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Tiger tiger burning bright

Tiger tiger burning bright

Culture Peeps, Dances, India, Kerala, South, Travel Extras

Kerala is one of the most visited states in India but strangely, my foray into God’s Own Country happened quite late in my career as a solo nomad. Although I have been visiting Kochi/Cochin for years because of flying, not so pleasant stories about Kerala or its residents from my Tamil Brahmin father deterred me from exploring this beautiful southern state. While Tamil Nadu is the ancient seat of the proud Dravidian culture in India, it is Kerala which is undoubtedly more beautiful, livelier and easy going.

I personally prefer Kerala over Tamil Nadu and the main reason of my deflection is the magnitude of the state festivals. Spectacular, larger than life and definitely more animated, Kerala’s festivals are more folksy, earthy and people friendly than its neighbour’s celebrations. Awesome rituals, fascinating history, stunning costumes and folk dance like parades make Kerala’s festivals huge crowd pullers and often travel itineraries are based around them.

Boat races, Theyyam, Onam, Puram etc are some of Kerala’s biggest celebrations and I luckily happened to be there during the festival season. Pulikali or the famous tiger dance of Thrissur was scheduled to happen a day after my arrival into Cochin and my kind Keralite host rushed around making inquiries for me. A kind, generous man, my host was a gentleman personified and represented the state’s amazing hospitality.

Thrissur or Trichur (as it is known in its anglicized version) is around 74 kilometers away from Cochin and is Kerala’s cultural capital. Famous for many festivals (the most important one being Thrissur Puram in April-May) Thrissur is a busy, nondescript temple town. It has a rich history of being ruled by powerful rulers like Tipu Sultan of Mysore and Zamorin of Kozhikode and due to its close proximity to the trade route of Palghat Gap, had always been an important commercial hub.

Pulikali was my 1st taste of Kerala’s stupendous festivals and it left me wanting for more. Although mentioned as a festival in my post, Pulikali is actually a folk art performed by artists during the annual harvest festival of Onam. Literally meaning “Tiger Play” (Puli=Tiger and Kali=Play in Malayalam language), this art is nearly 200 years old. Initiated by the king of Cochin, Raja Rama Verma, Pulikali was introduced to represent the wild and brave spirit of his forces. Onam is the state’s biggest festival and he wanted to celebrate the 4th day of Onam by showing off the might of his soldiers. Thus Pulikali or the Tiger Dance was born and it became so popular that even the Muslim soldiers of the British cantonment stationed in Thrissur celebrated it with great fervour.

Now, while I do like my men to be fancy, nothing had prepared me for the exoticism of my Pulikali experience. My host introduced me to a Thrissur local, who became my Pulikali guide and the parade of exotic men started from there. Anay, my Thrissur guide was an elephant broker by profession and while showing me around his city, made multi million dollars deals over the phone. I had never even remotely known of such professions to be existing and stared at him open mouthed as he went about his wheeler dealer ways. Anay was a pretty dandy man too and wore the perfectly starched pristine white mundu (sort of sarong skirt), ironed linen shirt and a gold Cartier watch. We zipped around the dusty, busy narrow streets of Thrissur in his air conditioned car, waved at people in a really cool way and I discreetly wondered how it must be to live with an elephant dealer.

Just when I thought that I had met the most fancy man in my life, the adorable, pot bellied Thrissur tigers happened. Hot day and outrageously dressed men are a very potent combination and I giggled like an air head as the Thrissur tigers preened around me. Pulikali or tiger dance involves frolicking, fat men dressed as tigers and the performers go through an intensive preparation for their delightfully bizarre performance. Anay claimed that their frolic usually start from a day ahead when copious amount of toddy (palm wine) is consumed and I guess to proudly display a 9 months pregnant male gut in public, serious fortification is very much needed.

