Days 5 - 6 POORAM AT OTTAPALAM/CHINAKKATHOOR/PALLAPURAM
(Original link where we found the info for the pooram http://www.keralatourism.org/event/festival/chinakkathoor-pooram-848355080.php)
We had booked our train ticket in advance from the UK and had opted for the more comfortable 2 tier A/C. When we arrived at the train station, our driver checked what platform we were to leave from and we sat down and waited. I was amazed to see women walking between the train tracks collecting litter and putting it into baskets.
The train pulled in and we were helped by the attendant on the platform to the right carriage. Turned out they hadn’t put a 2 tier A/C coach on, so it was 3 tier A/C – no big deal. We managed to get window seats, put our backpacks under the seat and settled back to enjoy the ride. The trip to Ottapalam took just under 3 hours and was quite pleasant, arriving only about 15 minutes late at 16.15.
We had already arranged to stay at the “Hotel Aramana”, which we had read was not far from the station. Imagine our surprise when we got off the train and the hotel was right in front of us! No need of a rickshaw here. Went into what turned out to be the back of the hotel, and were directed around to the front. Now Russell from Micky Villa and a friend off one of the forums had both rung the hotel and made a reservation for us. But when we rolled up to reception, they had no note of it. Luckily they had plenty of rooms, sadly they spoke little English. We were shown a few rooms and decided on an A/C room for 650 rupees + 15% tax = 750 rupees. It was quite good for the price, 2 beds, TV, hot water and a balcony overlooking the railway station (OK for train spotters). We did however struggle to get towels, soap and a toilet roll. They did turn up at various stages, but it took a few times of asking.
Asked which way town was, and set off walking. It was only 5 minutes up the road. On the way we noticed a group of men playing drums and once they spotted us we got mobbed! Everyone was trying to talk to us at the same time, so friendly. We managed to escape and got up to the main road where we were greeted by the sights of what appeared to be any normal Keralan town. However we soon began to realise that Ottapalam doesn’t get that many white tourists (or any tourists at all!), as everyone seemed amazed and surprised as we walked by. We just wandered around the main streets taking it all in, photographing the traffic and looking for somewhere to eat later on. This was when I started to realise that restaurant/cafes were called “Hotels”. We found a couple that looked clean enough, so went back to our proper Hotel, to freshen up. Now the Hotel Aramana has two bars downstairs, one normal and one A/C. The normal bar seemed the busiest, so I went in and bought a bottle of Sand Piper to take back to the room. I think the locals got a bit of a shock when I went in, but were very helpful. I couldn’t help thinking that some of the guys who had been in there a while and had had a few beers, must have taken one look at me and then their beer and thought “I must stay off the strong stuff”
Back into town for dinner and we tried one of the “Hotels” which was in a mall and was VEG. Ok for the wife and I can get by on vegetarian food for a while. We went in but had the usual problem of no tourists town = no English. They had a large menu in English, but when we asked what it was and if my wife could have it none spicy, we met a brick wall. We tried our best mime act of no chilli, but still weren’t sure we had got the message across. This was confirmed when her mushroom masala arrived and I had to eat it. It was the spiciest/hottest meal I ate the whole trip. We were also served what appeared to be a witch’s hat type bread. We didn’t know what it was or what to do with it, so we slowly unwrapped it and ate little pieces off it. The locals looked at us in amusement and it wasn’t until someone else had one, that we saw them simply smash it flat and then pour their curry over it!! We were learning.
On our way back we found a bakery that looked very clean and when we went in, we saw they also had a restaurant at the back. The wife hadn’t really had much to eat, so we ordered some lovely cakes and sat down to eat them. Again, everyone was looking at us, especially as we had refused the offer of dining in their A/C room, but we understood why, we were a curiosity. Not everyday you see English tourists in town. It was getting late and we knew we would have a full day tomorrow, so we went back to the Aramana. The band must have heard we were in town as they were going full belt below our room (nothing to do with the bar of course), so it was some time before we could think of sleep. It was then we noticed we didn’t have any top sheets. So again down to reception, this time with the Rough Guide, which luckily had the phrase for bed sheets. Thirty minutes later they arrived. This just gave me enough time to kill 2 cockroaches in the bathroom! The Hotel was clean, but this was the only, time in 4 weeks, that we encountered cockroaches in our room.
During the night, we found that being so close to the railway station did have its drawbacks, as you could hear the train announcements from the tannoy system, booming out, what seemed like every half hour.
The next day dawned and we decided that we would have try breakfast at the hotel in their A/C restaurant. Again we encountered the no tourist, no English problem. There wasn’t a menu and the only thing we were offered was toast and tea. It turned out to be just that! Toasted bread with no butter or jam and tea (with sugar) that seemed like it had been made back in February. Still, we were learning by our mistakes.
