Pulikali, the tiger dance

Pulikali (aso Kaduvakali and Pulikkali) is a rhythmic tiger dance. Native to Thrissur, it is an essential part of local Onam celebrations.

The fourth day of Onam is the time when tigers of all shapes and sizes conquer the streets of Thrissur town. Human tigers!

Onam, by the way, is the major festival of Kerala. Entire Kerala celebrates it in many days of festivities.

You may have heard of snake boat races of Kerala. Most of them are held as part of Onam celebrations.

Thrissur celebrates Onam in style with the play of tigers.

To become a tiger is not an easy task. Desire and passion has to be up high to overcome impatience and inconvenience of tedious preparatory painting.

Body hair needs to be shaved off prior to applying the first coat of the paint. The palette of black, yellow and red are coated over again to create the exact lookalike of a tiger. For a change, some are painted as leopards while very few become black panthers.

A tiger’s face is prominently drawn on each player’s chest. In addition, players also wear head masks, jingles and relevant costumes.

All painting happens at early dawn or even the night before. Players spend 6 to 8 hours painting and waiting for it to dry. Several cheering fans keep company throughout the preps. By afternoon a new breed of tigers are ready to roam through the streets of town.

Gone are the days when natural colours were used. Nowadays synthetic paints are preferred as they are glossy and easy to dry. Unlike herbal pigments, these synthetic substances cause burning sensation on the newly shaven skin. Passion in plenty melts pain away, it seems.

During afternoon, Tigers from different parts of the town and nearby suburbs proceed to Swaraj Round in town. They dance through the streets and gather near Naduvilal. After offering coconuts to the Deity at Ganapathi Kovil (Ganesh Shrine) the procession continues with greater steam.

While each team may only a handful of tigers, numbers add up. Thrissur town has witnessed Pulikkali reaching to greater heights of ecstasy with up to 900 tigers participating.

Ballistic festive tempo takes over crowded Swaraj Round as thousands of fans cheer, uproar and applause while dancing along with their favorite tigers. Tigers dance to the tune of local instruments such as Chenda, Thimila, Udukku and Thakil.

Tiger dance groups compete to display the best float. Tiger preying some animal as well as hunter shooting and tiger falling down are usually enacted.

The procession of Tigers dancing with tiger like steps gradually moves along Swaraj Round.

Even though Pulikkali is sporadically celebrated in wider Kerala, Thrissur town is where it is performed with fervor.

It is believed that Pulikali started 200 years ago during the time of King Sakthan Thampuran. Pulikkali Co-ordination Committee, a unified council of kaduvakali groups formed in 2004, organise the event nowadays.

Onam festival is based on Malayalam calendar. Pulikali day is usually in late August or early to mid September.

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