Thursday, May 12, 2011

Keralafornia One: Thrissur

Thrissur is a small town towards the center of Kerala which is like most other small towns all over India - a central bus station that forms the core of the town, surrounded by expanding ripples of markets, hotels, and residences in a maze of twisting, narrow streets, all circling and bunching around key parks, temples, and offices, filled with pedestrians, cycles, two-wheelers, cars, and assorted animals churning in the buzzed brownian motion of daily life under the summer sun and dust. 
Today, that changes. 

Today is Thrissur Pooram, the Festival of the Elephants. Today, dozens of elephants, dressed and decorated up to the nines in the gold and colored finery of nettipattam (decorative golden headdresses), beautifully crafted kolam, decorative bells and ornaments, will march through the town. They come from all around, from elephant farms, neighborhoods, other temples, etc, and parade to the Vadakkunathan Temple in the center of the town to complete in what can only be described as a highly stylized, noisy, and symbolic Yo Momma contest. With Elephants. 

What happens is, there's a face-off of two lines of elephants in front of the temple; the mahouts climb up, and start a display of umbrellas. You start small and low-key (by Thrissur Pooram standards, which means something that could land spacecraft during a snowstorm) and do a symbolic, dancing presentation. The the other side takes it's turn, makes it's move. Back to you. Each display has a meaning, a backstory, some significance, but you need a local guide and a lot of reading up about the cultural background of Kerala to understand what's happening. 

Sounds very civilized and interesting, doesn't it? Wait. Did I mention that the two lines of elephants are backed up by a double row of hysterical giant drums and a spectator crowd of at least a few hundred thousand? And they're all hysterically happy and hysterically drunk on coconut tadi (and I mean hysterically, falling-down-but-somehow-staggering-upright, bloodshot-eyes drunk)? The kind of drunk that happens when you abstain from all drink, evil activity, and evil thought for the better path of a month and today, at the culmination, all brakes are off and all the pent-up drunk erupts out. 

The crowd's rowdy, not particularly evil-intentioned; but what you need to watch out for are individuals inside the crowd, because today, you're on your own. So if you're new to the place, stay in a compact group and stick to each other. 

We made our way almost till within fifty feet of the elephant lines, where the girls and some of the guys stayed back and me and one other fellow guest (btw, we were in Kerala for a wedding) made it almost to the front, accompanied with a lot of happy camaraderie, hugs, and Malayali questions and suggestions, while we got progressively more light-headed in the haze of sweat and alcohol fumes that had replaced the atmosphere; the nearest you can imagine it is like a peak-hour Mumbai local where someone's kept a case of arak under every seat. 

Some time later, one group of elephants won, everyone cheered lustily (ok, even more lustily than before) and started to scatter through the streets. There's a kind of relaxedness in small towns in the evenings you'll never find in cities; you do have at least four more hours a day of leisure in small towns, with no traffic, where you can sit and chat and sip coffee and giant-coconut water. 

But it's not over yet; this was the official pooram, but there's another side to it that emerges at night. The same crowd, even more tanked up now, congregates at around 1 am around the Swaraj Maidan for the fireworks display. My advice is - as early as you can, maybe like in the day, get your car a reasonable distance from the area and park it. Hang onto that parking spot for dear life, because you're not going to get one anywhere close later. 

The fireworks are in the middle of the park, which is cordoned off and heavily guarded. Around the park there are illuminated, decorated pagodas with an elephant inside (as you'll see in the coming few posts, elephants are kind of Kerala's thing) and an even more humongous and smashed crowd. When the fireworks start going off, you can be miles away and still appreciate them; but if you haven't felt them up close and personal, right outside the park, you've not had the full Thrissur Pooram experience. 

First of all, they're not fireworks, they're demolition explosives. In the north, fireworks are supposed to be pretty and colorful, bright, glittery and genteel, where people can dress up in nice clothes and eat nice food and watch the colors and sparkles and go away and play cards afterwards. 
In Kerala, they go for volume

All you'll see of the fireworks is a flaming wall far away between the trees and fences; but the sound, man, the sound will reach out from the park, through the dark and the multitude, bypassing your ears and your brain and settle straight into the bone. Every rib, every joint will rattle in it's socket, your insides will be kneaded and mashed, and your skin will prickle in the heat that comes in percussive, no, concussive waves - there are no individual explosions, there's just a continuous wall, of something beyond sound, a boneshaker roar that lasts at it's peak over several minutes continuously and leaves you with PTSD and an inability to hear properly for a week (and not at all this night). It'll squeeze your guts, rattle your ribs, and blow your mind. 

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