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Thrissur Pooram 2017: After last year's Kollam tragedy, government takes sting out of festival

Thrissur Pooram is undoubtedly the mother of all temple festivals in Kerala. The sheer grandeur of the occasion with close to 100 caparisoned elephants and gigantic fire makes it one of a kind around the globe. But so does the dangers surrounding it.

Following the terrible tragedy that struck at Puttangal in Kollam in April 2016 in which 110 people died and 400 were injured at an early dawn fireworks display in a local temple, the Central government had put in some stringent measures to curb such dangerous fireworks in the state. This meant that in a state that has thousands of temple festivals every year, with each having its own fireworks display — often in competition with one another, the present order put the entire fireworks display business out of commission.

Thrissur Pooram, however is an exception. The organisers, the Thiruvambady and Paramekavu Temple Trusts, the primary participants of the Pooram had agreed to the conditions put forth by the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) in terms of the nature of the explosives, their content and the way they need to be used. PESO is a part of the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

R Venugopal who is deputy chief controller of explosives at PESO is the man heading the team that needs to ensure that Pooram’s fireworks do stay within safety norms. "There was immense political pressure and other lobbying to relax the norms throughout this year at various festivals in Kerala. But we have stuck to our task. I was the enquiry officer after the Puttangal tragedy which took 110 lives. The pain of the injured still roams in my mind. So we had put our foot down. But once Pooram organisers fell in line, we had no issues in allowing this," Venugopal told Firstpost.

Venugopal says that while safety is the primary concern and aim, his organisation did not want to hurt the 200-year-old tradition of Thrissur Pooram. Venugopal went on to give Firstpost a quick recap of how safety would be ensured while dealing with such explosives and the extensive process that goes into pulling off one of the largest fireworks displays.

For starters, a sample of every explosive — since they are the traditional ones — needs to be sent to PESO’s recognised laboratory at the Fireworks Research and Development Center (FRDC) at Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu where the chemicals involved and their various characteristics are analysed. Only those that fall under the safe category are approved. However, this time around, the Pooram organisers had sought approval for eight items based on the nature and size of the explosives. PESO has only cleared four of them.

In local parlance, 'six-inch amittu', 'four-inch Kuzhiminnal', 'six-centimetre (diameter) Gundu' and palm crackers are the only ones that will be showcased before fireworks aficionados in Thrissur in the wee hours of Saturday. PESO has also banned the use of dynamite and potassium chlorate in any form. Also the maximum decibel allowance has been reduced to under 125db.

Pooram under intense security cover

Matters do not end with the awarding of the much-awaited license. Rather, the bigger challenge starts in the implementation of the license. The lessons learned from the Puttangal tragedy are that despite a blanket ban, fireworks were used, taking away precious lives. After issuing the license, if the authorities do not keep a close eye, the disaster could be much worse.

But Venugopal says he has put in some of the best measures possible to guard lives at Thrissur. At the fireworks site, his team has been closely watching every movement for the past 10 days. Parts of the 'Thekkinkadu Maidanam' — the venue for the fireworks display — has been sealed off from the general public and for the first time ever, fire hydrant systems have been installed around the ground. Thirty-five such points with pipes that can pump high pressure water have been put in place. "Nowhere in the world are fireworks displays being conducted under such immense security cover, while at the same time we are allowing traditional materials to be used which are certainly more volatile than the modern fireworks," added Venugopal.

The state government meanwhile is working overtime to ensure that a safe Pooram is pulled off this year. VS Sunil Kumar, the agricultural minister who is also the MLA from Thrissur, says Pooram is a matter of pride for the state. "After the Puttangal tragedy, this government wanted to ensure that all safety measures were in place. At the same time, Pooram is like a state festival and we had to ensure that all the ingredients of the people’s festival come together without fail," Sunil Kumar told Firstpost.

Fireworks being assembled ahead of Pooram. Image procured by author

Fireworks being assembled ahead of Pooram. Image procured by author

Pooram without fireworks is unthinkable

For the people of Kerala and Thrissur in particular, Pooram is a part of their ethos. Every part of the Pooram, from the elephants to the rituals to the fireworks, is seen as a matter of pride by many.
The former Indian Football Captain IM Vijayan is among those people. Vijayan says that even during his playing days, he made sure that he came down to his hometown for Pooram. "I used to take a flight, attend Pooram and then go back and play a game the next day. Such is the spirit when it comes to the Pooram,"’ added Vijayan.

Vijayan also said that one cannot conceive of a Pooram without fireworks. It’s one of those things that brings people of all religion, caste or creed together, he adds. Vijayan is spot-on as Pooram had always been the festival of the masses rather than any particular community.

"As always, this time too, the Catholic Bishop of Thrissur came to greet us and offered to provide help for carrying out Pooram. So it is such festivities that bring everyone together and hence we should take steps to preserve every element of such occasions," Professor Madhavankutty, president, Thiruvambady Devaswom told Firstpost.

Then there is another set of people, the die-hard fans who will stop at nothing when it comes to celebrating the Pooram. A few in this category are unhappy about the restrictions placed on fireworks this year, saying it will bring down the brilliance of the show. A sample fireworks display, which is done every year, was held on Wednesday but not many were happy with it saying the intensity was much lower than the usual ones.

"The fireworks have their own place in Pooram. It’s for the thrill of the fireworks that most people wait for Pooram every year. You cannot think of restricting it at any cost," noted actor and writer Jayaraj Warrier told Firstpost.

The sample fireworks display ahead of the main event. Image procured by author

The sample fireworks display ahead of the main event. Image procured by author

Oscar Presence At The Pooram

Whether the fireworks will generate the usual fervor or not, the presence of one man is bound to. Oscar award-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty will be at the Pooram grounds to make an audio documentary on the festival. Pookutty who had won the Oscar award in 2008 for Slumdog Millionaire says it was a long-cherished dream to record Pooram.

"Pooram is perhaps one of the wonders of the world in terms of its visual and sound appeal. My aim here is to make an archive of the sounds of the Pooram, the instruments that are played in it, the sound of the elephants and the people, and finally the fireworks too. I hope to make it in such a manner that the Pooram appeals to even a blind person," said Pookutty.

Updated Date: May 05, 2017 11:38 AM

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