Thrissur Pooram: Sick Love-Hate India Frenzy

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

The fireworks boomed as fifteen gold-caparisoned elephants stood in formation for the Thrissur Pooram, the largest Kerala summer temple festival celebrating the one day Shiva meets his Shakti.

The chenda melam music continued throughout the day and still continues as memories of sound in my mind. The drummers, all in a line, began with a soft defining rhythm. Next, drum masters embellished the rhythm, slapping their chenda with skill and passion contorting their faces. Master drummers each took their turn as the energy progresses.

Facing the drummers were musicians with kompu trumpets. They increased the energy further with two golden tonic notes and one dominant, playing back and forth with the drummers, backed by the fifteen elephants.

On the elephants, temple brahmins carried umbrellas and peacock regalia, raising them up to the trumpeters' calls to Shiva and Shakti.

The climax of the festival occurred at sunset in the heart of the city, when two troopes of elephants from separate temples faced one another in a crowd of tens of thousands. Each troope competed with the other as they changed as many umbrellas as possible--red, green, multi-colored--in a show of summer color under cloudy night skies.

One man explained to me: "today is the one day we believe that Shiva can meet with his two goddesses." The Shiva temple lay in the center of the city, flanked by the two devi temples. Today was a day of fertility, celebrating the summer harvest, the peak heat of summer, and the coming rains of the monsoon.

The body heat was palpable over the humid tropical air as I found myself in the middle of the all-male frenzy. "Will you enter our bet," said an American in the crowd?

"Can you find one Indian female in the crowd?"

Females typically avoid these festivals, as one German woman I met found out the hard way, as she was groped the entire day. I watched as she managed to hit one offender with a direct slap to the head. Given the celebration of fertility, the pent-up sexuality of Indian men, and the uncontrollable intensity of the moment, the women stay away or watch from nearby windows. The crowds began to frenzy like a Lollapalooza mosh pit. "Nope, none in sight, no bet," I replied.

I had come to Thrissur to experience the pooram in all its manifestations. One manifestation I hadn't experience came from inside me in the form of sickness and hitting a bottom of sorts.

The sickness began with a headache--beyond pounding--that stayed with me day and night, complete with fever, and no energy. Perhaps it was sparked by being electrocuted with a faulty hot water heater or perhaps it began through something in the food: who knows?

Since it didn't abate, I went to the hospital. They gave me some horse pills, took some tests just in case, and I returned to my hotel room to watch HBO for four days straight. The highlight was watching Ghostbusters, but in the end it was too much TV after little to no television for years.

Though I wasn't sure what ailment hit me, it mixed with the worst aspects of India in my psyche, sending me to a crash. I was tired of superficial conversations that went something like this:

"What is your name?"
What is your NAME, NAME?"
"Your name is Goiyn? Your COUNTRY?"
"Your country name, name?"

The person interrogating me seemed to grow frustrated, as if I wasn't answering him correctly, as if he were the center of the world needing to know the facts, even if I was trying to observe nature in peace and quiet, binoculars in hand. This was often followed by some sales tactic, asking for a pen or ruppee, saying "Oh, George Bush," or saying "good country," as if there were countries they didn't like (such as Israel as they sometimes say.). I felt that most people liked to also practice their few words of English to impress their friends or were trying to judge people by where they were from. This now grew old on me after going through this iteration dozens and dozens of times day after day...
and finally

I was tired of drivers honking their horns incessantly at high decibel levels, affecting my hearing and my head (and wildlife, as people honk even in the national parks, despite regulations and signs).

I was tired of the pushing and shoving in the buses and on the frenetic streets without sidewalks.

I was tired of hearing about India's self-less spirituality and seeing outward rudeness, selfishness, and a lack of geniune nature.

I was tired of listening to park visitors yelling and screaming around wildlife and feeding them food and littering.

I was tired of innane Indian bureaucracy and money mongers (e.g. forest department staff told me to go to the park office 1.5 hours away to get permission the next day. On that day, when I finally arrived, the officer there told me I had to get permission at the office I just came from. "There is nothing I can do," he said, after I explained the situation kindly asking for assistance. Seeing the situation was impossible, I left not bothering to argue further with Indian bureaucracy. Situations such as this were common.).

I had lost my passion for travel, for writing in this blog, for taking photographs, for continuing on this journey both inner and outer, wherever it may lead. Is it time to go home, or is this the big test, the mental hurdle after two years on the road?

I realized that this was my mood talking one-sidedly in the midst of sickness and headache and went back to watching HBO for a bit--perhaps a mistake. These sick moods were worse than the sickness itself. Still I wondered about these things as many other travelers have complained to me about travel in India. India is a difficult place to travel, is something heard time after time. Either way, I knew it would pass, that with the good come the bad, especially when travelling, and soon my head would become level again.  I considered myself lucky that I was sick only once in the first two years of travel, knock on wood.

Then, despite my sick weakness in the mid-day heat of the Pooram, I was still mesmerized by the master drummers and enjoyed some good conversations with locals enjoying the celebration. As the days passed, I slowly left the doldrums behind. Now as I write this, leaving tomorrow for Sri Lanka, I am back in good health and spirits, and look back on the ups and downs of India with fond memories, hurdles passed, some better than others.
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