Day 125, Year 5: Chinakkathoor Pooram
Date: Sunday, February 28, 2010
Weather: Inland HOT
Location: Ottappalum, State of Palakkad, India

The Chinakkathor Pooram makes Carnival in Panama City look like a birthday party for a one-year old. Carnival was interesting, but the festival today was totally unbelievable. Just getting from our hotel in Ottappalum to the Sree Chinakkathoor Bhagavathy Temple in Palappuram just five kilometers away was quite an adventure in itself. Once we got to the temple festival grounds, the mass of humanity was overwhelming. And we could see nothing but people jammed in the highway for as far as you could see in either direction. The kuthiras or huge, stuffed horses on a platform carried by at least 40 men, the caparisoned or decorated elephants, the live music from scores of small bands continuously beating out a rhythm for five hours, the dancers in ornately decorated masks, things that looked like whirling Christmas trees, each ‘tree’ carried on a person’s shoulders. It just went on and on. I’m not sure there is any way to describe it to really share what it is like. I think getting the photos posted will help tell the story, but you have to hear the people and the constant beat of the drums to get the full effect. We’ll get video up as soon as we can, but in the meantime, you can search for this festival and see video of past years on the web at http://www.keralatourism.org/video-clips/chinakkathoor-pooram-707624724.php. It was definitely a once in a life time experience that we will never forget. There was one big disappointment in that the parade of the decorated elephants was so late in the evening that we couldn’t stay to see it. We did get to see the elephants, but not in all their glory. But the decision was to either stay and watch the elephants and walk through thousands of people in the dark or leave before sunset and miss the elephant parade. Walking through the crowds after dark just didn’t seem like a good idea, especially since we were the only white people among the thousands, so we left early. There were also a few apprehensive moments during the day and evening, but there were so many wonderful people who made sure we were safe that all was well. So that’s the short story. I’ll now continue with the detailed version of the day.

Our day began with a ride to shore with our agent, Nazar. We then hopped in an auto rickshaw and headed to the Ernakulum Junction train station. Our train arrived about a half an hour late, but before 10 am we were headed north. I was really sorry that I hadn’t brought my laptop as there were actually laptop plug-ins on the train. We were in an air-conditioned car with fairly comfortable seats. Two hours later, we arrived at Shonaur Junction. We exited our AC train car and were greeted by the hottest blast of wind I have ever felt. It was obvious that we were no longer on the coast. The heat of the inland was intense. But on we went. We hopped in an auto rickshaw and made our way to the Hotel Aramana in Ottappalum. I had called to make reservations and talked with someone named Krishna Kumar. When we arrived at the hotel, he came to greet us and knew I was Judy without me saying a word. He had expected us two hours earlier and I had to explain that we changed our plans. I felt bad that I hadn’t called to tell him, but I’m not used to people caring whether or not you arrive. India is different. Once you call someone to make a reservation, they feel they must take care of you. What a nice change from what we are used to in the US. The hotel looked great, but as we walked by the hotel bar, it was sounding a little rowdy and it was only noon. Kumar explained that the festival time is special and people really celebrate. We learned as the day went on that ‘celebrate’ was an understatement. Kumar took us to our rooms, made sure the AC was working and told us to have a little lunch and rest and get to the festival before three o’clock. There was a room at the end of our corridor that said ‘AC Family Restaurant.’ We opened the door and went in to find about four tables and a waiter. Obviously food was being brought in from a main dining room somewhere, but we loved having the convenience of eating in a quiet room just a few doors from our rooms. It was about two o’clock when we finished, so we decided to head to the temple. Kumar found a rickshaw for us and off we went-but not far before we found ourselves behind a huge group of men blocking the road as they were carrying one of the horse motifs to the temple. Immediately our rickshaw driver made a left turn and off we went through the back alleys of somewhere. He would head back toward the main road from time to time, see the traffic blockade due to the parade, and head off in another direction. He tried to cross police barricades, but that didn’t work, and finally he indicated that he had taken us as far as possible. We got out and started walking. Mark and I didn’t have hats with us and the sun was unbearable. Some young guys sitting in the shade saw us and came to us with paper visors. I then got out a silk scarf I was carrying and also threw that over my head. The road was lined with people and still more people were walking toward the temple. There were drumming bands and brass bands in the road along the way. Some were playing, some were not, but just walking among so many people was quite an experience. The people got thicker as we approached the temple, but when we looked behind us, we were glad we had come early. There was just as huge a mass of people behind us and in front of us.

When we got to the temple we found a place to stand in the shade where we could see the kuthiras or stuffed horses. I left Mark and Ed to walk closer to the temple to take some photos. As I walked in that direction, I started feeling a little uncomfortable. Not only was I the only white person in sight, I was the only woman. So I scurried back to where Mark and Ed were standing. They had met a man with two young sons and another man who was trying to explain things to them. About that time, an older gentleman approached us and basically told us to move. At first we thought he was being rude, but then we realized he was trying to get us to go into a covered shelter where the press and policemen were standing. He kept saying something about fighting, so we went and the police let us enter the special area. Because we were obviously foreign tourists we evidently had priority seating (although there were only a couple of plastic chairs). I felt uncomfortable at first, but once the festivities were underway, I understood why we were there. Each of the huge stuffed horses being carried by more than 40 men were in a competition. One kuthira or horse motif would move to the center place and the men holding the platform would work into frenzy and then throw the horse and platform into the air as far as they could. We then realized that this was an athletic competition of sorts and then we also realized that the platform bearers were drinking some alcoholic brown liquid and that tempers easily flared. A fight broke out and I was glad to be in a shelter with the police. They were doing nothing to stop the fight, but at least we felt protected. The throwing of the horse platforms was spectacular, but it was marred by the flaring tempers. Eventually police came out of nowhere and escorted a couple of men from the festival area. By this time we could see the parade of elephants far in the distance and we thought they would arrive soon. But at least an hour went by and there was no movement. Finally, Mark and Ed left me in the protected shelter and they went in search of elephants. I stubbornly stood in my little space in the shelter where I would have a chance for a great photo when and if the elephants arrived. I was pushed and shoved in all directions by other people, but I held my own. Then Mark and Ed returned and said they had been able to get good photos of the elephants and that we should probably leave as it was approaching sundown. I agreed, although sad that I wouldn’t get to see the parade of elephants. But I did go to see them up close. They were magnificent with large, intricately designed gold plates covering from the top of their heads down onto their trunks. The backs of the elephants were covered with brightly colored carpets and each elephant driver carried a decorative parasol.

As dusk approached, fireworks went off, temporary temple structures lit up and more and more people arrived. So we tried to head down the highway. But the road was packed with bands, floats, and more people than I could imagine. A friend that we had met earlier in the day found us and said we should follow him. I have no idea how he found us among the thousands, but he did and he walked with us for at least a kilometer or two to get us out of the packed crowds. At one point, we head someone say that there was a fight ahead and we realized just how precarious our safety could be. In such crowds, you could easily be crushed or trampled by people innocently running from a fight. We were shoulder to shoulder with no place to run, but we just kept following our friend who eventually helped us find a rickshaw back to the hotel. Whew! It was a long, hot afternoon with some spectacular memories. But we were hot, tired, incredibly dirty from the constant dust kicked up by human movement, and really glad to get back to Hotel Aramana. Krishna Kumar met us again and made sure we were all set for the evening. Needless to say, we slept well.

100228 Day 125 India–Chinakkathoor Pooram
Day 127, Year 5: Strike in Kerala
Day 124, Year 5: Time for a Vacation