Pulikali is also a part of the Onam celebration that is mainly happening in Thrissur. Its a traditional celebration where people paint themselves as tigers and dance. Every year, on the fourth day of Onam, it is conducted in Swaraj round, which can be called as the heart of Thrissur town.
Previously it was a Thrissur thing where many of the locals participated. Much like the Kummatti (I mentioned in the previous blog), there used to be small set of guys who dressed up as tiger and hunter who came to all the lanes of our houses. And on the fourth day of Onam, this grand parade of tigers happens in the town.
Later on, Kerala tourism started to sponsor the event and it is now a competition where different groups participate with many tiger-humans (all genders included) and it is accompanied by the traditional melam and tableau by each group. The ground gets too crowded during the event, just like Thrissur Pooram, and the whistles that mimick the melam and tigers dancing with that is the main vibe of the whole event.
If you are a photographer or someone who loves art and colours, you will love this event. The human body is the canvas here for the artists to recreate the expressions of the tiger. Pulikali is such an event where the potbelly is highly honored.
I was fortunate to visit the preparations this year where everyone was busy getting ready. Participants are painted by the artists and are allowed to dry after the first coat. Then the second coat and face were drawn. Each candidate has their number clipped on to the short they are wearing and I assume that helps to understand which type of design they are going for.
Artists refer to real photographs of the tiger faces for inspiration and try to copy that on to the belly of the performer. Every other detail like the lines, dots, tongue is perfected with brushes.
These two sticks are given to hold on to while they get painted. It takes hours to complete the costume and once the painting is finished, before the act starts, then only the masks are given.
There are different styles and patterns introduced to the costumes, like green, pink, pitch-black which brighten up the show even more. However, the classic bright orange colour of the Bengal tiger always is the highlight of the show.
It is not just the big-bellied men who participate in the event. There are cubs and women too. Women have started to participate only recently. When I was there, these big tigers and cubs were having some vegetarian meals to bring up their energy for the event that was to be started in a few hours.
The hall was filled with TV channels that broadcasted it live, guys with big cameras covered the place and frequent visits from various famous people all made the place too busy. In another hall where they were getting ready, there was a film shooting going on.
Pulikali, the main event
Pulikali happens at Swaraj round. This is where the competition happens. However, there are different (seven if I’m not wrong) places where this preparation takes place. The tigers do a dance parade in this area for sometime before going to the main venue. It is easier to catch a glimpse here because the main venue will be incredibly crowded.
In Swaraj round, there is a pavilion for the Press and Tourists. So, if you are a photographer or someone interested in such things other than just enjoying the event, its better to get a place there. If you are a foreign national, it is easier to get into this pavilion.
I don’t have many pictures from the main event and you can see it in the video why. It is rather impossible to go through the crowd. The path of the parade is protected with ropes held by the volunteers and police so that the crowd doesn’t interrupt the easy movement. The tiger dance is followed by the tableau.
The statue like figures you see in golden colour are actually people painted like that. I didn't know that until they had to put a sudden break on the vehicle to adjust the electric cables.
Even though there is all of these, the highlight of the event is there will be someone who whistles the tone of the music by the traditional Melam performers. That was my favorite thing about the event.
We went for a walk in the ground nearby where there was a music concert going on. The whole ground was filled with small street vendors and people who came to attend Pulikali. That was Onam 2019 and I promise no more posts about Onam celebrations 🙈