Thrissur Pooram: Why restricting the 200-year-old festival was a tough call for Kerala

Holding the temple festival could result in a health hazard during the pandemic, and not holding it could stir up a polarising discourse.
Caparisoned elephants with umbrellas at Thrissur Pooram
Caparisoned elephants with umbrellas at Thrissur Pooram

On Sunday, Kerala’s Health Minister KK Shailaja said that the Thrissur Pooram cannot be cancelled. Calling off the 200-year-old temple festival which draws millions of people would ‘cause problems’, she said.

The Health Minister’s statement came on the same day when Kerala recorded its single highest spike of COVID-19 cases -  18,257 new patients. Thrissur district, where the  Pooram is set to take place, saw 1,780 cases (the third highest among districts) and six deaths on that day.

As the opposition to conducting Kerala's Pooram festival grew, the state's Chief Secretary held a high-level meeting on April 23. After this meeting, it was declared that the Pooram would be scaled down in 2021, with entry allowed only to the organizers, media and artists, that too only if they produced a COVID-19 negative certificate.

But this decision was not an easy one for the government. As the health minister said, ‘there were too many problems’ surrounding it- political, communal and financial.

To understand the many pressures faced by the state when it comes to the Pooram, one has to understand the ethos of this 200-year-old festival, says a senior journalist from the district.

A celebration of the masses 

Known as the mother of all temple festivals in Kerala, the Thrissur Pooram is a celebration of the masses. 

History says that it was Sakthan Thampuran, Maharaja of Cochin (1790-1805) who started the Thrissur Pooram to beat all the other poorams in the state. 

In its 200-year-old history, the Pooram has always taken place in one venue -  on the grounds of the Vadakkunnathan temple in the centre of Thrissur town. The celebrations involve 16 caparisoned elephants, massive decorated umbrellas, percussion artists, dancers and massive fireworks- all witnessed by lakhs of ‘poora premikal’ or pooram lovers who throng the venue.

Such is the mass appeal of the pooram that in 2018, a report on the festival by the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) projected that 10 lakh people from across the state would attend that year. The festival even sees scores of foreign nationals in participation.

“In every way, Pooram is a people’s festival. It is a space where the individual surrenders to the collective. There is a common saying in Thrissur that at the pooram venue, a worker cannot be differentiated from the Maharaja himself. They are all the same,” the journalist explains. 

But a lot has changed with the advent of social media. 

The new age Pooram lover 

“Faceebook has given rise to a new age Poora Premi. Mostly men, these young social media savvy Keralites have created innumerable Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups and fan pages for elephants and Pooram,” says Kollam based N Rajeev, an honorary animal welfare officer and a member of Society for Elephant Welfare, an NGO. 

The pressure exerted by these ‘fans’ through social media was evident back in 2019, when they demanded that Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran, a 56-year-old one-eyed ‘celebrity’ tusker be brought to inaugurate the Pooram that year.

Ramachandran is among the most dangerous tuskers in the state - having killed 13 people and 3 elephants in his lifetime. The Kerala High Court has, on several occasions, banned Ramachandran from being paraded.

Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran paraded at the inauguration of Thrissur Pooram 

However, after one such ban in March 2019, several social media users bombarded the then Thrissur Collector TV Anupama’s Facebook page with demands to lift the ban.

Hundreds of them commented using the ‘Save Raman’ hashtag. Such was the pressure exerted on the administration, that the Collector eventually relented, and Raman was brought to inaugurate the Pooram that year. 

With the festival already cancelled once in 2020 due to the pandemic, Rajeev says these poora premis, had already begun lobbying, even on social media, in favour of the festival being held this year. 

Poora premis or fans crowding to watch the festival Pic courtesy: Gokuldas, Instagram/ thrissur_pooram_official

“Fans associations have asked why the Pooram has to be scaled down in 2021, when political parties had held massive rallies during the election campaign in April this year,” he adds. 

Rajeev says that a decade ago, cancelling the Pooram during a raging pandemic, would have been a non-issue. But times have changed.

Polarising discourse  

In the past few years, the festival has been occasionally used to polarise vote banks in the district, especially by the BJP and the Congress.

For instance prior to the Assembly polls on April 6 in Kerala, Thrissur’s Congress candidate Padmaja Venugopal, sat on a hunger strike, demanding that the state government give it in writing that the Pooram will be held in a full fledged manner in 2021.  This was prior to the COVID-19 second wave, when discussions were already underway on how best to conduct the Pooram.

On April 18, former Thrissur UDF MLA Therambil Ramakrishnan also stirred the pot by asking “why the pooram was being held without people?”.

Speaking to TNM, Renu Ramnath, political journalist from Thrissur says, “We have seen how the BJP and the Congress has communalised the issue of women entry into Sabarimala in the state. Even though many BJP leaders welcomed the Supreme Court verdict in the beginning, the party then decided to protest realising that this was an opportunity to polarise. The Congress is no different from the BJP and has even amplified the Sabarimala issue during the Assembly polls.” 

While the Pooram has not attracted as much attention as Sabarimala, a steady communal discourse in the backdrop of propaganda such as ‘Save Hindu Festivals' by the BJP, has been heard in Thrissur in recent years. 

Fireworks and a lit up pandal erected on the Swaraj round in Thrissur Pic courtesy: Instagram/thrissur_pooram_official

“I believe the state government was negotiating the issue, as there is a very real threat of a public health hazard if BJP and Congress workers start protests across the state. With elections coming to a close, the state government has nothing to gain by appeasing vote banks. But containing the pandemic is the need of the hour, and for this they have to be tactful,” Renu adds. 

This time around, the BJP however, did not raise major objections, perhaps factoring in the row over the Kumbh Mela happening in Haridwar, and Prime Minister Modi asking the organisers to celebrate the festival 'symbolically'.

However, the Paramekkavu devaswom secretary G Rajesh made many statements opposing certain restrictions and calling it a conspiracy. With these statements having the potential of creating unrest, the government decided to tread carefully. However, many prominent activists, poets and others asked the government to take a stern decision and not succumb to such pressures. 

Economic interests 

Apart from fans and politicians, the Pooram involves heavy economic activity. 

“There are so many small shops that come around the Swaraj round during this time. Then there are percussion artists, elephant mahouts, balloon and whistle sellers, fireworks manufacturers, workers who erect the pandals, etc. There are the traditional elephant caparison makers who are responsible for decorating the elephants paraded during Pooram. These decorations are displayed at the Chamaya Pradarshanam - an event which has been cancelled this year," Rajeev says. All of these people benefit economically from holding a full fledged Pooram.

In essence, the pandemic has derailed a lot of economic activity, causing emotional and financial distress among many people, Rajeev adds. 

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