A Village Pooram

Although many Keralites 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. Particularly when festivals beckon. But the acid test is the pooram at the temple. For while the other festivals have to do with personal prosperity and family reunions, the pooram is about community and how deep your roots are sunk into the place of your birth.

Mountains of bananas, hillocks of paddy, yards of jasmine, rows of glinting glass bangles, shimmery satin ribbons in rainbow hues, trinkets, toys. The call of the vendors. The mouthwatering aroma of murukku. The beat of the drums. The stamp of feet. The acrid smell of gunpowder. The heat. The dust. This is the lure of the pooram. And, it is to feed this memory that I go home again and again to the pooram at the Muthassi-kavu:

In the old house we wait anxiously. A heap of paddy in a para, and a lit bronze lamp is kept ready. As the distant throb of drums comes closer, the children scamper down the mango trees and rush to hide behind the adults. The gate creaks open and the Thira and Poothan saunter in with jangling and clanging that would awaken even the dead. I feel the familiar feel of dread wash over me as the grotesque masks come closer. These are the faces nightmares are made of. The Thira and Poothan are symbolic representations of the goddess who visit each home to chase away the evil spirits and bless the family.

The drummers begin to beat their chendas, cymbals clash and the Thira and Poothan begin to dance. With the vigour of supernatural beings, they twist and turn, gyrate and twirl, raising clouds of dust with their swirling feet. When they stop abruptly, there is an eerie silence. Until once again the drums come 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 tucks the cask into the sash at his waist and turns to go to the next house to announce the coming of the pooram.

In reality, the pooram began almost a month ago when the pooram-mula (pole) was sunk into the ground. On the second of the month, at midnight, the Cherumans (the caste that tills the soil and harvests the produce) bring freshly harvested paddy tops woven around a bamboo pole along with a red flag chanting : "Here is your offering Amma, this is for you. And once again we give you your dues like we have always done in the past".

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 mimicry to ballet which is the local term for a musical involving many costumes, songs and dancing with a thin plot line woven to hold it all together. Artists are invited from all parts of Kerala and each year the temple committee tries to out vie the previous committee's performance.

We walk towards the pooram ground. The road is filled with people to-ing and fro-ing from the temple. It is late in the afternoon, and the grim Anangan Mountains seem to frown down from the horizon. The pooram ground, in contrast, is a riot of colour. Moplah girls with their almost fluorescent veils bring alive the brown land. A Moplah girl comes running towards us with a fluff of cotton candy for my son. And as we watch, she takes him to a vendor specializing in glittering windmills. 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.

It is the day of 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 25 to 30 kaalas come from the various villages and wait at the kaala parambu (oxen ground). We walk around each pair examining its exquisite handiwork. When we stop to admire one pair, the group responsible for it preens in delight. For the moment they have scored a victory over the rest.

Later in the evening we watch the veluchappad throw rice at the kaalas and lead them into the temple grounds. When each pair has paid homage to the goddess, it retreats moving in reverse so as not to offend the goddess by exhibiting its backside.

And then starts the pyrotechnics. Rows of iron cylinders are kept on the ground filled with gunpowder. And as one is lit, the spark from it sets the other one off. The explosions rock the ground, fill your ears and rock within your heart. And by the time you recover from it, the drums begin their thunderous music.

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 village or town. The quaintness of rituals, the time honoured traditions, the flavour of its festivities and most of all the feeling of having come home.

For once each of us is lost in individual worlds. The older folk remember poorams from the past and as always compare this one to those in their memories now further enriched by age. This is a pooram that is almost two hundred years old. It even merits a mention in William Logan's Malabar Manual dated 1887.

As for me I feel a deep sense of peace. A tranquility born of the knowledge that I am on familiar ground. For once I have all the answers to who I am. That is the blessing the pooram bestows upon the faithful.

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