I was 13-years-old when I witnessed the famed Thrissur pooram. The grandeur of the festival is something that has to be seen to be believed. Ten temples, divided into two groups, put on a show with huge, gentle elephants decked with finery, colourful "kudamattom" or umbrella display and scores of talented percussionists drumming away. Combined with an infinite ocean of people and the massive fireworks display, loud enough to set your teeth on edge - the whole experience is breathtaking to say the least.
Fireworks in Kerala are part and parcel of temple festivals - utsavams and poorams, as well and some church festivals or perunaals. Both usually wrap up with grand pyrotechnic displays and competitions.
Traditionally, temple grounds allot a specific area to burst the crackers, and a makeshift shed is built to store them temporarily for a day or two. These sheds are dismantled as soon as festivities are over, and none of the fireworks are kept back.
"Typically, utsavams and poorams are held after the two main harvests, "kanni koyithu" in August-October, and "makara koyithu" in December - February. Water rich areas may have had another harvest, but these are the two main ones," explains Dr K Gopalankutty, historian and retired HoD, History, University of Calicut.
Folklore also has it that Devi temples have festivals during the hot summer months, beseeching Bhagawati to ward off the pox and other diseases which spread more during this season.
Fireworks for these festivals are not just restricted to bijli bombs, atom bombs or ladi bombs. They include locally made crackers - "dynamo", "gundu", "kuzhiminnal" and the unique "kathina", made by filling cylindrical iron tubes with "vedimarunnu" or localised gun powder. All the chemicals used for locally made crackers can be obtained only by those organisations who have a specific licence to do so.
Bursting "kathina" is also part of many temple offerings or vazhipadus in most parts of Kerala.
One such temple is the Thriprayar Shrirama Temple in Thrissur has a specific offering, Kathina vedi vazhipadu, usually for prosperity, marriage or for those seeking children. Devotees can choose between a single "vedi", "kootuvedi" of 3, a chain of 101, or even a chain of 1001!
"It is said that Hanuman found Sita, and returned joyously and burst a kathina to intimate or awaken Rama about the good news," explains VN Swapana, Devaswom board manager, Thriprayar Temple.
One of the exceptions where "vedi" is not an offering is the Sri Krishna Temple in Guruvayur, where legend has it that the deity, Baby Krishna is scared of loud noises.
Firecrackers are not just limited to Hindu festivals in the state. In the Thrissur area, Church Perunaals or feasts to commemorate saints usually have impressive pyrotechnic displays to end celebrations.
The Pindi perunaal in Irinjalakuda, commemorating the feast of Epiphany is one such where the local fire crackers are burst continuously for as long as ten minutes at the culmination of the perunaal.
"Thrissur is known for its huge pooram related fire work displays, so naturally the Christian community here also adopted the practice for festivities. The huge scale of pyrotechnics associated with church perunaals is seen mostly in Thrissur. It's become an integral part of our celebrations," explains Dr KM Francis, Diocesan President, Catholic Congress, Thrissur.
Fireworks date back 2000 years in Chinese history, and are said to have been used in rituals and festivals to ward off evil spirits. Relations between Kerala and China are pegged to date back to over 1000 years, and as Prof A Sreedhara Menon points out in his book ‘A Survey of Kerala History’, "Many articles in Kerala even today.. have the prefix China added to their name. Example China ottam (kind of boat), China vala (fishing net), China veti (a kind of firework), China chatti ( a kind of pot). Most probably these are trade articles originally introduced into Kerala by the Chinese traders."
Fireworks were documented to have been used during the Mamankam, or Mamangam Mahotsavam, held on the banks of the Bharatapuzha during the 12 th century. "The Zamorin documents clearly mention kathina being burst from opposite shores of the river. Muslim merchants and Chettiars would also pump in money for the fireworks. Blacksmiths would vie to make the best castings for the kathina. It was a total community event," explains VV Haridas, Asst Prof History, University of Calicut.
"Unfortunately, the revelry part of it gave way to display of wealth. The competitions have become an arena to flaunt who can burn up more money," adds Dr Gopalankutty.
Interestingly, the clamp on possessing gun powder in the 18 th century resulted in the practice waning comparatively in temples in north Kerala, which some say still accounts for the fact that fireworks display and offering are not on such a large scale in that area as the rest of Kerala.
(Supriya Unni Nair is an independent writer with over 15 years of experience in print media and television)