With Social distancing becoming the new normal, the world and its people are never going to be the same again. Whilst at this, I consider myself fortunate for having some of the finest experiences during my travel in India, prior to Covid-19. Mostly village fairs and religious congregations are something that draw most crowds, world over. Apart from them, there are yet a few non-religious events that are extremely popular in India and are crowd-pullers.
Here is my list of five such events which perhaps are never going to be the same when normalcy sets in again.
1. The Live rocket launch viewing in Andhra Pradesh: With a seating capacity of over 10000 spectators, witnessing a rocket launch at Sriharikota is once in a lifetime thing. I was fortunate to see the biggest space vehicle yet from the Indian stables (the GSLV) roar into space. The launch of ‘Chandrayaan-2’ was the last biggest event from ISRO before lockdown. Click here to read further.
2. The Republic day parade at New Delhi:One of the largest displays of the Indian might in terms of culture alongside the discipline and strength of the combined defense forces, people throng the Rajpath road at New Delhi in thousands every year. I’m guessing that it may never be the same again.
3. The Boat race of Kerala: This event is a sporting event that’s more of a prestige to win and a craze to watch. I had the opportunity to witness this madness in the biggest festival of them all- The Nehru boat race. Click here to read further.
4. The hornbill festival of Nagaland: An event to celebrate the amalgamation of cultures of all tribes of Nagaland, this annual event is a must be at-least once. I was fortunate to be there in the December of 2019, the last event before the world went under lockdown.
5. The Kodava hockey festival in Karnataka: The world knows that India is a frenzy nation when it comes to cricket. The madness at the stadium is on a next level. But the national sport of India- Hockey is celebrated at an altogether different high in Kodagu district of Karnataka. This congregation holds the Guinness record for being the largest festival dedicated to Hockey in the world. Click here to read further.
Come the night of Mahashivaratri, there will be festivities across the country. People stay up all night and participate in bhajans, pooja offerings, chariot pulling etc. all to keep themselves awake for the night, so that their beloved Lord, Shiva gets good rest after taking care of them all year. But it is the day that follows the revered night, that is the essence to this story of mine. The day that follows Mahashivaratri is when Shakthi, the consort of Shiva and thus, the female power is celebrated across the Northern part of Tamil Nadu. The companionship of Mother Angalamman to Shiva, the graveyard dweller is celebrated with a festival called the ‘Mayana Kollai’. As a friend explains, Mayana Kollai translates to the ‘Raid of the graveyard’ in Tamil. I had planned to witness this festival at one such temple dedicated to Angalamman, closer home, at Kaveripattinam.
The festivities had started as early as the sunrise at the Angalamman temple, with the Goddess being taken on a temple car/ chariot. She is supposed to travel along the streets of the town, to the graveyard by evening from where she returns to the temple by night. All other rituals that are part of this journey of her’s are what make this festival more interesting. It is a festival where the entire town / village participates with no barrier of caste or societal status. The chariot leaves the temple with the idol of Angalamman.
She is greeted by devotees who throw a mixture of salt crystals and black pepper or beans all along her way. She is hailed as a symbol of fertility who is calm throughout the year and takes on her powerful form on this day, once in a year. The villagers get their body pierced with various things near the temple premises and walk across the village to the graveyard, where the piercings are removed. This body paining is what they believe, is a gratitude to the almighty for the wishes that have come true or as a part of a prayer that needs to be fulfilled. The size and things pierced can vary depending on individual’s prayers. While those with tridents pierced around their mouth are a very common sight, the more pious go further to get their torso pierced with hundreds of lemons. Yet, a few pull cars, buses, trucks or large stones with ropes that are hooked through their bare skin.
If u peek into one of the many shops (I don’t know if that is the correct noun for such places) around the town, apart from those getting the body piercings, you will find another set of people. Men and children will be getting their faces painted and dressed up in sarees, a representation of Angalamman. With metal arms attached to the backs, elaborate costumes, jewelry and crown worn, Angalamman is impersonated by these people. They hold tridents and dance to the beats of drums across the streets. Several times on their way, they get possessed or get into a state of trance, until they all finally congregate at the graveyard. Animal sacrifice too is a common sight on the streets on this day.