However all the fun comes with intense patience and a tediously long pre Pulikali prep is required before the performance. First of all, the performers get rid of their body hair to create a smooth base for the tiger body painting. A mix of tempera powder and varnish is applied in several layers to create a 3D effect and bigger guts produce better tiger snouts. The entire process of prepping, layering, the details of which get intricate with each coat, drying and adding the final touches (jingling belted bells, masks, tongues, fangs etc) takes at least 9 hours and in a temperature of nearly 40 degrees Celsius, being a Pulikali tiger is definitely a lot of hard work.

Although not publicized, the Pulikali tigers come out after sunset and different troops parade around the Swaraj Ground, showing off their body paint and unique tiger-prey dance steps. Interesting floats also form a part of the parade and the crowd goes crazy over their beloved tigers. That day the festival started around 0630 pm (post sunset) and beating of traditional udukku drums heralded the arrival of the tigers. A thundering roar went through the crowd as the green, yellow, white, pink, purple, red and black tigers jiggled their bellies to the drum beats. It was one of the most bizarre and captivating sights I had ever seen and never before had I found pot bellied painted men so appealing.

In anticipation of the swelling crowd, Anay had hoisted me up a vantage point and from there I could see unending sea of black heads stretching in both directions. Pulikali indeed is extremely popular and the police struggled to keep the surging crowd from joining their beloved performers in their dance. Every year the Pulikali Co-ordination Committee organizes the festival at the same venue (Swaraj Ground, Thrissur) and the unified council has done an excellent job in propagating the folk art among the youth. The best performing troupe gets a hefty cash prize and the winner is judged on the basis of best body paint detailing, interesting float and dance steps.

The parade continued till 9 at night and the dancers glistened with sweat, paint and excitement under harsh flood lights. The music became faster, dance steps rowdier and bellies jiggled more furiously as the night wore on and I found it hard to leave the lovable tigers behind. It was only during my long drive back to Cochin that I realized how much I had ignored Anay, the exotic elephant broker because of my tiger bewitchment. It was a hard call to choose between him and the painted men, but I had fallen hopelessly for the eye of the Pulikali tiger.

TRAVEL TIP – Dates of Pulikali are based as per Hindu calender and change every year. It is advisable to keep a track of the event date through https://www.keralatourism.org/event/pulikali/40. This is the official Kerala Tourism Board page and is the most reliable source of the festival dates. The performance takes place around Swaraj Ground in Thrissur and usually starts after sundown.

Arriving into Thrissur at 5 pm is good enough to enjoy the event at the cost of not getting bored. Apart from the Vadakummnatham Temple, Thrissur hardly has anything to offer and it takes nearly 2 hours to reach there from Cochin. If arriving by public transport, it makes sense to leave a bit early as the buses get extremely crowded with returning revelers.

The most spectacular of Kerala’s festivals Thrissur Puram is simply mind blowing due to its richness of rituals, elephant round up and performances. It is held every year around April-May and prior hotel booking is advisable as it is a huge crowd puller.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE

South India was
South India was
Like another planet for me
Like another planet for me
And while I was aware
And while I was aware
Of its cultural difference
Of its cultural difference
With the rest of India
With the rest of India
Nothing had prepared me
Nothing had prepared me
For the colourfully
For the colourful
Pulikali Tigers
Pulikali Tigers
Colourful
Colourful
Bizarre
Bizarre
And extremely popular
And extremely popular
It was a real kitty party
It was a real big kitty party
A real carnival
A real carnival
It drew people
It drew people
From far and wide
From far and wide
Irrespective of
Irrespective of
Caste
Caste
Religion
Religion
Colour
Colour
And age
And age
I loved its spirit
I loved its spirit
Its bizarre boldness
Its bizarre boldness
And fell in love
And fell in love with its performers
With the big cats of Thrissur
Respect came easily for the artists
For it was hard being a Pulikali tiger
For it was hard being a Pulikali tiger

About the author

Hi! I am Svetlana, a cloud gypsy, a story teller and a Maverickbird. A mother, writer, entrepreneur, traveler, foodie and an animal lover, I am a Super girl from India.

