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trichur pilgrimage

Honouring the deities of Trichur

The small Kerala town of Trichur is physically dominated by the magnificent Vaddakunathan temple. Dedicated to Shiva in his manifestation as the Lord of the North, it crowns the center of a sprawling maidan (grounds) originally so thickly wooded that few dared venture off the beaten track leading to the temple. People were frightened not only of the dangerous men and wild beasts sheltering in the forest but of the dark trees and their lurking, bloodthirsty spirits. Everything changed in the late 18th century when, against the wishes of religious diehards who revered the trees as the locks of Shiva’s hair, the dynamic ruler Shaktan Thampuran ordered them to be felled. With the city safer and more accessible, the way was prepared for the Trichur Pooram, to houour Trichur’s deities and become one of India’s most spectacular festivals.

Thousands of years ago a mighty goddess resided under a tree that still stands (it is said) in what is now the compound of the Vaddakunathan temple. When Shiva’s devotees decided to enlarge his small shrine into a grand temple they moved the goddess, conceived of as his daughter, eastwards and down a slope to a temple of her own. She is there still, the Paramekkavu Devi. Her elder sister, the Thiruvambady Devi, resides in a temple a few furlongs to a temple now dedicated to Krishna. These sister goddess are than main participants of the Trichur Pooram.

The festival also honours six other goddesses and two gods – both called Ayyappa. One Ayyappa is said to be such a chronic catarrh sufferer that he cannot tolerate either the early morning dew or intense sunlight, making the timings of his processions awkward.

The day before Pooram – which falls either is late April or early May – sees the arrival of its stars: the great tusked bull elephants who will carry the deities. They lumber into town, huge yet strangely graceful. Although the smaller temples usually accompany their deity with four or six elephants, both the Paramekkavu and Thiruvambady goddesses are accompanied by fourteen; no-one else is permitted so many. Both temples own a few elephants and, for the Pooram, more are borrowed from the devotees. Others must be hired and an impartial list is compiled of the neighbourhood’s best tuskers for each temple to select, by ballot, one list. The Pooram sets high standards and owners consider it an honour if their elephants participate.

Every year the Thiruvambady and Paramekkavu temples send their elephants to the Pooram with new and costly ornaments. The broad head of each elephants is covered with a nettipattam, a large, fringed cloth onto which are sewn around 600 gold plated pieces of varying three Brahmins. Although one of them can sit to support a long stemmed silken parasol, the other two must stand precariously to wave, in time to the music, either a pair of heavy, silver-handled yak-hair whisks or a pair of circular peacock feather fans.

On Pooram day people are up and about early and well before dawn temples are crowded with devotees. Oil lamps flutter and glow and sanctums blaze with light as priests attend to the gods and goddesses. At six o’clock in the morning the Thiruambady head priest comes out of the sanctum carrying a small thidambu, a symbolic image of the goddess, which he places at the base of the great golden shield-like kolam resting on the proud neck of a kneeling tusker. As the elephant rises majestically to his feet, people prostrate, themselves and it is impossible to imagine that he is unaware of the divinity of his mount.

During the next few hours’ similar rituals take place in the other temples. A strict timetable governs the movements of the various parties and dictates when they leave their respective temples. The processions, all terminating at the Vaddakunathan temple, proceed in stages. The streets are crowded and the elephants move at a snail’s pace. Families line the routes to make offerings to the passing deities and throw great handfuls of flowers up at the golden kolams.

The elephants are preceded by the panchavadyam (five musical instruments), players whose music is considered both divine and a must at almost all central Kerala festivals. On Pooram day the rolling beat of drums and accompanying horns and cymbals can be heard all over Trichur.

One day one, according to their timetable, the various deities arrive at the great peepul tree outside the Vadakunathan temple and then disperse. The exception is the Thiruvambady party which lines up with, for the first time, 15 elephants. Their panchavadyam ebds and a new set of musicians start to play a melam in which the chief instrument is Kerala’s fantastic drum, the chenda. More or less simultaneously, down at the Paramekkavu temple, devotees greet the first appearance of their goddess. She emerges mounted on a majestic tusker and, accompanied by another fourteen, receives the obeisances of a vast crowd. The elephants assemble outside her temple, their might and beauty enhanced by the thundering music of pandi-melam which, despite the hot, burning sun, is played by drummers who pound away in, strict and energetic unison.

Eventually, and very slowly, the Paramekkavu party makes it way up and into the compound of the Vaddakunathan temple, there to assemble before the Elanji tree under which it is said the Paramekkavu Devi once lived. For the next two hours men and gods are treated to a musical feast – the Elajithara melam. The Thiruvambady’s own melam ends in the late afternoon, just after the Paramekkavu’s. The Paramekkavu party moves out into the maidan and down to the open space road where they turn and face the temple’s southern gateway, some 400 metres away. The crowd by then has swelled to mammoth proportions and humanity perches, often precariously, wherever it can find a toehold.

As the Paramekkavu tuskers assemble those of the Thiruvambady enter Vaddakunathan’s western gateway, make a round of the temple and emerge, one by one, on the southern side. The last one out is the deity-carrying elephant, the late afternoon sun glinting on his ornaments as he passes under the great arch. He carries his majesty lightly as he strides into the center of 14 waiting elephants. It is time for the koodikazheha, the changing of the umbrellas. Both parties have, standing behind their elephants, a forest of richly coloured, folded umbrellas. A set is passed up to the men on the elephants and unfurled; immediately the other side does the same. The crowd ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ as each silken set reveals its gleaming, swirling colours. The end of this highly competitive display is marked by the dying sun bathing the maidan in a magical, golden light and darkness falls swiftly as the two parties disperse to their respective temples.

Late at night the daytime processions are repeated by all parties and all over Trichur panchavadyam music fills the hot night air as elephants move regally through the still-crowded streets. Their way is lit by huge flaming torches, giving the processions a lavish, fairy-tale like splendour.

Suddenly the panchavadyam stops and a great hush falls, followed by a humming ripple of anticipation as a pink flare arches and glows its way into the dark sky. A tongue of fire snakes an eager path down a line of crackers and the crowd’s excited cheers are drowned in blinding explosions. The next 15 minutes are filled with explosions of such intensity that, for miles around, buildings shake and tremble. This great night-time spectacle is one of India’s greatest firework displays. Although, nowdays, the Thiruvambady and Paramekkavu temples unite to plan and discuss the Pooram, a traditional sense of rivalry still exists where the fireworks are concerned, and the details their displays are closely guarded secrets.

The last firework fades away as the early light of dawn creeps into the sky and fatigue that is almost tangible replaces the acrid haze of gunpowder. Exhaustion falls like rain into Trichur although the Pooram is not yet over. At eight o’clock the Thiruvambady and Paramekkavu elephants again assemble outside the Vaddakunathan temple. Three hours of magnificent drumming follow as the chendas of both parties play melam; the extraordinary musicians somehow summoning the necessary stamina to play with vigour and freshness. A noisy outburst of fireworks drowns the endings of the melam and signals the last Pooram ritual. The two deity carrying elephants circle the huge lamp outside the temple and then link trunks in a gesture of farewell. It is an intimate and touching end to the long hours of pageantry that so fittingly honour the gods and goddesses of Trichur.

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