Come April and tourists throng Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, to witness the magnificent Thrissur Pooram festival. The Thekkenkadu ground, also known popularly as the Swaraj Ground, in front of the Vadakumnathan temple comes alive with the rows of caparisoned elephants swaying to the rhythm of the Panchavadyam, an elaborate rhythmic orchestra with five percussion and wind instruments. Other traditional rhythmic beats include Pancharimelam and Pandimelam. One is fascinated by the sight of the sea of humanity standing spellbound as the beautifully decorated caparisoned elephants enter the ground one by one with the mahout and two more people astride.
The crowd of spellbound spectators at the Thrissur Pooram
The 36-hour festival starts early morning and lasts till the next dawn. In 2018, the Thrissur Pooram falls on 25th April and extends to the wee hours of the 26th morning. As early as 4 AM, the elephants carrying the deities from the neighbouring villages and towns begin entering the Thekkenkadu ground to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva as Vadakumnathan. The mesmerising beats of the Panchavadhyam start thereafter and continue for almost three to four hours reaching a crescendo as the crowd joins in with some men even waving their hands to the beat. There are instrumentalists who never miss playing in the annual Thrissur Pooram festival.
In the evening the stage is set for the grand entry of the two major participants in the Pooram festival, the Parmekavu Bhagawati temple and the Thiruvambadi temple. Fifteen elephants from Parmekavu and fifteen elephants from Thiruvambadi, beautifully decorated with golden caparisons enter the ground one by one and stand in a row facing each other. The men astride the elephants carry spectacular parasols for the next event, Kudamattam. The excitement in the crowd is palpable as they wait for the rhythmic change of parasols by both the sides, as if in competition, with the brilliant display of artistic designs on the parasols.
The row of elephants with the colourful parasols. If you note carefully, you can see hundreds of spectators taking mobile pictures and videos.
They keep changing the parasols and the crowds appreciate the innovative designs. This year the Parmekavu temple had parasols with colourful LED lights too. The Thiruvambadi parasols were also very beautiful, the special ones being the parasol which was dedicated to the temple elephant which passed away earlier this year, and the parasol with the image of Lord Krishna on it. These parasols are held aloft by the person seated on the elephant and the other person wields the beautiful white fan-like Chamara wiskhs in rhythmic coordination. We were able to see two-tiered, three-tiered and even five-tiered parasols this year. This is the sight to behold, the highlight of the spectacular event that so many people come from far and wide to see and experience the thrill.
The parasol with the image of Krishna
One of the spectators who had been coming to attend the Thrissur Pooram for more than two decades mentioned that the making of each parasol took approximately one week or even more depending on the design. I was curious as to what the temples would do with so many decorative parasols. My question was answered by one of the organisers. He mentioned that the parasols would be sent to other temples in Kerala which organise the Pooram festival on a smaller scale.
A five-tiered colourful parasol
The night Pooram has another round of the rhythmic Panchvadyam after which the festival culminates with a brilliant display of fireworks, lasting for more than four hours. There is a ceremonial farewell held for all the participating deities before they leave the ground.
Interestingly, all through the proceedings, Lord Vadakkumnathan is a silent observer. The temple, where the festival takes place in such a grandiose manner, does not participate as all the deities are believed to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva as Vadakkumnathan. More than thousand years old, the Vadakkumnathan temple is believed to have been consecrated by Sage Parashurama. The legend goes that Parashurama performed a mahayagna to atone for his sins of exterminating the Kshatriyas. He then prayed to Varuna for a new place to do penance. He was granted an axe by Varuna who asked him to choose the place where the axe fell as the appropriate one for doing tapasya. Parashurama threw the axe into the sea and the land of Kerala came forth from the waters of the sea. Parashurama considered Lord Shiva as his Guru and requested the Lord to bless his new abode. Lord Shiva kindly agreed and manifested on the new land along with his consort, Goddess Parvati and blessed the entire land. The place where Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati manifested is the place where the present temple of Vadakkumnathan stands. This is the reason that Vadakkumnathan is known as the first temple of Kerala, as all the other temples were consecrated after this.
All roads lead to Thekkenkadu ground on Pooram day. The crowd is so huge that one cannot even move an inch from where one stands. The entire population of Thrissur and nearby areas, the foreign tourists, dignitaries and politicians are all there on the ground. But there is no difference in the effect the celebrations have on them. The conglomeration of people present as awestruck spectators are held spellbound in fascination by the magnificent festivities. Those in the know of things make it a point to come early to catch a space which will give them a vantage viewpoint.
It goes without saying that shops surrounding the Swaraj Ground have brisk business for a week pre and post the Pooram festival. With the influx of foreign and domestic tourists, the shopkeepers display a variety of local handicrafts, handloom, idols and fancy articles made of Bell metal, the speciality of this region. Lamps, urns and other typical Kerala stuff are also available in plenty. But the maximum crowd can be seen for buying the musical instruments like Chenda, Edakkal or Kombu, which are used in the Panchavadhyam. Hotels in the vicinity are overbooked. Unless you have booked your rooms months in advance it is very difficult to find accommodation during the Pooram week. The hotel rates too double or treble depending on the capacity and closeness to the venue.
While at Thrissur, the tourist can take some time to explore the Shakthan Tamburan museum, which was a palace earlier. There is a wonderful display of old coins, idols and artefacts used by the erstwhile royal families. A beautiful heritage garden adjoining the palace has the tomb of Shakthan Tamburan, believed to be the architect of modern Thrissur. Originally named as Raja Rama Varma, but popularly known as Shaktan Tamburan, he was the one who initiated the celebration of the first Thrissur Pooram festival. Entry timings to the palace are 10 am to 1 pm and 2 to 4.30 pm. There is a nominal entry fee. There are two more museums, the Archeological Museum and the State Museum Complex, which are worth a visit. The Archeological Museum displays prehistoric stones, urns and tribal memorial stones, while the State Museum Complex has a Zoo, an Art Gallery and a National History Museum. Both are open from 10 am to 5 pm.