Every single beat from the barrel shaped thakil send waves of gyrations in the tigers all around. They hop, jump, swing, groan and growl in rhythm. Their jaws contract and expand at the throbs and I watch in awe. I am no way close to the habitat of the big cats, neither in a circus and trust me by all breath analyzer standards; I am not drunk.
I am at the Swaraj Round in Thrissur, Kerala’s fourth largest city, which is also known as the “cultural capital” of the state, thanks to its historical connections to art, literature and religion from the last 3000 years.
“The bigger the tummy the better it is” says Sharanya, my friend and host in this amazing city – pointing towards the varnish painted tiger jaws on stomachs, human stomachs! In case you thought otherwise, the tigers here are all humans, but they are funky, beautiful and incredible.
As I watch this huge ensemble of moving street art, Sharanya chips in with a lesson in history – “The origin of this show dates back to over 200 years. The then Maharaja of Cochin wanted to showcase the valor and strength of his men, through a folk art and that’s how Pulikali was born. Later on, the men started enacting plays of a hunter tormenting the tigers, which made it extremely popular. “
“I wish I could have joined them, they look so majestic” spoke my soft voice and pat came the reply- “You need to work on your bulges. May be a year full of toddy (fermented coconut drink) and malabar curries might do the trick and you should be good to go next year”.
The image of me pulsating on the streets of Kerala with a protruding belly sends a chill down my spine and I deviate – “Well, there is something about the aroma of the malabar curry …”
Earlier in the day, I had a tryst with the aromas of Keralian dishes, thanks to the special lunch organized by Sharanya. Sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by unknown faces, savoring close to twenty vegetarian delicacies served with white rice on a banana leaf isn’t something you experience everyday. Without a clue on where to start, I picked up the Aviyal for debut.
It turned out to be a fascinating amalgamation of everything available in a Keralian kitchen. A mixture of pumpkin, plantain, brinjal, cucumber, drum sticks, snake gourd, carrots, beans, curd and coconut, seasoned in coconut oil and curry leaves- it was one of the best vegetarian dishes I had ever tasted in my life.
My transition from one dish to another was eased by Sharanya’s running commentary – “That’s the Kalan, the one on your left is Olan and the dry one is Thoran”.
I don’t remember all of their compositions, but there was one unique component, which brought out the characteristic aroma and taste typical to Kerala, its something that’s omnipresent and abundant here – the coconut.
“This lunch is called the Ona Sadya and it’s banqueted throughout Kerala on the last three days of the Onam festival. We invite our neighbours, relatives, friends and colleagues for this meal and it is the best social intercourse in the whole year for many of us” – added Sharanya.
The best part of the grand feast for me was far more than the tasty dishes, it was the way it transcended all boundaries of caste, creed, religion and social status. In the hall where I had the lunch, there were people from all walks of life, rich and poor, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, connected to Sharanya’s family in some way or the other. They all squatted on the floor eating the same meal and enjoying their reunion.
As I watch the masked dancers thumping to the music thinking about the grand lunch, Onam shows me its true nature. It’s more than just a festival; it’s a community carnival masking the religious and ethnic identities that always seem to divide our nation.
In the mark sheet for literacy, Kerala scoring a 100% is a known fact, but I feel it scores 100% in religious and cultural harmony as well and Onam just proves that I am right.
Onam is the state festival of Kerala. It is celebrated during the month of Chingam (August–September) and lasts for ten days.
How to reach Thrissur
The nearest airport to Thrissur is Nedumbassery International Airport at Kochi, at a distance of 85 km.
Air India has connections from Sharjah, Dubai, Bahrain, Doha and Abu Dhabi to Kochi.
Jet Airways flies from major cities in India to Kochi. It has connections from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.
The best way to reach Thrissur from Kochi airport is to take a prepaid taxi. The other option is taking an auto to Angamaly and get on any of the numerous KSRTC buses plying between Thrissur and Angamaly
If you are driving down from Bangalore/Chennai, then take NH-48 to Coimbatore and continue on the Salem- Ernakulam road from there. After Palghat, take a right from Mannurthy junction.