Did you know that there is one day in the year when pot-bellied men are all the rage? And there’s more. Pot-bellied men, sporting tiger body-paint, dancing around the streets. No, I’m not making fun of you. It’s Pulikkali, our latest Festival Friday instalment.
Boys, before you reach for the pies, and the body paint, read on. Pulikkali is not a festival as such, it’s part of one. Pulikkali is a folk art, where dancers (usually middle aged, portly men) painted like tigers parade around the streets of Thrissur, a town in the state of Kerala.
Pulikkali is one of the celebrations taking place during Onam, the state’s most important festival. Last week’s Festival Friday post was also dedicated to Onam and the tragic life of temple elephants. Pulikkali was nothing of the sort. It is, or at least appeared to be, a day of total, exclusive, unadulterated fun.
Normally, whenever starting a festival piece, I start going on and on writing how amazing it was, mincing words on the deep and meaningful emotions stirred by witnessing traditions that date back millennia. Once again, Pulikkali was nothing of the sort. It was a day of fun, of joy in the streets.
And it doesn’t even date back to the dawn of times, having been created only two hundred years ago. Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran, maharaja of Cochin between 1790 ans 1805, is credited with having invented Pulikkali. He wanted to introduce a new type of performance, part dance part street art, to reflect the macho power of the army. Pulikkali was born. On the fourth day of Onam, groups of men take to the streets in tiger body paint, performing a dance that is reminiscent of tiger hunting.
Nowadays Pulikkali takes place every year in Thrissur, where Pulikkali troupes from all the state gather to show their skills. In the early days, performers wore paint all over, including their faces. Nowadays, they wear tiger masks, complete with fangs, whiskers and long rubbery tongues.
The body paint is just stunning, a concoction of tempera powder and varnish, thick and glossy, with wonderful colourful hues; not only yellow, orange and brown, but green, purple and pink as well. Artists are recruited especially to apply the tiger paint, a process that starts in the wee hours of the morning.
On the day, dozens of Pulikkali troupes gather at Swaraj Round, a large square in the heart of Thrissur. Parades start in the afternoon, and continue until sundown, accompanied by traditional instruments. It was great fun to follow the parade, and the atmosphere was nothing but joy and merriment.
Very few Western tourists were there; we counted no more than half a dozen. Thanks to our big DSLR cameras we were taken for members of the press, and given free access to all sections of the parade, allowing us to get some great shots.
We can’t recommend Pulikkali highly enough. Parading down the streets, dancing with the locals, watching wobbly bellies in tiger stripes bounce up and down, was just terrific fun. It was a battle of the bellies; the bigger, the wobblier, the better. Save for some young boys, probably the baby tigers, opening the parade with skips and cartwheels.
We thought Pulikkali was one of the biggest and most famous celebrations in Kerala, and its days would be all but numbered. Then we came across this Times of India article, mentioning that Pulikkali has been declining for years. It’s just becoming too expensive, apparently. The jolly pot-bellied men aren’t villagers, but professional performers, each of them with 15,000 rupees price tag for a two-hour dance. With an average number of 40 men for each troupe, prices do add up quickly.
After researching the matter of elephant parades, learning that Pulikkali’s days might be numbered because of money made me feel really sad. Every year, hundreds of elephants suffer incredible torture during festivals around the state, and an incredible amount of money changes hands. Yet, a festival that is just pure fun, and hurts nobody, is in danger of disappearing. I just wish it won’t happen.