Onam Festival Pulikali

During infamous Onam celebrations, events and festivities spread all over Kerala State. Among other events Pulikali certainly is the weirdest of all. If being interested in cultural affairs and wobbling Indians with body paintings, please read further.

Pulikali (“Puli” = Leopard/Tiger & “Kali” = Play in Malayalam language) is a recreational folk art from the state of Kerala. It is performed by trained artists to entertain people on the occasion of Onam, an annual harvest festival, celebrated mainly in the Indian state of Kerala. On the fourth day of Onam celebrations (Nalaam Onam), participants get ther bod painted like tigers (lions or leopards) and dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and Thakil. Hence, the performance revolve around the theme of tiger hunting. The origin of Pulikali 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. Over the years, there has been 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, ready made masks, cosmetic teeth, tongues, beards and mustaches are used by the participants along with the paint on their bodies.

Pulikali troupes from all over the district of Thrissur assemble to display their skills from early afternoon until late night. The entire procedure lasts around 12 hours. Huge floats are driving in from villages around Thrissur, whereas participants are dancing or acting as storytellers. The different troupes compete with each other to make the best floats as well as the best dressed tigers. Every participant has to smash a coconut on a certain place to sacrifice. (Coconuts are very important in Hindu belief. The three ‘eyes’ of the coconut represent the three eyes of the great god Shiva. An earthen pot or pitcher, called a purnakumbha is filled with water and mango leaves and a coconut is placed on top. This purnakumbha is used in the ritual of worship and adoration of the gods. It is placed as a substitute for the deity or by the side of the deity.)

I’ve witnessed the whole procedure and documentated the painting behind the scenes. It took them at least 6-7 hours to get the paint job done. The body paint can be choosen on individual basis. The artists play a big role and suggest a painting to its wearer. Some use a photo as a sketch.