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Thrissur Pooram is back | The story behind Kerala’s festival of jumbos, ‘Chenda melam’ and fireworks

Thrissur Pooram is an emotion and a symbol of the secular culture and hope for locals — something to wait for every year. A place where both the rich and poor would stand shoulder-to-shoulder and enjoy the energy of festivities. This year, however, the extravaganza will be absent.

March 30, 2021 / 07:56 AM IST
Thrissur Pooram festival in Kerala. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Thrissur Pooram festival in Kerala. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Kerala's most famous festival, Thrissur Pooram, wasn’t celebrated last year due to COVID-19. This year, permission has been given to conduct the Pooram (festival in Malayalam)  on April 23 by authorities with some restrictions. Thrissur Pooram is a festival of caparisoned elephants, Chenda melam (percussion), crowds, fireworks and centuries-old traditions. It's an emotion for the locals--something they eagerly wait for every year.

The town has already begun preparation for the Pooram festivities, including for two months long Pooram exhibition at one part of the vast Thekkinkad Maidan, which is a hundred-acre lush green teak yard surrounding an ancient Shiva temple. Also, preparations are on for the city's famous Pooram vedikkettu (fireworks) and procession of caparisoned elephants (around 120 in total), kudamattam (changing fancy umbrellas) and so on.

For the grand fireworks, workers dig five-feet holes on the ground at designated areas of the maidan (the centre of Thrissur town) and fill concrete pipes in these holes, preparing for the grand fireworks. People from across the state reach the city to witness the fireworks, one of the biggest such extravaganza in the whole state.

So, what is this festival all about and how did it begin? There is an interesting story behind the origin of the Thrissur Pooram.

According to popular belief, Shaktan Thampuran designed Thrissur Pooram in 1798 in the current format. The story goes like this: until then, the biggest temple festival of Kerala was ‘Arattupuzha’ Pooram. Those in Thrissur used to go as a procession to Arattupuzha (a place about 15 kilometres away from the Thrissur town), taking along their percussion artistes and elephants to participate in the grand festival.

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But the year 1798 was different. It was raining incessantly. The roads were flooded. The procession, comprising elephants and scores of men, got stuck half away and couldn’t reach the destination on the day.

The Thrissur side was hence denied permission to participate in that year’s Arattupuzha Pooram. Dejected and insulted, the Thrissur side returned to their village. They apprised Shakthan Thampuran about the events. The desam’s (region) appeal made Thampuran decide something that was unthinkable until then—have an independent festival for Thrissur Desam.

Thrissur Pooram was born. Thampuran designed the festival in the form of a healthy competition between two prominent ‘Desams’ of Thrissur—Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu.

Since then, every year around April-May, these two ‘Desams’ make preparations to compete at Thrissur Pooram. Both sides will have separate sets of percussions (Chenda), caparisoned elephants, fireworks and unique rituals to follow.

The third temple, Vadkkunnathan, doesn’t participate in the Pooram but presides over the competition between the two sides. All the opening and concluding ceremonies of the Pooram happen at Vadakkunnathan’s premises.

Though there are hundreds of big and small festivals across the 14 districts of Kerala from Attukal Pongala in Thiruvananthapuram to Chettikulangara Bharani festival in Alappuzha district and Theyyams of Kannur, Thrissur Pooram is considered as the most important temple festival of all, drawing the biggest crowds every year. Thrissur Pooram is also known for its secular nature. People from all walks of life and all religious backgrounds attend the grandeur.

How does the Pooram happen?

About two months prior to Thrissur Pooram, the Pooram exhibition (display and sale of textile and other household items) begins at Thekkinkadu Maidan, which kicks off the festival season. ‘Pooram Kodiyettam’ (flag hoisting) happens a week before.

Along with this, three ‘Pandals’ are erected in the town decorated with LED-lights. Three days before the Pooram, there will be sample vedikkettu (fireworks). Traffic restrictions slowly begin. Two days before, Aanachamayam display (display of caparisons) opens for public.

Early morning, Cherupoorams (mini Poorams from neighbouring temples) begin to flow in from various parts of the city and neighbouring panchayaths to Thekkinkadu Maidan. These mini Poorams start early in the morning and continue until noon.

Madathilvaravu, the procession from Thiruvambadi temple starts around 11 am and is one of the biggest events of the day. Around the same time in the day, Paramekkavu temple begins its procession accompanied by percussions and caparisoned elephants. Elanjithara melam, a grand orchestra performed by over 200 artistes then follows on Vadakkunnathan temple premises.

In the afternoon, both sides proceed to the south side of the temple to perform Kudamattom—exchange of umbrellas atop caparisoned elephants. Over a lakh Pooram fans crowd the maidan at that time. Kudamattom is considered to be the biggest attraction of the day, except for those who await the grand fireworks show of both Thiruvambadi and Parmekkavu sides the next day early morning.

Around 3 am, the fireworks begin. Over the years, the local administrators have exerted pressure on temple authorities to reduce the intensity of fireworks. In the end though, sentiment trumps rules. The Pooram ends later in the day around noon with the famous ‘Upacharam Chollal’, where both sides meet at Vadakkunnathan to say goodbye with the hope to meet next year again.

To sum up, Thrissur Pooram is an emotion and a symbol of their secular culture and hope — something to wait for every year. A place where both the rich and poor would stand shoulder-to-shoulder and enjoy the energy of festivities. The town is, once again, ready for Pooram this year, after a gap.

(This is an updated version of an earlier story published on Moneycontrol last year)
Dinesh Unnikrishnan
first published: Mar 29, 2021 02:57 pm

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