, Aug 27 (IANS) Over 600 dancers painted like tigers and 300 percussionists took to the main thoroughfare of this sylvan Kerala town to perform the ancient Pulikali or the tiger dance as part of the Onam festivities.
More than 20,000 people Thursday lined the streets of this town, around 300 km from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, braving the steady drizzle to witness the Pulikali folk dance that is being promoted as a tourist attraction and competitive event like the snake boat race by the state government.
The dancers, divided into 10 teams or 'Sangams' from nearly 25 villages in the Thrissur district, paraded down the high street, showing off their colourful and intricate tiger body art replete with stripes, rosettes, whiskers and fangs in natural hues of yellow, black, pink, purple, blue and red extracted from charcoal, earth, coloured stones, spices and leaves.
They danced to the beat of the traditional Chenda, Udukku and Thakil percussion instruments till late in the evening Thursday, the fifth day of Onam festivities that end Saturday.
The dancers, comprising men and boys, donned hand-painted tiger masks with twinkling electric lights as eyes that shone like the animals's amber gaze in the dark after sundown.
Their route navigated the ancient Vadakkunnathan temple spread over 100 acres of green park land in the main square of the city known as the Swaraj Round.
The temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is believed to have been built by seer Parasurama, who came to Kerala with 64 families from northern India.
Pulikali, also known as the Kuduvaklai dance, is a traditional recreational folk art form of Kerala that revolves around the ritual of the tiger hunt in the hilly swathes of the Western Ghats and the forests surrounding it.
The dance has a secular lineage.
History cites that the tradition of Pulikali dates back to more than 200 years when the king of Thrissur, Maharaja Ramaverma, introduced the ritual at the behest of his soldiers who wanted to celebrate Onam with a dance that reflected the wild and macho spirit of the force.
Later, Muslim soldiers stationed in Thrissur cantonment area as part of the British garrison joined in with fervour. They popularised the folk genre with steps and body language peculiar to a tiger being stalked by a hunter, enacting a play of the hunter and the beast.
The dance, then known as Puliketikali, later morphed into the present day Pulikali to commemorate the martial and hunting legacy of the local populace.
The group dance reflects team spirit and unity of the rural societies, old timers in the city said.
The colourful performance that began late afternoon drew people from as far as Kannur district, 200 km from Thrissur, and even non-resident Malayalees from Dubai and London.
'Every year, we watch the performance on television, but this year we decided to come to Thrissur because my family wanted to see it. We love the religious and folk heritage associated with the dance,' K.S. Sajan, a lecturer at the B.Ed Training College in Kannur district, told IANS.
London-based Aneetta, who migrated to Britain from Thrissur at the age of nine, was inspired to 'experience the Pulikali and soak in the spirit of the festivities in the land of Guruvayoor (temple) after watching a BBC journalist of Indian origin perform it on a television channel in Britain'.
'I liked the way he painted his body like a tiger and decided to spend my Onam break in Thrissur this year to see the villagers perform it,' she said.
Anu Biji, a resident of Dubai, 'wanted to relive her childhood in Thrissur when she watched the Pulikali every year'.
'I wanted my son to see it too,' she added.
The dance was accompanied by a colourful display of tableaux portraying snippets from the Indian mythology.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)