24 Comments

  1. worldjourneysdiscover
    September 20, 2014 at 8:16 pm
    Reply

    Kerala is one place I really want to visit in India that I havent yet. Love the tigers drawn onto the bellies. Suddenly I’m worried my belly isn’t big enough! way to be proud of a big belly! I like it! Buying the paint tomorrow

    • maverickbird
      September 20, 2014 at 8:19 pm

      You will love Kerala. Glad that my post inspired you. You could also try painting a lion or a a bear perhaps. Please do share your tiger/lion/bear belly photo.. Lol

  2. TraveLusts
    September 22, 2014 at 11:56 am
    Reply

    Well captured….

  3. Ravish Mani
    September 22, 2014 at 4:40 pm
    Reply

    Awesome paintings Svetlana 🙂

    • maverickbird
      September 22, 2014 at 6:56 pm

      Thank you very much. I love how you used the word paintings.

  4. Abhay Singh
    September 22, 2014 at 4:48 pm
    Reply

    Hi, Nice images,well captured….

  5. abhiray59
    September 22, 2014 at 5:53 pm
    Reply

    Beautiful photography as usual. I was hoping to see tiger in the wild. Tiger mask on big belly was a climb down.

    • maverickbird
      September 22, 2014 at 6:57 pm

      Ha Ha..Thank you. These tigers were wild alright, high on toddy though.

  6. Nozzer Pardiwala
    September 22, 2014 at 11:14 pm
    Reply

    Always visualized kerala with backwaters houseboat and so on but yo have captured glimpses of entirely different plane .

    • maverickbird
      September 22, 2014 at 11:18 pm

      Thank you. Kerala is amazingly diverse

  7. roohibhatnagarr
    September 23, 2014 at 12:12 am
    Reply

    wow.. what beautiful body art and what a creative portrayal of pot belly.. lol.. amazing pictures..

    • maverickbird
      September 23, 2014 at 12:28 am

      Thank you. The pot belly tigers are amazing aren’t they?

  8. Srilakshmi Nair
    September 23, 2014 at 1:09 am
    Reply

    You really captured the beauty of Kerala. It really is a deep dive into a rich, diverse, old culture containing colors and festivals that go beyond the familiar spectrum. Not crazy about toddy though…:)

    • maverickbird
      September 23, 2014 at 1:11 am

      Thank you. Kerala is beautifully multi layered and has tons of intrepid jewels.

  9. shekharpriyashi
    September 23, 2014 at 1:14 pm
    Reply

    Incredible Art… Thank you svetlana for bringing us such a nice article….:)

    • maverickbird
      September 23, 2014 at 3:49 pm

      You are welcome
      Thank you for your kind words.

  10. Anusia
    September 26, 2014 at 10:12 am
    Reply

    Hey, Thanks for this beautiful post. I dint have any idea regarding this tiger festival. This such a big festival of Kerala which I can guess from the pictures. The pictures taken are so bright and clear.

    • maverickbird
      September 26, 2014 at 10:13 am

      Thank you. Glad that you liked the post.

  11. sb2711
    September 26, 2014 at 11:34 am
    Reply

    I have seen their video on TV. Nothing like it. 🙂

    • maverickbird
      September 26, 2014 at 11:37 am

      Yes Pulikali tigers are quite awesome

  12. Ganesh Swamy
    December 31, 2016 at 5:56 am
    Reply

    I’m from Thrissur myself. Ma’m the photographs you captured are really nice. Really good article. Take it from the mouth of someone who lives at the place you wrote about. Thank you for writing about Thrissur. Myself is a hotel owner, and so I’d like to invite you to stay in my establ;ishment next time you come by Thrissur.

    • maverickbird
      December 31, 2016 at 1:35 pm

      Thank you very much.I am happy that you liked my take on your home town. Will love to be your guest next time I visit Thrissur.

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