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There’s A Lot More To This Malayali Festival Than Food, Drinks And Elephants

There’s A Lot More To This Malayali Festival Than Food, Drinks And Elephants

Sometimes it takes years for us to get in touch with our roots.

We Malayalis have a raucous drinking culture. Any excuse to get sloshed, be it during various annual festivals, religious or cultural in nature. So much so that all major festivals in Kerala have been declared dry days. But that doesn’t stop us veterans from engaging in marathon drinking sessions.

Thrissur Pooram is one such occasion. A seven-day long festival with a main event that includes elephants, fireworks, ensemble music and traditional pursuits – spread over three days. It’s that time of the year when uncles gather around for some whiskey and gossip, cousins you meet once a year and iconic bars you head to in the neighbourhood. Sadly, most of them have shut shop due to prohibition and highway rules. Of course, friends, the demographic of which changes every year depending on who’s in town, inevitably join you wherever you are.

Elephants on the day of pooramElephants on the day of pooram

Since the big day extends to the wee hours of the following day, the drinking session is pretty much a 24-hour affair. By the end of it, your house will stink and resemble a bar in a sketchy neighbourhood.

I’ve attended this festival ever since I can remember, and after my move to Bombay in 2005, I made it a point to go for it every year during the peak summer when Kerala turns in to a sauna of sorts. One of the major reasons is a family tradition of giving free buttermilk to the public to beat the heat. For me it became an opportunity to score brownie points with karma and seal my good fortune for the year. As for my family, it’s a tradition that started more than a century ago and continues in all earnestness.

Wife’s first pooram and sambaram distributionWife’s first pooram and sambaram distribution

But there’s a lot more to Pooram than buttermilk, family lunches, drinking and fireworks, which I discovered this year. Thanks to a documentary I was shooting for 101india, I actually experienced the festival instead of drowning in a gin and vodka induced stupor that starts with cold beers to beat the 12 o’clock sun.

The special passes that I managed to acquire for the shoot got my crew and me up close with the festivities by roughing it out in the crowd. We had to wade through millions of people to experience some of the highlights. The huge crowds and the heat might have been the reason I skipped it all these years.

With the crew in front of Vadakunnathan templeWith the crew in front of Vadakunnathan temple

So here’s what I witnessed:
Pooram Para: This is a ritual when the elephant from your affiliated temple (Paramekkavu) makes home visits with an ensemble of temple musicians playing percussions and horns to bless the members of the family.

Para arrives at my housePara arrives at my house

Pooram Exhibition: This mammoth fair is a 40-50 day affair that coincides with Pooram and is organized by the two competing temples Paramekkavu and Thiruvambady. Picture ferris wheels, food stalls, theatre and music and hundreds of vendors selling souvenirs, clothes and household stuff.

Chamayam exhibitsChamayam exhibits

Sambaram or buttermilk distribution: It’s a refreshing concoction of yoghurt, ginger, chillis, coriander, salt and water that’s usually prepared by my family at a designated area adjacent to the Paramekkavu temple. The preparations start early morning and distribution continues till 1 pm.

Elephant coming out of the Thiruvambady templeElephant coming out of the Thiruvambady temple

Chamayam: A day before the main Pooram, the two temples display their golden elephant caparison (Nettipattam), elephant accoutrements (Chamayam), ornamental fan made of peacock feathers (Aalavattom), royal fan (Venchamarom), sacred bells and decorative umbrellas at their respective venues. It’s a night affair and people throng to see it usually waiting in queue for hours.


Fireworks: This is my favourite part of the festival, or rather, used to be my favourite part because it’s not the same as it was. The ferocity of its sound and display was legendary, but due to decibel level regulations the whole process has been toned down. For an outsider, it could still be an event to experience where the two temples show their firepower, but for a local like me it’s a “meh” factor now. The temples put up a sample fireworks display two days before Pooram while the main fireworks happen at 3 am and the pyrotechnics continue for an hour.

Some new experiences this year:
Illanjitharamelam: It was the first time I was up close to this musical ensemble extravaganza, which is also called Pandi Melam, organized by the Paramekkavu temple. The event took place in the courtyard of the ancient Vadakkunathan temple around which Thrissur city has been designed. The sheer number of musicians and instruments amounting to over 250 could easily make this four-hour gig one of the biggest music ensembles in the world.

Pooram festivities at Paramekkavu templePooram festivities at Paramekkavu temple

Kudamattom: One of the major attractions is the face-off between 30 elephants, 15 on each side, where the temples show off their artistic umbrellas specially crafted every year by artisans from across the state for the final showdown. This event usually attracts the most number of crowds and thanks to the shoot it was almost like being back stage.

Mother of all music festivalsMother of all music festivals

Shivsundar: Definitely a special moment to tag along with the show-stopper of Thiruvambady temple and one of the most celebrated elephants here, Shivsundar.

Show stopper ShivsundarShow stopper Shivsundar

Exploring my hometown: Shakthan Thampuran is the architect of modern Thrissur and the brain behind Thrissur Pooram designed in 1798. His palace is a stone’s throw away from my house and the last time I ventured there was during my school days when the palace was dilapidated and the property an untamed forest. But this time I was surprised to see the beautifully restored Dutch inspired architecture with a Zen garden around it. An ideal place to go get some peace of mind.

The pond next to Shakthan Thampuran palaceThe pond next to Shakthan Thampuran palace

You know how they tell you not to mix your drinks? Well, at Thrissur Pooram I learned you don't mix drinks with the festival at all. Unless you want to miss the best part like I did all my life. Maybe that’s true of life as well!



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of

By Mohan Kumar
Photographs by Mohan Kumar