Sunday, 17 April 2016

It is not just the Thrissur Pooram ...

During the Second World War my father travelled from Thrissur (then Trichur) to Mumbai (then Bombay) to buy silk. It was not for any wedding in the family, but for stitching the colourful parasols for Parmekkavu temple for the Thrissur Pooram. With the War continuing for years, commodities were rationed – including silk – and it required special permission and had to be obtained from Mumbai. My father, a young man then, volunteered for this difficult and adventurous assignment.

My father was a full-fledged Pooram aficionado. In Malayalam we call this Poora-kambam. Born in 1917, the year when the First World War ended in Europe, the agrarian economy and the Independence movement were the backdrop for his early decades. Till the time his health permitted, he participated in the Pooram, unmindful of the summer sun and the crushing crowds.

A file picture of Thrissur Pooram 2015 from
He obviously was/is not alone; there are hundreds of thousands like him. Poet and lyricist P. Bhaskaran had made the Thrissur Pooram immortal in his ever-popular song Mambazha koottathil … with the words “Poorangalil veccha Thrissur Pooram …” The girl to whom this serenade is directed is addressed as the Thrissur Pooram among poorams.

Many were shocked with the news that the Pooram could be curtailed this year. “What is Thrissur without Pooram?” asked Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazhathu of the Catholic Church.

Coming almost immediately after the fireworks accident at the Puttingal temple in Kollam, the Thrissur Pooram was to take the brunt of the restrictions. It came into the cross hairs because of two orders passed immediately after the Kollam tragedy – by the forest department restricting the parading of elephants under the hot summer sun, and by the Kerala High Court restricting fireworks display at night.

Through tripartite discussions between the Pooram organisers, the State Government and the High Court, a plan to have the Pooram with controls has been worked out.

The Thrissur Pooram is the biggest and the most visible of the religious-cultural celebrations in Kerala. Thus it also draws the strongest views – from those who want to have the Pooram unrestricted, and others who want the elephant parade and fireworks curtailed. And since it has been a prominent icon in the Kerala Government’s tourism promotion under the tagline ‘God’s own country’ anything to do with the Pooram invites national and international attention.

In 2015, Hollywood actress Pamela Anderson wanted live elephants to be replaced with dummies. She offered to pay for this transition, which was refused by the Kerala Government.

But is the Thrissur Pooram the only issue that needs to be discussed and debated? Or should it be the larger picture of celebrations in Kerala?

Today, as the Pooram gathers steam in Thrissur, I remember the time when my father retired from government service in 1975 and returned to Thrissur and bought our house in Punkunnam. The Vishnu temple had just been bought from a private owner and taken over by a public committee. Behind the temple stood acres of wide-open paddy fields. The temple festival was celebrated when the fields were dry, and the fireworks were lit away from habitation. 

In the 40 years since the early days of public celebrations for the deity, the paddy fields have been parcelled and sold off into colonies in this prime real estate location in Thrissur. With many middle class families moving into the area and also remittance donations from outside the country, the temple has become richer than those early days. Even as the space for the celebrations shrunk, the ambition of the temple committee expanded. One elephant became three, and the intent to make the celebrations bigger, brighter and louder than that of the other temples became stronger.

This has not been the story of the temple near my house alone. It has not even been the story of only temples. The believers of all gods, all religions have wanted their celebrations to be the best and the boldest.

If you take the road in Kerala, you can be surprised by some celebration marching through the highway or the smaller roads and blocking the passage for hours. It could be a political party, a religious or casteist organisation, or a religious institution that is taking its celebrations on to the roads. Or, as in the recent years, it could be a jewellery chain store celebrating the opening of its 151st showroom, with caparisoned elephants, panchavadyam and pushing crowds.

Celebrations require money, and the source from which this money comes has changed over the centuries and decades. In a feudal-agrarian society, temple festivals were funded through a combination of royal or feudal patronage, returns from the fields owned by the temple and contribution from those living nearby (this would have been more as grain rather than cash).

The Thrissur Pooram could rise to pre-eminence because it was supported by the King of Kochi himself, who at that time in the 1790s was Rama Varma IX also known as the Shaktan Thampuran or the strong king. The people of Thrissur continued this support and the festival never faded.

Today, the funding for the innumerous celebrations in Kerala is crowd-sourced. It is buttressed by hyperventilating the cause of the local pride and/or a focussed identity. If people at X could spend so much for their celebrations, why shouldn’t we?

Whatever be the occasion, the attitude of the organisers is the same: “We are celebrating, and your convenience and safety is least of our concerns.” Once this attitude gets internalised as a subtext for all celebrations, then taking a newer and bolder step is just an extension of the same argument. Thus, the organisers at Puttingal persisted with the fireworks even after there were protests from neighbours, disapproval from the district administration, and even after small incidents in the early stages of the fireworks indicated that there is possibility for a disaster.

When you play with fire, the line between glory and disaster is a fine one. It is as fine as the line between cautious confidence and bravado. And when you train a wild elephant to stand still for hours, and you fatigue him with multiple parades, there could be times when his instinct takes over and he hits back.

In my father’s time there were lesser number of celebrations and thus being aware of this fine line was easier. There are far more celebrations today as my son’s generation takes charge. It is easy for the critics to pick on the Thrissur Pooram because it is an icon among celebrations. If we change our attitude towards celebratory excesses during the year and take abundant caution, the Pooram will be safe and enjoyable.


  1. Yes, enough is is high time we changed our attitude.

  2. Well said sir, thanks for sharing it and expect more.

  3. The Thrissur Pooram is the biggest and the most visible of the religious-cultural celebrations in Kerala.Window Covering in Thrissur