It is evening by the time the temple car and everyone else reaches the graveyard. That is when the most interesting part of the rituals takes place. The folk impersonating the goddess gather around a random grave and dig it up. The bones from the grave are pulled out and chewed by them. This is called the ‘bone chewing’ ritual or what gives the festival its name: Mayana Kollai or the ‘Raid of the graveyard’.
There are several legends and references that explain the significance of this ritual, depending on the region. Here are some of the references I found on the internet.
Post this ritual, the goddess calms down and returns to the temple on the temple car. The festival culminates when the it reaches its home.
While witnessing all this self-violence, I started to deeply think, why this is necessary to please the gods. Although I couldn’t find a convincing conclusion, what I realized is that this form of ritual is not unique to Hinduism alone. It has been largely practiced worldwide, across all major religions. Some of the closest references are:
Stone pulling Ceremony is an annual traditional event held across the Angami villages to commemorate a certain important day. It takes place in one village per year on a rotational basis. So that way, it takes about 5 to 10 years by the time this ceremony reoccurs in a particular village. This event is usually timed around the Hornbill festival as there will be people from across Nagaland and outside visiting Kohima (The region where the Angami tribe is a majority).
Watch the Stone pulling ceremony video here:
The stone referred here is a large monolith that weighs several tons and the size and shape is not fixed. It is at the villagers’ liberty to pick the monolith they want to use for the occasion and can be either quarried from the village itself or bought from somewhere else depending on the resources. The large stone slab is then placed on a sled that is made of tree trunks and pulled using thick entwined vines from the forest. Thousands of Angami Naga men pull the large monolith over a few kilometers to finally errect it upright, engrave the details of the event and mark the day. This year, the stone pulling ceremony was held at Mima village. It was organised to commemorate the 75th anniversary of christianity in the village. The monolith was symbolized for forgiveness, friendship and peace to the enmities that the village had with various villages before the coming of the gospel to Mima village.
The typical stone pulling ceremony (Click here to watch the complete video) is solemnised by the pastor from the village’s church with recitals from the Angami bible before the start. It is then followed by firing a round of shots from the muzzle loaded guns in the air. The captain stands on the slab and shouts Angami cheers through a loudspeaker to motivate the pullers. While all the strong and younger men folk of the village join hands to pull the stone, The eldest two men of the clan walk, leading the tribe. The women get dressed in their traditional attire and walk with a khophi (an utility basket woven with bamboo or cane) hung on their back and they stay around as a mark of support to the pullers. A few of these women carry cotton in containers made of dried bottle guard and walk ahead of the pullers as a part of the tradition. And yet, the remaining women go around distributing gruel made of ‘Job’s tears or Chinese pearl barley’ to all the passersby and the participants from their traditional Aluminium pots. It is served in bamboo cups that are carried in the baskets hung around their foreheads. The gruel provides an instant boost of carbohydrates for the toiling men in the hot sun.
In a Christian majority state, the tribal traditions are still thriving. It was a different experience watching the entire village dressed in their ethnic best and gathering to pull the stone uphill from the starting point to its destination. I somehow drew parallels with the chariot pulling tradition of the Puri Jagannath and several other temples of South India.
Isn’t it true that we all somehow follow the same way of life, only with different names for our faith and the process we follow to achieve it?
Dense canopy of trees, swaying coconut palms, houseboats cruising through the pristine backwaters, wooden canoes of the locals fishing in narrow canals- Well, does this paint a picture of Gods own country? When opportunity struck, I decided to give the usual things a miss and explore a region that is least spoken about in the tourist circuit. A land where art is considered divine and celebrated in all its form- Pathanamthitta.
First thing I did while approaching Pathanamthitta was lowering all the windows of my car, to breathe in some clean air. With almost two third of the district comprising of forest cover, it is no wonder that Pathanamthitta is the least polluted city in India. The remaining one third is a combination of the city and plantations. We were heading to the homestay we had booked, not very far from the city centre. It was nestled in what the locals call as a residential area that was far from imagination of a city soul. The narrow roads were flanked by rubber, tapioca and banana plantations for most stretch and marsh lands for the rest. Bunches of jackfruits hung down from tall trees among several other tropical trees like litchi, rambutan etc. that had the fruit lover in me all drooling. My stay was at a traditional Kerala house nestled amidst a huge garden. Its wooden portico with clay tiled roof had me fancy struck.
