There once, was this friend of mine who wanted to be a dog. In the same vein, I thought I wanted to be an elephant; but on an afterthought I realized that’s not exactly what I wanted, I wanted to be an elephant’s friend. Its like you go and mess up with the local rowdies and just when they are about to beat you up – he comes.
Who comes? Yeah, the elephant, your friend! The mighty, strong and one of the biggest animals on the planet *provided Godzilla is a myth; Dinosaurs are extinct and Kavya Madhavan is not running for the prize*. I have lost count of the number of afternoons in school when I have dreamt of my elephant friend – see there were too many bullies in school. You could call it sadism, but don’t be a sadist – call it the Giant Robot Complex.
Elephants have always been a weakness for me. Their sheer elegance, self indulgence and the extreme confidence of the mammoth in every move of their body. Our river back home looks the most beautiful when the temple elephant is in it. Though it muddies the river, it prevents Sarojini, our local cigarette shop owner from getting into the river. One can’t stand the sight of the river with Sarojini taking bath in it for more than say – two seconds. We need to rescue our rivers from Sarojinis.
Well, it is this love of elephants that landed me in Thrissur this summer. The Pooram festival is perhaps the biggest festival for elephants across the world, second only to maybe the Great Elephant March – which has been cancelled since a long time. Now Thrissur on Pooram day is as crazy as it is on any other day. In the local tea shop at Shaktan square, while waiting for my friend, I had people around me talking in some weird rhythm and they call each other “ettan” *elder brother* – everybody is an ettan there – Jose ettan, Bus conductor ettan, Police ettan. I raised the issue as soon as my friend *a local fundamentalist* came.
me : “what is this ettan funda”
he : “thats the way it is here”
me : “appo achanem ningalu ettannu vilikko”
he looks at me fiercely
me : “What kinda language is this?”
he : “pure malayalam”
me : “why do you have to talk in this rhythm? – cant you guys say in prose what you want to say?”
he : “Da…Thrissur is the Cultural Capital of Kerala”
me : “why???”
he : “Well….we have Guruvayoor and Vadakkumnathan” *name of temples for the un-initiated*
me : “Then it should be Trivandrum, we have Suresh Gopi,Jagathy,Priyadarshan and Shaji Kailas”
he : “We have Innocent and Mani”
me : “We have Mohanlal”
he : “We can work out a deal” *defeat, surrender*
Finally we agreed that Thrissur will be the Cultural Capital for half the year and Trivandrum for all the days I’m there, attending marriages, which will round off to around half a year considering the number of marriages this season. Don’t people have any other work?
We went on the elephant trail, after a deluxe meal at the friend’s place and a short visit to an ancient temple pond nearby to spot King Cobras – there were none. With two digital rebels and some very costly lenses,the two upcoming Cartier Bressons went right into the heart of Pooram in the Thrissur circle.
As the saying goes, there was a crowd as big as the crowd at Thrissur Pooram. I have never seen such a huge crowd before except maybe at Brigade on Bangalore, on new year’s eve when the trippers, low lifes, Christ college crowd, drug traffikers, Java programmers, Mallu aunties,BMS college crowd, pimps, RajKumar fans, drunken drivers, Punjabi kudis and even Project Managers are out there pushing and grabbing each other. The difference at Thrissur pooram is, the crowd is not that bad and there are thirty elephants right in the heart of the crowd and around five to ten pachyderms on standby.
Thiruvambadi gets ready for the blast !
There being very little chance of getting near the adorned elephants, we checked out the “rested” elephants which were on standby. I gave my fundas about gauging an elephant’s elegance to my friend, who waited patiently till I finished to start off with his – I closed my ears shouting “bluha!bluha!”.
This guy in the photo below is Pumulli Keshavan, a rested elephant. This was the elephant rumoured to have an ancient rivalry with Koickal Ganapathy. The story revolves around this chick called Pumulli Bhavani, whom both the guys dated and finally went with Ganapathy to pull timber in one northern district. Someone said, Bhavani is in Bihar these days, but Keshavan has not forgiven Ganapathy for stealing Bhavani from him. My take is that, Keshavan should make it up with Ganapathy. It must be all Bhavani’s fault. She doesn’t care whether its Keshavan or Ganapathy or some other elephant from Bihar *lets call him Lalu Prasad Yadav; I dont know of any other Bihari names*, if anyone shows her an eye – she goes. So guys, lets not fight.
Babu : “Are we here to watch the pooram or this elephant”
Me : “I want to have that icecream”
Babu : “Its no good. Remember the way I got jaundice”
Me : “Ice cream”
Babu : “No lets not have it, lets go into the crowd”
I came up with the ingenious idea of attacking the crowd from the sides and creeping in from behind the elephant wall. Babu enthusiastically left through one end and I ran to the other end, jumped two bamboo fences, crawled under a hoarding and bought two icecreams. I had them both in the sweltering heat. Babu called me on my mobile after finding a spot where the procession was set to arrive in a few minutes. To our surprise there wasn’t much of a crowd there. I congratulated Babu for all his efforts in making our Pooram watch a grand success. He must have felt good; I felt I was Prime Minster material.
