Well, that was one of the craziest days of my life.
It sounded pretty crazy from the start. We were attending the Pulikkali Festival in Thrissur, where Inel and I were going to join 49 locals, have our chests shaved and then be body painted with tigers’ faces on our abdomens. The first part of the morning went as expected. We were led onto a flat roof above some shops where, although it was early morning, there were already plenty of paunched middle aged men standing around showing off their painted bodies, tiger faces staring out from their wobbling bellies. Journalists and TV crews bustled about in the throng and we were interviewed several times, sometimes live on Indian TV, being shaved by disconcertingly enthusiastic men bearing cut throat razors.
Thankfully we had our own paint, as normally people are painted in oil based household paint that takes a couple of hours to remove with kerosene after the event. ‘The Master’ (as he was known) painted a face on Inel first, then me, while other lesser mortals painted our arms and backs (we’d escaped having our legs shaved and painted by bringing some very fetching leopard print leggings). It was all quite chaotic, and things weren’t helped by a chimney stack next door constantly belching coal smoke, but things were about to get a lot more bonkers.
After scoffing down some food in a cafe opposite we were given plastic hoods and tiger face masks and pushed towards a playing field opposite where all 51 tigers were revealed to the public on a stage. Then we walked down the road to the local church shouting “Happy Onam” (today is the last day of the Onam festival), blessed by the Catholic priest, then bundled onto trucks (amongst a constant badgering for selfies by the smart phone wielding onlookers) and driven down to the town centre.
After assembling into lines and standing about in the heat for a bit our drummers started up and we slowly made our way doing a basic two step dance down the road to a Hindu shrine, where the volume of people in the crowd increased considerably and the jostling began. In amongst the throng Inel and I were handed coconuts and encouraged to smash them at the base of a Hindu shrine, along with the oldest member of our team, an 86 year old man who has been taking part every year for over 60 years (where he gets the energy from I have no idea. Last I saw of him he’d been on the move for 4 hours and was dancing on a festival float).
After this the procession began to snake around a huge central square, moving at a snails pace as thousands upon thousands of cheering Keralans were held back by police and organisers holding ropes. There were 10 other teams spaced along the route (over 500 tigers in all), but I didn’t see any of them, such was the scale of the event. After 4 hours of pulling tiger moves and stumbling about due to the limited vision from my tiger mask, a judge declared me the winner because my dancing was more “masculine” (Inel’s outstanding sense of rhythm and actual ability to dance apparently counted for nothing).
We took this opportunity to quietly slip away, utterly exhausted, through the crowd and back to our bus, trying to make some sense of everything we’d just seen. If we’ve managed to capture just 10% of the madness then I think people back home will be blown away!