants, enchanting atmosphere with percussion-musical-feast of Panchavadyam, Pandimelam, Ilanjitharamelam… and finally, astonishing firework displays that literally set the night sky on fire !!!

As envisioned by the great ruler Sakthan Thampuran almost 210 years ago, Eastern-Western healthy competition continues … making Thrissur Pooram the most colourful & dazzling festival in Kerala, and perhaps the most splendid of its kind in the world too ! This festival fiesta grows year after year.