The procession of decorated elephants with chenda melam (percussion ensemble), a sea of people on all sides, the exchange of brightly coloured parasols, performances by travelling communities of North India and the sparkling fireworks all made the Thrissur Pooram a wondrous experience for the women who were able to witness it from close quarters. The Thrissur Pooram, the largest cultural fest of Kerala, with participation of 10 temples on the premises of Sree Vadakkunnathan Temple has always been associated with Purusharam (crowded men).
This year on May 10, there was a space reserved for women in the Thekke Gopura Nada outside Vadakkumnathan temple to witness Kudamattam, an exhibition of decorated huge traditional umbrellas sitting on top of caparisoned elephants. This is the time of Purusharam, the Malayalam word for huge crowds, usually true for Thrissur Pooram since few women will be sighted. The specially earmarked space was filled with overjoyed women, many of them who watched Kudamattam for the first time in their life. But there were complaints over the small space, which could accommodate only 500 women.
After the district administration declared the 2022 Pooram women-friendly, women's presence has dramatically increased according to the Pooram lovers. â€śWe can see women everywhere even at night, for this Pooram. This is a drastic change. Earlier, women left the area by 2 pm on the day of Kudamattam. Then it would be just men occupying the whole place. We have been asking for a women-friendly Pooram for many years. This is a positive sign. Next year onwards, we want more space and women to occupy the general space without fear,â€ť N Vinaya, a women rights activist from Thrissur said. Vinaya had launched campaigns on social media, weeks before Pooram, persuading more women to participate in the fest.
A week before the Pooram, BJP councillor from Punkunnam division of Thrissur Corporation Aathira V, wrote to District Collector Haritha V Kumar, asking for a reserved space for women to watch Kudamattam.
â€śUntil now the authorities had allocated a separate space only for VIP women, wives of authorities, officials etc. But I wrote for the common women, who havenâ€™t watched Pooram their entire life, even though they have lived in Thrissur. We could see women watching from the rooftop of a nearby building as they were not able to come down. But we saw a far greater number of women attending,â€ť she said.
She recalled that women were present only during pakalpooram (daytime fests). â€śIt was very rare to spot a woman at night. That has to be changed,â€ť she added.
Jini Elekkatt, from Women Integration and Growth Through Sport (WINGS), a womenâ€™s organisation, said they wanted more space. â€śWe needed more space and there were women in the public area too. Reservation is fine, but we should have the security to watch Pooram just like men in the general area. This is a great change,â€ť she added.
Special pink police patrolling teams, bullet patrols, women-friendly toilet facilities in and around- Thekkinkadu maidan where Pooram takes place were found in plenty. But some of the women were still apprehensive. Twenty-three-year old Divya, who had come to watch the percussion ensemble, said that she would not stay till Kudamattam. â€śI am scared of this crowd, the reserved space is very small. Women getting molested in the crowd is very common. Everyone warns about it,â€ť she says.
Despite being announced as women-friendly, not all events were accessible to women.
During Ilanjithara Melam, a huge number of percussion artists perform near the Ilanji tree in the courtyard of Vadakkumnathan temple. But a thick crowd of men thronged the courtyard by 11 am even though it was scheduled to begin at 2.30 pm, making it impossible for women to watch the performance. â€śThe vibe of Ilanjithara melam is difficult to explain. But we had to miss it and we could not find a single woman here. At least from next time women should be able to watch all the events,â€ť Seena, another women rights activist associated with WINGS says.
â€śWhen we talk about Pooram, the first response we get is that it is not a place for women and that we would get molested. But let us create our spaces equally among the men, not just under reservation,â€ť she added.
Thirty Five-year-old Savithri* name changed, was born, brought up and married in Thrissur district, but never been to Pooram ever. â€śWhen I was young, my father refused to take me, saying I would get lost in the crowd. After marriage, every year I would request my husband, but he has refused to allow me to go, but he goes to watch Kudamattam and melams. This time I told him it is women-friendly and there are women going, but he still would not allow me to go,â€ť she said and added that none of her women friends have also been a part of Pooram. â€śMaybe after some more years, things will change and women will have a safe space that I can also be a part of,â€ť she said. WINGS activists say that they get many calls from women complaining how their husbands restrict them from taking part in Pooram. â€śMaybe we social workers can courageously be a part of the crowd breaking stigma. But the common women out there need a safe space and that is the responsibility of the government,â€ť Athira said.