Participating in a Kerala temple festival in a rural area is a relaxing experience. It takes you back to an age when communities were small, and life was ordered and simple.
Major temple festivals have become grand spectacles that do not reflect the flavor of the original community festivals. It is the festivals at unknown small rural temples that retain the original ambience to some extent.
A row of caparisoned elephants, with the central (and tallest) elephant carrying the image of the local deity, is the most visible part of the festival. A band consisting of drummers, pipers and cymbalists felicitate the deity while the local community would be gathered around enjoying the whole spectacle.
The main festival is held in the night, typically in the light of tall oil-burning lamps.
The celebrations include not only the elephants and the band, but are also followed by different kinds of art performances. One performer might recite stories of gods and goddesses, cleverly lacing these with local gossip or anecdotes. Another performer might act out a mythological event in dance, supported by a singer.
The festivals take place at the temple premises. It is an occasion for the community to gather together and renew social contacts. For traders, it is an occasion to transact business. Temple festivals are typically venues for traders to put up their stalls. This harks back to the ancient days when such gatherings were the main outlets for barter.
Before assembling at the temple premises, the elephants, with the deity, would have gone around the locality, visiting her or his subjects. Once in a year, the deity is woken up early by the priest, bathed, mounted on an elephant and taken around the houses of local community members.
At each house, the residents receive the deity with a big measure of rice, and feed jaggery and banana to the elephants. The rice goes to the temple.
Walking behind the elephants, along pathways that twist and turn among the hedges and trees, you could get a feel of how life could have been in olden days.
Temple festivals were occasions where people could get together. In days of old, temples were the seats of local administration in Kerala. Decisions on matters affecting the community were taken at these gatherings.
These religious occasions were also occasions for commercial interactions, where barter transactions took place among producers of different commodities.
The religious practices and the beliefs associated with these festivals varied from temple to temple. One common belief was that the local deity (see pic left), presiding over the welfare of the local community, wanted to visit her subjects once a year. To fulfil this wish, she is taken around and then the whole community gathers around to join her in a celebration.
As mentioned earlier, Kerala temple festivals typically included different art performances like story-telling, dance and music. Thus the festivals also helped the performers to earn a living, and facilitated the development of performing arts.
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