Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pooram in Thrissur

Traveling without adventure is not fun, right? Well here’s a good one: we were emailed two days before our arrival to Thrissur (the location of Pooram- a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people) that our hotel booking was canceled.

Had we already received a confirmation email over a month before? Yes.

Were there any other hotels available for a reasonable price? No.

Were we really really frustrated with booking.com? An understatement, but yes.

That little bump in the road was a miracle in disguise though. My friend Brianna had been “couch-surfing” before we met and had amazing experiences to report. By the way, couch-surfing is an online community connecting travelers with local residents who are open to hosting people at their home for free. I had heard her amazing stories and was intrigued and excited. So, we went on the website and started messaging folks in Thrissur. Within a day, Aniket emailed us back and confirmed that he, his mother, and auntie would love to host us- unfortunately, his wife was out of town. His sincerity was evident as soon as we met him at the train station on Saturday evening.

He picked us up in an AC car and we all exhaled in relief of the cool air. He drove us around and showed us some of the decorations that were up for Pooram.

We arrived at his home around 10:30PM and his mother greeted us with a smile, broken English and mango juice. The next morning at breakfast was when we got to know more about the family. They are actually Maharastrian but relocated to Kerala about 25 years ago. I learned they were Jain (religion - same as my family) and began asking more questions about the religion and sharing what I knew and learned with Brianna and our other friend Mona who was traveling with us. Then I learned Aniket has a brother who in an architect in Ahemdabad. I left the breakfast table stuffed (so many mangos) and feeling very much at home.

Aniket walked us down to the temple area where Pooram was taking place. The festival is a competition between two temples (Krishna temple named Thirumbady and Bhagwati temple named Parmekavu) and involves 51 elephants adorned with decorations to show dedication to the temples. Here is a quick video from the day before of the showcase displaying what would be used to decorate the elephants. 

The festival goes on for a day and a half straight (7AM Sunday – 4PM Monday). The first event we attended was around noon where somewhere between 9-13 elephants walked up to the Thirumbady temple. From there they receded back to Swaraj Road (a 3 km road encircling the temple). After the event, we walked around and found some of the decorations for the next event. 
One of the elephants leaving the temple
Some of the decorations that would be used for the event in the evening
The second event we attended was Kudamattom (kuda – umbrella, mattom – changing) where 15 elephants from each temple compete in the changing of umbrellas. Each temple takes turns showcasing an umbrella (the middle one is always a different color). This went on for about an hour and a half as each temple showcased over 50 umbrellas. Over 100,000 people gathered to witness the competition and the crowd cheered for whichever umbrellas they were most impressed by. Each temple started off with mildly decorated umbrellas and concluded with polka dots, neons, and even LED lighted umbrellas.
The first elephant (of 15) coming to greet the audience of thousands. The center elephant always enters first and is adorned more extravagantly than the others.
All fifteen elephants lined up competing with the other fifteen elephants located about 150 yards away
Note the crazy crowd (entire crowd was probably 50 times this many people) and the fact the center elephant has a different colored umbrella and additional decorations
The final event we attended is called Vedikettu- a firework display at 3:30AM. It was a…memorable experience. Aniket reserved tickets for us to view the fireworks from a building on Swaraj Road. We were required to be at the building by 11:30PM, so in true India form we arrived by midnight. The fireworks, as promised, began around 3:30AM. What we realized first was that our definition of fireworks was different from Thrissur’s definition. What went off at 3:30 seemed more like bombs to us. I learned later that each explosion was propelled by a 30-40kg bomb that created a crazy loud flash in the sky and shook the crowd with its force. Windows in the building we viewed from taped the windows to ensure they didn’t shatter and car alarms sounded effortlessly. The “fireworks” were done by each side as part of the competition. After about 5 minutes of explosions there was a 15-20 minute break and then the other temple showcased their “fireworks”. After that round most people left. We stayed because Aniket told us the next set were slower and more beautiful. They were- similar to the Disneyland fireworks I’m used to, these were beautiful and colorful.
Aniket, Mona, Bri and I waiting for the fireworks to begin- I feel like 3:30AM in a terrible inconvenient time for fireworks
A collage of the pretty fireworks - after the firework-bombs were done
We were so fortunate to have an amazing host for our time in Thrissur. His mom (Shweta auntie) even gave us a cooking lesson the next day and we tried to make those Kerala parootas we were obsessing over.  More on that cooking lesson later. 
Aniket in center with his mom to the right and his grandfather's sister to her right, Bri and I enjoying the amazing food and company

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