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India Trip Notes

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5-20-11 - Kerala  mon sweetie pie

As was mentioned eight days ago, I arrived in Kerala at Thrissur in order to attend the Pooram. [5-12-11 - Gotta get back to the Thrissur Pooram!] They call this the Pooram of Poorams. It's a thirty-six hour festival that officially began with some giant booms at three in the morning. Back to sleep on the 3rd floor of a small private culture center. Never met my hosts, just Chacko, an economics prof and the folks in the software company that rented the 2nd floor.

See Chacko Jose's photo album of Thrissur Pooram on Facebook. He wants friends from around the world so friend him on Facebook if you do that.

Thrissur has two temples walking distance from my place that are involved in the Pooram. They face each other and there's a large park around one of them. There's involvement also of Muslims and Christians and society in general but these two temples are central to it. I haven't read about it, just going by what people told me. This park and temple area and the surrounding streets is where the pooram was held.

I started early watching the elephants get bathed and dressed. Then all day long I'd watch a row of elephants facing a few rows of musicians. The elephants were bedecked with ornamentation including a broad roughly triangular gold emblem that ran from the top of the forehead down the nose, hobbled with chains, three men atop holding a tall parasol, two mandalas and two fluffy white what-to-call-them on handles. The musicians blared but few notes on horns that circled around to behind their heads and the drummers banged away on drums they wore, both in a continual frenzy. The parasols were kept elevated as the music and rhythm pulsed and at the crescendos the two back men on the elephants with the elephantine god's eyes and cotton candy stood and raised them to wild approval from the crowd. After a while the music would stop, the whole lot move to another spot and start it up again.

I saw this inside each temple (Hindus only but that day was an exception) and outside, on the streets approaching, and as the day progressed the crowds got bigger and bigger. And finally each temple's elephants, maybe thirty in all, were facing each other, their bands backs to each other, taking turns wailing away and then the changing of the umbrellas, the high point of the pooram, a competition between each temple to see which side has the most elaborate and original special parasols and mandalas and fluffies for the event. Everybody talked about it all day with enthusiastic anticipation. Those who weren't there asked about it. It happened around six - but I didn't see it because the crowd was so so massive at that point that I was just trying to survive, to escape being crushed against a railing, a building, under an elephant. I could not stay within view of the changing thing. I couldn't even stay on the edge anymore.

Later I sat in a school courtyard and watched one group of elephants eat banana branches and whole trees. They liked the stalks  - like up to eight or so inches in diameter. Using their noses and feet, they'd break them up, split them, cut them into bite size, chew them up, and later eat the leaves after slapping their legs, sides, and heads with them. The mahouts started stuffing what I thought were cabbages in the elephants' mouths but upon closer inspection I could see they were soccer ball sized offerings of yellow rice. The mahouts also told me and others at times to keep a distance, that their wards were not pets (inferred), were dangerous.

I spent some time with a well-educated Hindu gentleman and noted that the temples reminded me of Chinese temples and the music too horn-wise - China and Tibet, but the drums sounded somewhat like the monotonous Japanese Taiko, not the complicated rhythms as with Carnatic and Hindustani music. He said that this area is where some of the earliest contact with China originated.

In my three days there, of the zillion people I was with, I saw ten Westerners - five in one group, four in another (Fins I talked to), and a man with a camera walking with an Indian. This is one of the most amazing events I ever witnessed, and I don't think it's very well known. I went because Gita suggested it. Thanks Gita. It was powerful and enchanting, though it was monolithic, a wall of sound and a wall of elephants all day long. I think my experience with punk rock and industrial music helped prepare me. It's only something over 200 years old, but that was before modern entertainment and it must have been an unprecedented mind blower back then. Even now it still is.

Then there were fireworks - at eight that night, three and four the next morning - no one within miles could have slept - and one to three in the afternoon the next day to end the event. The fireworks were also competition between the two temples. Visually the displays would be like those from a small town in the US, but the explosiveness would not be allowed. Especially the closing fireworks. I was in the park, a very nice park, when they started, and it was shocking, not just mentally but physically. The blasts were so strong that physical waves in the air would jolt me so that I held on to a light pole and stood behind it to block the shock. Some building owners have urged the city to limit the size of these bombs because they say that even from a distance they cause damage. I wondered what the decibel level was. I wondered about ear damage. Many people kept walking away from the source while many many stood and admired. The air was strong with smoke and smell of spent fireworks powder.

The next day I took a bus to Cherai Beach, a couple of hours away. This is called the Queen of Kerala beaches. It's fifteen kilometers long. I got to know about 100 yards of it, the part with the stone sea wall. Got a nice room in a thatch bungalow with a porch on a lagoon. The beach was a few minutes away. It was the weekend and I watched the sunset with thousands of Indians, again, seeing three Westerners all weekend. Guys come up to me frequently and ask where I'm from and I say the USA and they ask my name and it usually goes no further but two on this beach were so eager to dig deeper though they didn't have the language for it. Kerala is famous for its literacy approaching 100%, as least so they say. I finally figured out that this guy was saying Marquez. He was asking if I'd read A Hundred Years of Solitude, his favorite book. Another guy joined us who spoke more English. "He thinks I'm lying," I said. "He thinks all Americans are Christians or Jews. I told him that Christianity has a more obvious presence in Kerala than in Northern California where I live. So he got it and I finished it off with, "I wouldn't lie to you. I only lie to women." That homeopathic comment made them laugh.

Of course they asked if I liked Kerala and my thoughts are so relative to where I'd been in Tamil Nadu, and I had newcomer eyes, so I didn't have to fudge it a bit to say that I loved Kerala - it's so neat and clean, almost beggar-less, and together, and what great roads. It's not perfect but there's more effort to close sewers and I saw people cleaning up from the Pooram who were like citizen volunteers with rakes. It seems there is so much more care taken for the environment and for the welfare of people. It's beautiful too. The buildings and neighborhoods are often pleasing and attractive. There are some interesting roofs It's a relief. The rickshaws use meters and are cheaper. The fruit is cheaper and more varied. They said then what I'd seen on signs in Kerala (as well as elsewhere in the world). "It's God's own country." That's like their motto.

Then they heard that I'd been to the Thrissur Pooram and I was asked what in America is like the Thrissur Pooram and I answered, much to their pleasure. "Nothing in the world is like the Thrissur Pooram."

We watched the waves roll in, the sun slowly sink into a cloudbank on the horizon, the sky turn crimson bleeding into light blues fading into darkness. Not even the Thrissur Pooram could match this daily event.

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