Surprisingly for me, Pathanamthitta hosts some of the largest annual religious congregations in the world. The Sabarimala yatra and Maramon convention are next only to the Haj. Giving a pass to the famous backwaters of Kerala, I had driven this far to explore its vibrant and divine culture and art. My plan for the first day was to visit two of the 108 Divyadesams, both located in Pathanamthitta. I had arrived at the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple, particularly for a tour of a foundry that makes the historical ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ (Click to watch the video).
This GI tagged handicraft is culturally important in the state of Kerala. The know-how of making it is endemic to Aranmula and limited to the descendants of only one family who now live around this temple. Unlike the familiar glass mirrors, these are finely polished metal sheets. Watching these men toiling in their workshop to bring an alloy to life, which is integral in all Malayali celebrations was like living a dream for me.
A short drive away from there was my next destination: Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple. With its ancient wooden architecture, this beautiful temple sprawls on a huge area. Here, the prayers are offered five times a day and the last prayer was specifically that interested me the most to visit here. Kathakali is performed inside the temple premises everyday as a form of prayer to put the deity to sleep. I was like a little child in wonderland who lost track of time watching this performance that went late into the night.
I had planned my return route to Kochi such that I could cover some of the interesting landmarks along the way. The first stop was at Kalloppara, where an ancient Hindu inscription exists inside a church. I had read about how two faiths co-exist under the same roof that houses a Bhagavati temple and a Mary’s church. But my drive through the streets of a residential area ended at a bridge that connected Kalloppara. It had collapsed during the floods that ravaged Kerala last year. Having three rivers flowing through it, Pathanamthitta was one of the worst affected.
I hit the main road again and headed to Thiruvalla. Since it was dark the previous night, I was there again to have a look at the famed mural paintings on the altar of the Paliakkara Church. The church at Paliakkara and Niranam (my next destination) both have their history dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India in 54.A.D. This trip was all about an amalgamation of art and tradition. Be it wildlife, religion, architecture, history, art or culture, I believe Pathanamthitta has something for everyone.
(P.S.: I’m against the idea of taking photos inside any place of worship, as a form of respect to its sanctity. Hence, I do not have any pictures from the interiors of any place of worship)
How to reach: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Trivandrum. Kottayam and Alleppey are the nearest Railway stations. KSRTC buses and taxis are available from these places to reach Pathanamthitta by road.
Get around: local buses are quite frequent; Taxis can be easily availed.
Best time to visit: September to May (Anytime apart from monsoon)
Stay: Luxury hotels are sparse. Cheap and Budget hotels are available in plenty considering the pilgrims who come here for Sabarimala yatra. Homestays are available to experience the true essence of Kerala.
Must do: Attend a Kathakali performance, visit a mirror foundry, Bathe elephants at Konni.
It has been a while since I did the local rounds as I have been tad busy on weekends with lot of get-togethers with family and friends. So to start the year 2017, I did not think twice to go solo shopping in the market. Typically, the one stop campo where all villagers come-together to trade grains, vegetables, cattle, clothes etc. is called a ‘Santhe’ in Kannada. But this was a unique market that sold only paintings (Chithra) of various artists who gather from around the country.
It is an annual event organized by the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath on the first Sunday of January every year and is all about art in the form of paintings. Canvas, glass, paper, fabric, wood, plastic, beer bottles- you name them and you can find beautiful paintings on them being sold at this fair with products strewn on both sides of an entire road. KumaraKrupa main road and it’s cross roads would be choc-o-block from dawn to dusk with art enthusiasts pouring in large numbers.
From very modern styles of mass-media art to traditional Madurai and Mysore royal paintings, artwork of school going kids to Octogenarians to handicapped artists, celebrity portraits, wildlife, architecture, conceptual paintings- art lovers will be spoilt for choices. Although the artistic skill cannot be gauged with a price tag, things range from 50Rs. to 1lakh Rs. Per painting depending on the material used and time spent.
