To the people of northern Kerala, Poorakkali is more than just a festival. It is a ritualistic penance, celebration of love, mirthful worship, community building, and scholarly musings, all at once. It is a complex festival, with threads of the devotional, physical, emotional and the cerebral woven into it.
The story behind Poorakkali goes like this: Kama, the god of love, tries to awaken Shiva to the amorous advances of Parvati. He is burned to ashes by the fire emanating from Shiva's third eye. To bring love and joy back to the earth, that is left barren after Kama’s death, Vishnu instructs heavenly goddesses like Rambha to create Kama’s figure with flowers and to sing and dance.
Women on earth continued to sing and dance to celebrate Kama’s reincarnation. In the course of time, men took charge of the festivities, though young girls continue to play an integral role in the rituals.
The festival of Poorakkali starts with the ritual of kamane veykal, or creating Kama. Each morning of this nine-day festival, young girls create Kama’s figure in houses with native flowers, cow dung or with clay. On the last day, the figure is gathered up and Kama is released with a request to come back early next year.
In temples, the festivities are marked by two important events, the circular dance called Poorakkali and scholarly debates called Maruttukkali. Poorakkali is performed only by men, and the movements are martial and vigorous. The dances are led by the panikkar who stands in the middle and sings. A panikkar is an honorific title conferred by the community on someone who has proved his erudition.
Poorakkali has different segments, the first and most important being pooramala. Eighteen modes of songs, called nirams, are sung and danced to in pooramala; with each niram being set to a different raga. The dance, with its various segments, continues throughout the night, the performers joining and falling out, and ends at dawn. The songs are part of the oral tradition, and the young ones learn the movements by practising with the elders.
Maruttukkali, the scholarly debate, is engaged in by reputed panikkars and their disciples. The temples of the region send their best scholars to participate in the debate. The discourse in Sanskrit and Malayalam is on various topics from Indian philosophy and Sanskrit literature. The debates, well-attended by eager audiences who cheer for their respective parties, sometimes end in verbal duels and require mediation by community elders.
The festival of Poorakkali is unique in the sense that the communities that engage in and celebrate it are the underprivileged, like Thiyya, Asari, etc. The festival was, perhaps, a silent declaration by such communities against the appropriation or claim of ownership of knowledge by the privileged classes.
Sahapedia covered the 2017 festival in about 10 temples in the districts of Kannur and Kasargode. This module carries videos of various rituals, poorakkali dances and maruttukkali debates in those temples. It also hosts interviews with prominent panikkars—both young and old.