POORAM: The Temple Festival

POORAM

The Temple Festival

Pooram refers to temple festivals that represent the heart and soul of Kerala. Entire regions come to life as the streets are decked up to celebrate these events. Caparisoned elephants take to the streets and the roars of the approving crowds can be heard far and wide. Folk art performances are held and the area around the temple turns into a virtual carnival. The colours on display are mesmerizing and people religiously await these Pooram festivals annually. Listed below are some of the most prominent temple festivals in the state. Each of them have unique rituals and traditions associated with them, and should be experienced firsthand to truly appreciate their grandeur and beauty. Pooram was first held in Trichur during the reign of Sakthan Thampuran, who was the Raja of Kochi. Thampuran renovated the Vadakkunathan Temple complex, which includes not only the main temple dedicated to Shiva but two smaller temples dedicated to the sister goddesses Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi. He also cut down the trees surrounding the temples to create the Thekkinkadu Maidan, the huge open space named after the teak forest that once stood there and the main venue for the spectacle of Pooram. The oldest pooram (temple festival) in all of Kerala, the Arattupuzha Pooram is held at the Sree Sastha Temple in Thrissur for a period of seven days each year. Believers say that at this ‘conclave’, all Gods and Goddesses gather during the time period of the Pooram. As many as 23 deities from different temples in Thrissur are brought here and worshipped which makes for a stunning visual in itself. A resplendent festival celebrated with a grand display of caparisoned elephants, dazzling parasols, and percussion music, the Thrissur Pooram is a magnificent spectacle merging the spiritual and cultural essence of Kerala. Celebrated in the Malayalam month of medam (April-May), the Thrissur Pooram is held at the Thekkinkadu Maidanam in Thrissur.

Considered to be the mother of all poorams, this yearly temple festival is organized with the participation of 10 temples (Paramekkavu, Thiruvambadi Kanimangalam, Karamucku, Laloor, Choorakottukara, Panamukkampally, Ayyanthole, Chembukkavu, Neythilakavu). The festival sports an enthralling line-up of vibrantly decked up elephants and is marked by the kudamattom ceremony. Involving swift and rhythmic changing of brightly coloured and sequined parasols, the kudamattom ceremony is one among the highlights and is a keenly watched event

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Elephants

Each temple participating in Pooram sends a contingent of elephants to accompany the image of its god or goddess. Smaller temples may send only three or four elephants, while the Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi temples send the largest contingents of fifteen elephants each. If a temple doesn’t own any elephants, they can usually be borrowed or hired, and it is considered a great honor for the elephant’s owner when his animal is asked to participate. Each elephant wears a nettipattam, which is a piece of cloth to which hundreds of gold pieces have been stitched, giving the overall effect of large sequins. What is even more impressive than the huge beasts’ willingness to wear this heavy decoration in the hot sun is the patience with which they stand in the temple grounds while surrounded by exploding fireworks and the sound of the chenda drums.

Pandimelam

The Pandimelam is a group of four instrumentalists who perform at Kerala’s temple festivals and play traditional music. Their instruments are the chenda, a cylindrical drum; the ilathalam, which is similar to cymbals; the kuzhal, a wind instrument that resembles a hollow pipe; and the kombu, a C-shaped trumpet made of brass or copper. The Chenda Melam, an orchestra of drums, also performs at Pooram, particularly during the parasol exchange.

Parasols

The parasols carried by the Brahmins during the elephant procession are a symbol of royalty. They are usually made out of patterned silk with silver pendants along the edge, and the colors range from red, purple, and orange to turquoise, black, and gold. In the ceremony known as Kudamattam, the Brahmins from one temple face those from the other temple and engage in a competition that involves each side exchanging parasols in time with the music provided by the Pandimelam. The spectacle of all these ceremonial umbrellas swaying and twirling is probably Pooram’s most unforgettable sight.

Another high point is the ilanjithara melam, a highly bewitching performance of traditional instruments which lifts the thousands gathered to a state of euphoria and bliss. Around 250 odd artistes participate in this traditional orchestra led by chenda artistes and the spirit is mirrored by the thousands of spectators who wave their hands in accordance to the rhythm generated by the chenda, kurumkuzhal, kombu and elathalam (traditional instruments of Kerala). The finale is marked by a grand fireworks show

The word Pooram means “meeting,” and the original purpose of the event was for the gods and goddesses of neighboring provinces to meet ceremonially on an annual basis. Today, the highlight of the festival occurs when two groups of fifteen elephants , one representing the Paramekkavu Temple and the other the Thiruvambadi Temple, meet face to face on the ground in front of the Vadakkunathan Temple. One of the elephants in each group carries the image of the temple’s deity, and all are caparisoned, which means they wear rich ornamental coverings that resemble chain mail. Three Brahmin priests sit atop each elephant, and in their hands are the symbols of royalty-yak-hair whisks with silver handles, circular fans made of peacock feathers, and brightly colored silk parasols which they wave to the rhythm of the music provided by the traditional instrumental group known as the Pandimelam. Other temples send elephants carrying deities to participate in the procession as well, and when all have made their way slowly through the streets and gathered at the Vadakkunathan Temple, there is a spectacular display of color and movement in which parasols are twirled and exchanged while the tempo of the music gradually increases from slow and majestic to a frenzy. The festival ends with fireworks that extend into the next morning and a farewell between the two goddess-carrying elephants, which link trunks before parting. The entire show takes about thirty hours.

Although Pooram is observed in many locations throughout Kerala, a state at the southwestern tip of India, the largest and most widely attended celebration is in Trichur (Thrissur), where thousands gather to see the “Pooram of all Poorams.” The events there center around the Vadakkunathan Temple, but the festival is not exclusively a Hindu one. Muslims and Christians play an active role in planning for Pooram, and virtually everyone turns out to see the Great Elephant March, for which the festival is world famous.