This is not an event for the trippers who want to take a selfie and post on social media but a wonderful event for talented artists to get some genuine investors. A must go for the artist in you…
Finally, here is a life sized painting that I loved the most- An expecting mother playing with her unborn baby in the real world. Everything in the real world- the mother, the door and the toys have their shadow except the imaginary baby. The clarity in the artist’s thoughts about his subject has been represented with every detail in this picture looking so real.
PS: Do not reproduce any images as there is a lot of effort that has gone into every piece of art. #Respect
Have you been to ChitraSanthe? What kind of art do you like? What other art festival have you been to? Do let me know what was your favourite part of the visit to this annual market of art in the comments below.
After a lot of last minute hiccups, the planning of more than 3 months had finally materialised.. And there we were… At Allapuzha.
At 10.a.m we were on the stands looking out for a nice place which would give us a good view of the river. The 60th Annual Nehru Boat Race was scheduled to start at 2.30.p.m. ‘The crowd had started to pour in from as early as 6.a.m., to get a good seat’, we were told.
Pam and I were sitting in the last row (We considered ourselves fortunate enough for getting chairs to sit).. Sam had ventured out of our stands to get some good photographs and to find a better corner seat for all of us.
Just then, this gang of 6 huge Malayali men dressed in their white Lungis came in and stood behind us.. They pushed our chairs forward so that they could accommodate a few more chairs on the already crammed podium. We barely had space to keep our legs and we were wondering what they were upto. Without knowing the language, we only ended up giving them some wild stares. Pam belted out a few words in Kannada.
Next thing we saw was: Each of these men placing biiig hand bags in between their legs, covered by their lungis and each- pulling out a bottle of local brew (the tags on the bottle indicated that it was pure-strong-local). They pulled out a glass from their bag and poured the drink and gulped it all down RAW in the blink of an eye (It was faster than that of one drinking water). And then… One of them started to utter something to us- From the fact that he had just finished a bottoms up and the tone of his speech, we knew for sure that we were being verbally abused. Although with my little knowledge of the language, I managed to understand a few swears, I instructed Pam not to react. We would surely be outnumbered by men there, in God’s own country. Like a call from God himself- Sam called us to inform us that he had found a better place for all of us to sit. We vacated the spot in the very same minute.
On the way, Pam walked upto a cop and said, “Those men in the last row there, are boozing; Each man is carrying at least a bottle which they are not supposed to possess in a public gathering”. The cop replied an apologetic “OK, OK Sir, We will look into it” and walked off as if Pam had just spoken to deaf ears.
We met Sam and just as we were narrating the scene to him- We saw 2 more men carrying handbags and settling down right beside us. And soon they pulled out a bottle each, bottoms up, gobbled up some minced beef and then started cheering at the water in front of them, where the race was yet to begin. Even before we reacted, Sam pointed at the platform onto our left. More than 10 men were repeating the same procedure- handbags covered by lungis- bottoms up- cheer out loud. And then we looked behind at the gallery- and we were like “What the F***…??”. Every lungi fellow had a glass in his hand..!!! And then we knew, the exact reason for getting such a vague response from that cop. The Policemen were clearly outnumbered by those drunkards and that seemed like quite a normal phenomenon to the cops to take any action. And we too quickly learnt to live with it..!! Soon, the crowd of drunkards increased and also the excitement.
And.. The boat race had a roaring start with a lot of frenzy and madness.. We too were at the peak of our excitement.. And suddenly this scuffle started between 2 groups. The next thing we saw was random people being thrown into the river by random people… Typical to any Indian movie, the cops gave a late entry. They arrived in speed boats and pulled out a couple of them from the water and sped away..
The below picture shows:
A hard core fan who watched the match sitting on a coconut tree from 10.a.m to 7.00.p.m.
A drunk fan standing on a pole and cheering for his team whose limbs finally gave way into the water after 5hrs.
Another bunch of fans seated in the gallery who are supporting themselves by holding onto the electric lines.
This was definitely one hell of a maddening-superbly-awesomeness-crazy-experience that I am going to cherish for life.
Kerala: “The Land Of Lungis” is truly God’s own Country… L.O.L. 😀
Have you ever experienced any such psychotic crowds? Share it with me.. 🙂