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March 17, 2008

A Matter Of Roots

Text by Anita Nair

While other festivals have to do with personal prosperity and family reunions, the pooram or temple festival is about community and how deep your roots are sunk into Kerala, describes Anita Nair

Almost every year, in the early half of February, I make up an excuse to head home to my ancestral  village Mundakotukurussi, in Kerala. It isn’t as if there is an anniversary or birthday to celebrate. In fact, if I had to ascribe a reason, I would say it is a matter of roots.

Although many Malayalis dislike what’s become of Kerala today – the power wielded by Gulf money, the flourishing unions, the politically conscious workers and corruption in almost every sphere, very seldom will you discover a Keralite who can resist the temptation to go back home. But, the acid test for the born-and-bred-in-Kerala-but-living-elsewhere-now Malayali is the pooram. For while the other festivals have to do with personal prosperity and family reunions, the pooram or temple festival is about community and how deep your roots are sunk into Kerala.

Mountains of bananas, hillocks of paddy, yards of jasmine, rows of glinting glass bangles, shimmery satin ribbons in rainbow hues, trinkets and toys. The call of the vendors. The mouth-watering aroma of murukku. The beat of the drums. The stamp of feet. The acrid smell of gunpowder. This is the lure of the pooram.

There was a certain palpable excitement as we waited anxiously. A heap of paddy in para (a wooden keg) and a lit bronze lamp were kept ready. As the distant throb of drums came closer, the children scampered down the mango trees and rushed to hide behind the adults. The gate creaked open and the Thira and Poothan sauntered in with a jangling and clanging that would awaken even the dead. I felt the familiar feel of dread wash over me as the grotesque masks came closer. These are the faces nightmares are made of. The Thira and Poothan are symbolic representations of the goddess who visits each home to chase away evil spirits and bless the family.

The drummers began to beat their chendas, cymbals clashed and the Thira and Poothan began to dance. With the vigour of supernatural beings, they twisted and turned, gyrated and twirled, raising clouds of dust with their swirling feet. When they stopped abruptly, there was an eerie silence. Until once again the drums came alive with a pagan rhythm. In the olden days, measures of paddy were given as an offering of thanks, today it is money. The Poothan tucked the cash into the sash at his waist and turned to go to the next house to announce the coming of the pooram.

In reality, the pooram had begun 29 days earlier, when the pooram-mula (pole) was sunk into the ground. Only when the paddy is brought into the temple and the red flag hoisted at the entrance of the temple, is the pooram officially declared on. Then on, it is 30 days of non-stop excitement. The pooram ground sees the blossoming of many art forms – be it classical, folk or contemporary. From Kathakali to Carnatic vocal concerts to Panchavadyam to Chakyarkoothu to Ottamthullal to mimicry to ballet, each evening is an experience that the village folk gather to watch.

We walked towards the pooram ground. The road was filled with people to-ing and fro-ing from the temple. The Kunnathkavu temple appeals to my taste as it has no deity. Instead, there is a pedestal and mirror and one is free to imagine the face of the goddess who is a Kali manifestation. It was late in the afternoon, and the grim Anangan Mountains seemed to frown down from the horizon. The pooram ground, in contrast, was a riot of colour. Moplah girls with their almost fluorescent veils bring alive the brown land. A Moplah girl came running towards us with a fluff of cotton candy in one hand and a glittering paper windmill in another. One of the nicest features of the pooram in a small temple is the communal harmony it creates. Never mind what God you believe in, at the pooram ground every one belongs to one fraternity.

On the 30th day is the day of the oxen or the kaala-vela. One of the typical sights of a North Kerala temple pooram is the kaala (oxen). Made of straw, built around a bamboo frame and dressed ostentatiously with sequins, mirrors and brilliant colours, each pair is created to outshine the rest. More than 20 kaalas come from the various villages and wait at the kaala parambu (oxen ground). We walked around each pair examining its exquisite handiwork. When we stopped to admire one pair, the group responsible for it preened in delight. For the moment they had scored a victory over the rest. Later in the evening we watched the velichappad throw rice at the kaalas and lead them into the temple grounds. After each pair had paid homage to the goddess, it retreated, moving in reverse so as not to offend the goddess by exhibiting its rear.

Then started the pyrotechnics. Rows of iron cylinders are kept on the ground filled with gunpowder. As one is lit, the spark from it sets the other one off. The explosions rock the ground, fill your ears and vibrate within your heart. By the time you recover from it, the drums begin their thunderous music again.

While much has been said and written about the grandeur on display and the pageantry of the Trichur Pooram, it is the pooram of his or her own temple that a Malayali relates to. For while the former does a great deal to enhance tourist traffic to Kerala, nothing can match the pooram of your own village.

The older folk remember poorams from the past and as always compare one just over to those in their memories. As for me, I felt a deep sense of peace. A tranquility born of the knowledge that I was on familiar ground. For once, I had all the answers to who I was and am. And that was the blessing that the pooram bestowed upon the faithful.

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