Garudan Thookkam and Pulikali - Strange rituals of Kerala

India is a land of strange beliefs that are invariably based on superstitions  and the rituals that are offshoots of such beliefs have been around us for centuries. Some rituals are bizarre and strange, but as for as the ardent devotees are concerned, they have  trust  in them and get actively involved in such festivals in the belief that their desires will be positively answered by the god. If such festivals were not here to keep their mind occupied  and be far  away from the drudgery of regimental problematic life, perhaps they would end up lying on the couch of a shrink, paying a bundle for his pep talk.

The following rituals are worthy of mention. 

Garudan Thookkam, Kerala

In the southern state of Kerala, this ritual art form is performed by the devotees of Hindu goddess Kali. The venue is mostly Kali temples in the areas around Travancore and Kochi. The  dancers dress up as Garuda (eagle), the mount of Lord Vishnu and participate in the ritual. 

According to the legend goddess Kali was in a state of Ugraha (fierce looking because of rage) after slaying demon Darika. So, Lord Vishnu sent Garuda   to pacify her. Garuda had quenched the goddess Kali's thirst  and later subdued her. After the dance performance, the dancers  do a wacky  thing which other people will be scared to  do it. They dangle like  bats (Garudan Thookkam) from a wooden shaft, by hooking the flesh on their backs! These hanging ' Garudas ' are taken around the city in a colorful procession on a bullock-cart, in some cases on the boat 
Garudan Thookkam, Kerala. Shutterstock
with fanfare. This ritual is carried out on Makara Bharani Day and Kumbha Bharani Day.

There is a famous Garudan Thookkam at the Elamkavu Devi temple at Vadayar in Vaikkom taluk of Kottayam district. During the Aswathi, Bharani days of Meenam Month (Malayalam), a three storied wooden structure - Attuvela is temporarily  built which is considered as a floating Kali temple of Moovathupuzha. At night the entire structure is illuminated beautifully. The Garudas  - 40 to 50 in number travel in a boat -Thoni Vallam behind it. It is a night long ritual with scores of artists playing on chenda (a percussion instrument).  After choondakuthal - piercing of the skin on the back with a metal hook (after bleeding), they will be hung from a shaft like a stuff. Then they will be taken around the floating temple three times by the devotees.

At other temples like Airapuram, etc., the Garudas, hanging from a shaft, are taken on a chariot on the ground being pulled by the devotees. 

Rationalists consider this rituals bizarre and the gods or goddesses  never ask them to do it to appease them. In Tamil Nadu, piercing the tongue or cheeks with sharp needle is common during the festival days in, particular, at Lord Subramanya (Muruga / Karthikaya) temples.
Pulikali, Kerala:

Iris Holidays, Kerala  Festivals of India
Pulikali, a recreational folk art  has been around for 200 years since the time of   Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran, the then Maharaja of Cochin who is believed to have introduced the folk art as part of  Onam festival. He wanted  that Pulikali would symbolize the valor and daring spirit of his force. Pulikali, in local parlance, refers to the play of the tiger and the theme of the folk art is performances relevant to tiger hunting.
Pulikali.Iris Holidays, Festivals of India
Pulikali ("Puli"means Leopard / Tiger & "Kali" means Play in Malayalam language) is performed on the fourth day (Nalaam Onam), by trained artists. It is an important entertainment during the annual Onam harvest festival. The prominent part of this folk art is  dancers who have their bodies painted  like tigers and hunters in bright yellow, red, and black  color perform dance to the rhythmic beats of  percussion instruments like Udukku and Thakil. Pulikali is popular in  Thrissur district of Kerala.Besides Onam, Pulikali is also performed  during  various other festive seasons.

 Every thing is subject to change of time, so is Pulikali. In the past, Pulikali performers, never wore masks. and they themselves would do the paint job on their body.  But now, they have easy access to anything related to Pulikali. They get  ready made masks, cosmetic teeth, tongues, beards and whiskers are used by the participants along with the paint on their bodies. The event is organized by the Pulikkali Co-ordination Committee, a council of Pulikali groups formed in 2004 in Thrissur. Their intention is to preserve and propagate the art form that has been around for 200 years in all its true hues and spirits.

Preparing the performers for Pulikali who make a colorful appearance is a laborious one and it starts in the early morning - wee hours. Prospective dancers who form the group called sangams have to remove the hairs on their bodies first.  A fine mix of tempera powder and varnish or enamel is used to make the paint.After the base coat of paint is applied one has to wait for 3 hours for the paint to dry. When the second coat is applied different styles, patterns, shades, etc are painted to suit the tastes. Paint job is mostly done by artists. In the evening the different groups join at a particular place in Thrissur and move in procession, dancing, pouncing, jerking, imitating tiger on the hunting trail.

Depiction of tiger preying  on the kill and  tiger being hunted by the hunters gets the cheers from the spectators. In all these performances, the rhythmic beats of the percussion instruments are very important as they enhance the grandeur and beauty of the dancers' skill. Finally they reach the Vadakkun Nathan Temple and at last do puja at various shrines.