Puli means Tiger and Kali means Play in malayalam. Pulikkali is an artform, which is mostly found in the middle Kerala especially Thrissur. It is a form of art which is mainly for recreational purposes and staged during the Onam festival, especially during 1st Onam (Uthradam), Thiruvonam and 3rd Onam (Avittam) days. Children above age 10 and men paint their whole body or wear costume like a Tiger and with the accompaniment of Chenda (Drum) dance/play depicting a hunter and tigers.
In the earlier days, Pulikkali used to be showcased house to house, along with another cultural art form called Kummatti. But now the Pulikkali is staged only on the fourth day of Onam festival and on some other special arranged events. The main attraction of this folk art is the colourful presentation by the performers. Previously only men used to perform but recently women also have started forming teams and participating in the Pulikkali at Thrissur.
History of Pulikkali dates back to 200 years – to the period of Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran who was the ruler of Kochi. Thrissur was Sakthan Thampuran’s favourite. In the olden days, masks were not used and the participant gets painted all over his body with vibrant colours depicting a Tiger. Now ready made costumes and masks are available for use, reducing the effort of painting and removing the paint which sometimes are painful for the participant.
In Thrissur, the Pulikkali is celebrated on the fourth day of Onam and there will be many teams from different corners of Thrissur town, participating in it. In the afternoon, the teams move in procession around the Thrissur Round (Swaraj Round) – Vadakkunnathan Temple, dancing, pouncing and shaking their belly in tune with the beats of the drums. Scenes of tiger hunting is enacted beautifully during the show. People of all ages men, ladies, children and the aged assemble in the Swaraj Round by around three in the afternoon. The processsion lasts about two-three hours. Sometimes even the spectators dance together with the tigers, cheering them. There are cash awards and trophies for the best team, best tiger and best painter.
Next time, if you happen to be in Thrissur during Onam festival, do make it a point to experience this wonderful art form.