Pulikali – The Tigers’ Dance of Kerala

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A mass procession of pulikali in Swaraj Ground
A mass procession of pulikali in Swaraj Ground

Onam is right around the corner and Kerala is one of the culturally diverse states in the country, will be set to celebrate the 10 day festival of the Malayalis. Out of all the districts of Kerala, Thrissur occupies an important place during the festival. Being the cultural capital of the state, it hosts a unique procession called Pulikali which is not found anywhere else from the state.

a Puli dancer
a Puli dancer

Onam, the 10-day festival, has Pulikali on the fourth day called as Naalaam Onam. Pulikali is where men will decorate themselves in vibrant colors and designs which make them look like tigers. They go on for a march around the city which is jam packed with thousands of visitors and tourists from all over the country.

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procession of Chendamelam along with pulikali
procession of Chendamelam along with pulikali

The play of the tigers”, as it is called consists of troupes that contain around 35 to 51 pulis. The paints unlike the conventional acrylic, is a mixture of tempera powder and varnish which would require kerosene to remove is after the procession. These days, masks, teeth and jingles around the waist have become an important part of the procession. In Thrissur, the troupes perform special dances, pouncing and making movements that resemble the tiger and the hunter. Unlike Pooram in Thrissur which is funded by the Devaswom board, Pulikali is completely crowd funded and supported by local people of Thrissur.

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Illustration of the Pulikali art
Illustration of the Pulikali art

Sadhya which is the feast offered to people along with Pulikali are two things that the festival of Onam is widely famous for. The procession begins with the tigers dance towards the Swaraj ground in Thrissur. The bellies of the tigers are important as the bigger bellies get noticed and recognized by receiving extra money at the end of the festival. The art form represents the skill of the hunter who hunted the tiger during those days, but the art of Pulikali came to existence when the king Shakthan Thampuran wanted to celebrate Onam with joy and grandeur.

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Pulikali performers
Pulikali performers

Conclusion  – 

The art of Pulikali, unfortunately, is losing the popularity that it had because of the lack of funds from the government and other philanthropic institutions. Even though the municipality of Thrissur is allocating funds to the troupes, it does not suffice to meet the increased costs of the processions and the tigers themselves. Pulikali lives on the funds and recognition that the people of Thrissur provides who find it to be a valuable representation of their culture.