At reception, we asked in which direction the pooram was, but they seemed to indicate that it really didn’t get going until the afternoon. So that left us with the morning to fill. In the room tariff brochure, it listed places of interest, and I quote:
1. 12Km from the famous “Vallathole Museum”, Cheruthuruthy
2. 12Km from the renowned “Thiruvilwamala Temple” and the “Punarjani Caves”
3. 10Km from the “Ananganadi Hills”
4. 4Km from the famous “Varikkassery Mana Nalukettu”
We had heard that the hotel was used a lot by film crews who used the surrounding area for location shoots. So thought some of these places may be interesting.
Reception couldn’t really help us, so we went outside to try our luck with the rickshaws and try for the nearest places (3 and 4). A local man came over, who spoke a little English, and we asked him if he could tell us what Varikkassery Mana Nalukettu was. He kind of explained that it was a large old house. We enquired about the Ananganadi Hills, and he said they were really beautiful. A rickshaw driver was waiting so we tried to ask him how much to the hills and the old house, but he couldn’t understand us. The local man helped and said the driver wanted 150 rupees to take us to the old house! We said what about the hills, the local guy asked the driver and told us he wouldn’t go, as it would be too hot!! What an excuse. Anyway there was no way we were going to pay 150 rupees for only 4 kms and he wouldn’t budge. We decided we would walk and possibly find another rickshaw. The local guy told us to go to the main road and turn left. So that’s what we did.
We thought, 4kms, not that bad, it will pass the morning. So we decided to walk all the way. Can’t say it was the best walk we have ever done, just plodding along the main road. But we did get to see, some people with what I can only describe as the “floral twirlers”, getting ready for the pooram. They were bemused, as were most people, to see 2 white tourists walking along the main road. But we did find out from them that the pooram started around 3 pm. We also saw some people in a large house, drying, what to us seemed like pasta, in the yard. Don’t suppose we will ever know what it really was. Oh, and we saw a temple elephant being transported in the back of a truck (so that’s how they get them around)
After what seemed hours of walking, we decided we had gone too far along the main road, so stopped the few people we spotted and showed them the tariff brochure and the words “Varikkassery Mana Nalukettu”, also tried to pronounce it to them. At first we didn’t have much luck, which I later put down to our complete lack of Malayalam pronunciation and the probability that some people couldn’t read English. Anyway, after backtracking a bit we found a shop and they understood and told us we had gone way too far and we should have taken a road off to the left. So, back we went, and down the side road. This was better, as it took us into the countryside. Eventually we arrived at some large gates, but were unsure if this was the place. Luckily a man on a motorbike stopped and asked if he could help. He told us this was indeed the old house. But the gates were locked. Another bike stopped and they had a good chat. The result was that normally the house was open everyday, but not today. It was closed today due to the pooram! Well at least we had passed the morning away. We were gradually getting used to India, whatever happens, happens!
Back up to the main road and started to walk back. Luckily we spotted a bus and jumped on. Five rupees, and 10 minutes later and we were back at the main bus terminal in Ottapalam.
If you would like to see what we didn’t – here is a link http://www.hotelaramana.com/varikkassery.htm
After returning to the bakery and having a rather good meal, we stocked up with a few snacks, and returned to the hotel for a well earned rest, ready for what lay ahead.
It was 3.00pm and time for the main event. By now we had realised, there was a distinct probability that we would be the only 2 white people visiting the pooram. This prospect, we found rather exciting. Back up to the main road and turned right. Again we decided to walk to the Sree Chinakkathoor Bhagavathy Temple at Palappuram. We had been told it was only about 2.5Kms away, so a pleasant stroll. However we were unprepared for what lay ahead of us.
The road out of Ottapalam was lined with hundreds and hundreds people taking advantage of what seemed like every horizontal surface they could find. They were sitting along the roadside, packed along balconies, sitting on rooftops and even on top of bus shelters. Just as we were leaving Ottapalam, we spotted one of the large bamboo horse effigies up ahead, making its way to the pooram, and being carried by a host of strong men. It soon became apparent that possibly everyone in the Palakkad district + 2 English were out to visit the pooram. There must have thousands of people walking along the road. Everyone, and I mean everyone, seemed amazed to see us walking with them. But they also appeared to be really pleased that we had joined them. We were a curiosity and a novelty.
As we walked, people lining the route would spot us and wave. Of course we waved back, and soon the whole side of the road would be filled with laughing, waving people. Then it was the turn of the other side. This went on all along the route. We felt a bit like the Queen and Prince Philip, must feel. We could feel the warmth and the friendliness of these people and were quite touched by it.
We passed a group of highly photogenic dancers (which I will call Kathakali, possibly someone can look at the photos and tell me what all the different dancers were). Then after one and half hours in the sun we arrived, at what we at first thought, was the temple and were a little bit disappointed. There were 3 elephants, some drummers and dancers and a large crowd of people. But we had seen all this before in Cochin. Possibly the pooram was simply a procession along the road and we had missed some of it. So we took a few snaps and watched. Then we noticed that there were still a throng of people walking further along the road. At first we wondered if they were simply going home. But after pointing and saying pooram, we realised that we were simply at some sort of gate and we had only seen the warm up act!
