Pulikkali is a grand spectacle which has become synonymous with the Onam festival in Kerala, and it is an event that you should never miss. Puli means Tiger or Leopard and Kali means Play in Malayalam so Pulikkali literal means the ‘Play of the Tigers’ or Tiger Dance. Pulikkali is a recreational folk art from the state of Kerala in which the performance revolve around the theme of tiger hunting.
Pulikkali is performed by trained artists painted like tigers and hunters in bright yellow, red, and black dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and Thakil to entertain people on the occasion of Onam, the annual harvest festival of Kerala.
Read More: Onam The Most Important Festival of Kerala
Event date: Puroruttadi Day (Third day after Thiruonam)
Venue: Swaraj Round
Location: Swaraj Round
The folk art is mainly practiced in Thrissur district of Kerala on the Puroruttadi Day (Third day after Thiruonam) at the Swaraj Round in Thrissur district of Kerala. It falls in the month of August-September. On this day Pulikkali troupes from all over the district assemble to display their skills and each troupe move through the Swarah round. Imagine this, Men dancing about in abandon, their whole bodies and faces painted to resemble tigers, their huge tummies bobbing about as they prance and move about mimicking a tiger. On this day the whole Thrissur city will be filled with Tigers.
Pulikali forms an integral part of the Onam festivival and it attracts thousands of people to the Thrissur city. A striking feature of this folk art is the colorful appearance of the performers. Pulikkali is also performed during various other festive seasons. The artists go through the laborious task of getting their bodies painted in myriad patterns and colours resembling a tiger. The entire procedure of Pulikali maleup takes 6 to 7 hours which start in the early morning.
The festival in Thrissur has now become an all peoples event with huge response from people, especially youths who come forward to participate in the festival, and also from sponsors. The event is organized by the Pulikkali Co-ordination Committee, a unified council of Pulikkali groups formed in 2004 in Thrissur to preserve and propagate the art in all its true hues and tones.
The origin of Pulikkali dates back to over 200 years, when the Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran, the then Maharaja of Cochin, is said to have introduced the folk art, who wanted to celebrate Onam with a dance that reflected the wild and macho spirit of the force. Later, Konar of (Pattalam Road) used to celebrate with great fervor. 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. Along with the celebrations, they used to perform the art form decked as tigers with peculiar steps resembling the tiger, then known as ‘Pulikkettikali’ which was immensely enjoyed by the locals. Pulikkali in Thrissur is held in memory of this event.
Over the years, there has been many changes in the adornment of Pulikkali dancers. In the early days, masks were not used and participants would have themselves painted all over, on their faces as well. But now, readymade masks, cosmetic teeth, tongues, beards and mustaches are used by the participants along with the paint on their bodies. The tigers also wear a broad belt with jingles around their waist.
By afternoon the Pulikkali groups or ‘sangams’ as they are called, from all four corners of Thrissur move in a procession, dancing, pouncing and shaking their bellies to the beat of the drums through the streets to the Swaraj Round, Thrissur situated in the heart of the city through Palace Road, Karunakaran Nambiar Road, Shornur Road, A R Menon Road and MG Road.
Scenes such as the tiger preying on an animal, and a tiger being hunted by a game-hunter are enacted beautifully in between. Thousands of spectators line the streets enjoying the dance. The groups assemble at Naduvilal in the Swaraj Round, Thrissur in front of the Vadakkunnathan Temple and offer a coconut each to the deity of the Ganapati shrine (Naduvilal Ganapati Kovil) here, before going on a procession around the ground. The procession also include floats from each village. The different troupes vie with each other to make the best floats as well as the best dressed tigers.