This essay is part of our 'a summer without...' series. Read more here.

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EVERY YEAR, as the mercury rises to dizzying heights, hordes of people descend on Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, to witness Thrissur Pooram — a spectacular festival of colour, light and sound, flags and festoons, caparisoned elephants and breathtaking pyrotechnics.

The genesis of the Pooram can be traced back to the reign of Sakthan Thampuran, the erstwhile Maharaja of Kochi, who organised the post-harvest festival almost two centuries ago to cow down an insolent section of the priestly aristocracy. Another legend goes that he ordered a separate post- harvest festival in the Pooram of Arattupuzha, another temple in the neighbouring area, owing to rains. To facilitate the celebration, a vast expanse of dense teak forest around Vadakkunnathan Temple in Thrissur was cleared at his behest.

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Above image: A durbar of caparisoned elephants

For me, the Thrissur Pooram brings back childhood memories of friends and relatives arriving in droves from near and far at our ancestral home for the much-awaited festival. Attired in our best, we used to be chaperoned amidst jostling crowds to have a peek at the draped festoons, welcome arches, decorated pandals, illuminated temples, buildings and also the ‘sample vedikkettu’ (a trial display of fireworks) two days prior to the actual event. The ritual also included a visit to the Pooram Exhibition and chamayam, which is the display of traditional decorative items, ornaments and freshly made umbrellas along with many other paraphernalia used in the Pooram procession.

One has to be here during Pooram to experience the fierce pride of Trichurians in their glorious heritage, which they jealously guard. Gripped by Pooram fever, the conversation of the festival’s fans revolves around only elephants, music, colour and rhythm, decorations, fireworks relating to the festival. When we would stroll around the Swaraj Round, we’d hear their endless discussions and arguments over the beauty, majesty and size of the black-eyed, black-haired beauties that the contending parties mustered for the festival.

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Seen here: Caparisoned elephants lined up outside Parmekkavu Temple

The Pooram consists of elephant processions taken out from various temples in the vicinity of Thrissur. All the temple processions congregate at the sprawling Pooram Maidan around the 1,500-year old Vadakkunnathan Temple to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the temple, who is supposed to host the other deities participating in the festival. It is the layout of the main temple, the sprawling Pooram Maidan (or Thekkinkadu Maidan) and the circular road around it that enhances the magnificence of the festival.

The congregation of processions of richly caparisoned elephants is accompanied by chenda melam (an orchestra of percussion instruments) or panchavadyam (a percussion ensemble of five instruments) from various temples in the vicinity of Thrissur. The most impressive processions are those from the Krishna Temple at Thiruvambadi and the Devi Temple at Paramekkavu, both situated in the heart of the town itself, and whose respective groups nurse a friendly rivalry.

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Kudamattom, the parasol exchange at twilight — the highlight of Thrissur Pooram

The essence of the festival is the veneration of Lord Vadakkunnathan by the deities of Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu temples, and the processions starting from these two temples deserve special mention. Each comprises specially selected elephants whose foreheads sport gold nettippattoms (a large cloth onto which are sewn around 600 gold-plated pieces of varying sizes) and the central elephant carrying the presiding deity of the temple to which the festival is dedicated. The gold-plated head dress of the elephants together with the multi-coloured silk parasols, circular peacock feather fans and swinging yak tail bunches constitute the Pooram’s most enduring image.

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In this photo: Chamayam, a display of decorative items used in Thrissur Pooram

The festival is a 30-hour-long show, starting at 6 am on the Pooram day and ending at noon on the following day. The processions of the minor participants converge on Pooram Maidan around the main temple between 6 am and noon on the festival day.

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Above photo: Orchestra ensemble of percussion instruments

The procession from the Paramekkavu temple begins by noon, as the lead elephant carrying the sacred thidambu of Paramekkavu Bhagavathy emerges out of the temple and assembles outside with 14 other elephants. This is followed by the thundering music of the pandi melam by drummers who pound away in energetic unison. By 2 pm, the procession from Paramekkavu enters the Vadakkunnathan Temple and takes its stand under the elanji tree where the renowned elanjithara melam is conducted. It is said that the sound vibration from the drum performance causes even the leaves to fall from the sacred tree. With 200 percussion artistes playing on different instruments, the elanjithara melam remains unrivalled in temple festivals. Entranced by the vibrant, pulsating orchestra, Pooram enthusiasts dance deliriously.

The highlight of the festival is the kudamattam or the parasol exchange where 15 elephants from each devasom face each other and exchange parasols in front of the temple in the Thekkinkadu Maidan. The silk umbrellas held atop the array of gaily decorated elephants keep changing, one brilliant colour following another as rival temple groups compete with each other in waving the yak tail bunches and feathers atop the elephants, in unison with the beating of drums.

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In this image: Sublime levels of sound

As darkness descends, the night processions return to their respective temples and later re-join at the Maidan. The stage is set for the vedikettu, the spectacular pyrotechnics that start at dawn, creating a wonderland of light and sound, colour and brilliance. The rituals continue until noon the next day, when elephants lining up on each side outside the Vadakkunnathan Temple and the drumming begins once more, only to be drowned out by the last of the fireworks, signaling the end of the melam.

With the cancellation of the much-awaited festival in the wake of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown — widely said to be a first in 58 years — Trichurians who have an emotional connect with the festival are a disappointed lot. “A summer without Pooram is difficult to come to terms with,” says M Madhavankutty, a member of the festival’s organising committee. “It will have a severe economic impact on the artisans involved in making umbrellas, fireworks and ornaments for the elephants; the mahouts, hoteliers and business community; the exhibitors at the Pooram Expo and vendors in the town,” adds Unnikrishnan, a Pooram regular.

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Seen here: Vedikettu or fireworks in Thekinkad Maidan

“It will be tough times ahead for the artistes who are dependent on festivals. We have requested the state government for a special financial package of Rs 1,000 a month, free rations, medicines and an interest-free loan of Rs 1 lakh  a year for the performing artistes,” Peruvanam Kutta Marar, chenda maestro of Kerala, notes.

While Trichurians will miss the swirling colours, din and fervour of the Pooram, the captive jumbos are perhaps the happiest — rejoicing their vacation sans parades, temple festivals and the high sound decibels.

— All photos courtesy Susheela Nair