So, on we walked. For some of the way with the 3 elephants, who had now left the gate area. After another hour and a quarter we arrived at the main event at 17.15pm. It was a huge dust covered field and we immediately spotted 17 elephants in front of the main temple, with their associated drummers and horn players in full swing. The area was packed and throughout our time there, became even more so. We were surprised to so many people. But that was nothing compared to their surprise at seeing us! At first we noticed that people would stand nearby us and their friends would take a photo. But as the day progressed people would come up to us and say “one photo”. We understood and had no problem with this. So we posed for photos. However, at one point during the afternoon, more and more people arrived and we must have had about 40 cameras pointing at us. Everyone, they say, has 5 minutes of fame. I think this day was ours. I still find it odd that we may be someone’s screensaver!!
Also, for some reason, those without cameras, all wanted to come up to me and shake my hand. Those that could speak good English came and had a chat and everyone was exceedingly friendly.
There was a side arena where we spotted all the bamboo horse effigies, so we wandered over. We noticed that all the women and children were either on raised outcrops or in the grandstand and only the men where in the crowd. We soon found out why. The horse effigies are hoisted up by about 30 to 40 men who then rush around the arena, finally stopping and then trying to throw the horses into the air. This is by no means an easy task as they must weigh a tonne. Once they are done trying to get them aloft, they again charge like madmen around the arena, and you have to quickly get out of their way, or be crushed in the stampede. Oh and the dust created is a joy. Don’t wear anything white!
The afternoon progressed and we realized we needed to have a sit down and eat our snacks. The trouble was that, wherever we went, we were the source of attention, and we just needed 15 minutes of peace. Finally we found a spot behind one of the stalls crushing sugar cane and sat on the bundles of cane. We kind of knew what it must be like to be a famous celebrity, when you just need some solitude.
Refreshed, we headed back into the throng. Next there were some different dancers (Kathakali??) being carried next to a huge floral float, that was also being carried. The group kept stopping and they would do a ritualistic dance whilst being held aloft and then move off again. Just as we finished watching them, the fireworks started. Or more like mortar shells than fireworks. They were in the furthest arena and there must have been rows and rows of them going into the air and exploding. They got faster and faster until it became one large continuous thump. We had to put our fingers in our ears, it was so loud. We were nowhere near the arena, but could feel the shockwaves pounding us! Finally the battering ended and we noticed that back over in the temple arena, the elephants had moved over to the side of the field. There was a large group of drummers and horn players in front of them, along with a huge crowd. I tried my best to get some photos, by holding my camera above my head, but it was no good. It was at this point that some local men took hold of us and pushed us through the crowd to the front. Shouting for everyone to make way!! Being a celeb for the day has some advantages. We snapped away and soaked up the atmosphere. Looking behind us we noticed at the very far side of the field, where the fireworks had previously been, there were another 10 elephants and their drummers. So in total there were now 27 elephants at the pooram.
After walking to the far side to watch these new elephants for a while, we walked back along the road, which was filled with different dancers , musicians and street bands. Back up to the main arena and we spotted yet more, different, highly decorated ethnic performers (no idea what these were, see the photos). There was always something different to see.
By now the sun was starting to go down and we noticed that both groups of elephants were slowly moving from the opposite sides of the field. Eventually they both lined up facing each other, at the edges of the centre arena, with their bands playing. It was fascinating to watch. However it was now dark and we were really beginning to feel tired (we had been stood up most of the day, not to mention the walk in the morning). We noticed that the temple was illuminated and decided to take our last photos. But before we could get near, we again had to endure the crowds of people who wanted to stop us and take our photo or to shake hands. By now the novelty had worn off and we had had enough. So we decided to call it a day.
We left and thought it would be easy to get a rickshaw. But everyman and his dog had the same idea. We saw rickshaws leaving with people hanging out the sides and holding onto the back! So it left no option, but to walk. At least it was dark and we managed to slip by most people. After about 20 minutes we were back at the temple gate, which was also illuminated. I noticed it was full moon and wondered if that was why the pooram was held that day. Looking back we noticed that quite a few of the elephants were walking along the road. So we took our final photos of them. Eventually we reached a small village and managed to find a rickshaw back to the hotel. We arrived back at around 9.30pm, exhausted but totally thrilled at what we had witnessed. In the light of the hotel we could see how much dust we had collected and we now had what I called Indian feet!
Finally there was just enough time to go down to the bar and get my first taste of Kingfisher Strong and then it was time to pack and get ready for our next adventure.
We felt really privileged to have been able to witness and take part in such a unique spectacle, together with such wonderful people. We feel that this was a once in a lifetime experience and if anyone ever gets the chance, they should go.