Among all the stunning South Indian states, I prefer Kerala and the main reason is the earthy magnitude of their festivals. Spectacular, larger than life and definitely more animated, Kerala’s festivals are more folksy, grounded, and people friendly than most religious celebrations in India. Awesome rituals, fascinating history, stunning costumes, and paraded folk dances make Kerala’s festivals such huge crowd pullers, that many travel itineraries are based on 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 in 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.
A bit about Thrissur, the base camp of the Pulikali tigers
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. I stumbled upon Thrissur while looking for travel information on Pulikali and this festival was on my wishlist for a very long time.
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Pulikali is nearly 200 years old folk art
Now if folksy, vibrant and immensely photogenic festivals are what make you wanderlust, then mark your calendar for the Pulikali dates. This fun, frolicking tiger dance is a one of a kind celebration and it takes body painting to a whole new level. 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 the 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 Kerala‘s biggest festival and the king 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.
My Pulikali trip started with an elephant broker
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 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 quite a dandy man 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 like to be an elephant dealer in everyday life.
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And then the pot-bellied adorable Pulikali tigers happened
Just when I thought that I had met the fanciest 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 airhead as the Thrissur Pulikali 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 starts from a day ahead when a 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.
The Pulikali tiger preparation
However, all the fun comes with intense patience and a tediously long pre Pulikali preparation 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.
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The Pulikali tigers dance to the beat of traditional udukku drums
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. On the day of my visit, the festival started around 0630 pm (post sunset) and the 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.
Plan ahead as the Pulikali big cats are immensely popular
In anticipation of the swelling crowd, Anay hoisted me up a vantage point and from there I could see an unending sea of blackheads stretching in both directions. Pulikali indeed is extremely popular and the local 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 of 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.
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Pulikali parties harder as the night wears on
The parade continued till 9 at night and the dancers glistened with sweat, paint, and excitement under the harsh floodlights. 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 Pulikali 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 tigers.
PULIKALI TRAVEL TIP
When – Dates of Pulikali are based as per Hindu calendar and change every year. It is advisable to keep a track of the event date through the official Kerala Tourism Board page It is the most reliable source of the festival dates. The performance takes place around Swaraj Ground in Thrissur and usually starts after sundown.
What Time – 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.
Things to Remember – 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