Now if you ask me what is the most common animal found in all festivals in Kerala *looking at this picture some perverts might say Srividya*, I would say it is not the elephant, but Kerala Policemen. They are everywhere, helping people, managing chaos and keeping the republic straight, be it the elephants in Guruvayoor or the tamil ayyappans in Sabarimala or the lakhs of women in Attukal, KP is always there. Despite my chronic hate for military and police, this one I would give it to them.
Thiruvambadi at Vadakkumnathan
So we were at this place called ‘SriMoolasthanam’ and the procession kept coming towards us. Thats when I heard what I feared all the while. Few guys next to me, must be around thirteen or fourteen, the age when you feel Paris Hilton is goodlooking and all, started pointing at one of the elephant’s…..well. Lets call it PeepeeDo. Every time I am near an elephant one of these anti-socials start yakking about the size of its peepeedo. Well they have it, so they flaunt it. Leave it at that. These guys dont, they have questions like What if..?
Now we were so close to the elephants that we could actually touch them,my friend did, I didn’t. To surprise us again, the procession stopped just there in front of us. They would stay there for about an hour. The ambiance was nerve rattling. The Panchavadhyam (the five instrument beat; westerners call it Led Zeppelin) reached its pinnacle in sync with the venchamaram on top of the elephants and booming crackers on the sides. They say the best in the state perform at Vadakkumnathan on this day. The whole population was swaying to the beat. You have a thickly packed crowd with fifteen elephants in between, around thirty high decibel drums and a lot of gunpowder bursting into flames every second – at this point if each of them believe that nothing could go wrong there, you could call it faith. The magic of pooram is that it transforms the tens of thousands of strangers gathered around the elephants into one mind which sways to the beat.
Something did go wrong. The two of us had escaped from the crowd to catch some breath. It was so crowded inside the crowd. We walked down the road from the temple to a small group that was selling ‘cool drinks’. We’d just finished our drinks when there was a huge cry from the side we had come. The gathering split like a wave and one of the elephants was running through the crowd,down the road – ofcourse, towards us. I pulled the friend and we ran like hell. By the time we reached a dead end, I was gripping my camera and gasping for breath. We turned around to see the elephant hardly some twenty metres from our side,but it had taken a new direction now. There were two guys on top of the elephant with no way to escape. Though I have no idea how to deal with such a thing, I can tell you one thing – this animal runs fast, very fast. We followed it for some distance, but again, in a flash it escaped into some side road after trying to overturn an auto rickshaw.
My heart was beating faster than perhaps it ever did before. Badly wanted a smoke, then decided against it. I called home.
Me : “dei,there was a small issue at pooram, one elephant got mad and started running around, it might come in news and all. Nothing to worry about OK”
Bro : “they are live telecasting it dude, there are two elephants which are running around – one is still within the temple circle”
Me : “Ya, I know. Thats fine, we are safe. Just tell Amma. Over”
I didn’t have the slightest clue that five TV channels were telecasting the events live. There were two issues at hand. One, I would be a national disaster with Mom calling up everyone she knows and all of them watching this shit LIVE. Two, there was another elephant running around – somewhere around.
Groups of people were running in all directions shouting “Ana,Ana”, we ran with some of those groups around the circle but finally realized that two elephants running in these many directions was logically impossible and decided to wait and watch. Crowds of people were running into each other shouting “Ana, Ana”. There were ambulances skirting here and there with their apocalyptical sirens and policemen scolding people for running; their funda being if you don’t run, the elephant wouldn’t harm you. I hoped the elephant had also read the same book.
Estimates said there were one hundred thousand people in the circle that day. The commotion was as good as it could get. People were running out of buildings shouting “Ana, Ana” as if the elephant was inside the building. It was fun after the initial shock and hand shivering. We decided to go find the elephant once the ‘department with guns’ had arrived. We did find the elephant and took a few snaps too. The commotion ended in about two hours and the major festivities with all the thirty elephants resumed *the standby elephants replaced the two naughty ones*. We watched the Kudamattom *changing of umbrellas; Arguably the best part of the pooram when the two rival temples are at their creative bests* and the late night fireworks *they show you what a real atom bomb sounds like* before leaving. My first pooram, and if the Supreme Court does ban it as some people say it would, my last.
In between all this running around I lost my camera’s lens cap. I calculated the dollar value I’d have to pay and was about to cry when some guy, from some where, came and gave it to me. He had seen it lying on the road near the temple. If it was Guruvayoor, my relatives would say it was Krishnan himself and we would start arguing. I didn’t ask his name, just felt well.
( Thiruvambadi elephants come out of the South end of Vadakkumnathan for Kudamattom)
me : “Its nice to know that I am a recognizable face even in this crowd”
friend : “nah…its because this is Thrissur”
me : “Why is that so”
friend : “Because this place happens to be the Cultural Capital of Kerala”