THRISSUR (Trichur), a bustling market hub and temple town roughly midway between Kochi (74km south) and Palakkad (79km northeast) on the NH-47, is a convenient base for exploring the cultural riches of central Kerala. Close to the Palghat (Palakkad) Gap – an opening in the natural border made by the Western Ghat mountains – it presided over the main trade route into the region from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. For years Thrissur was the capital of Cochin state, controlled at various times by both the Zamorin of Kozhikode and Tipu Sultan of Mysore.
Today, Thrissur derives most of its income from remittance cheques sent by expatriates in the Gulf – hence the predominance of ostentatious modern houses in the surrounding villages. As the home of several influential art institutions, the town also prides itself on being the cultural capital of Kerala. The state’s largest temple, Vadukkunnathan, is here too, at the centre of a huge circular maidan that hosts all kinds of public gatherings, not least Kerala’s most extravagant, noisy and sumptuous festival, Puram.Read More
CHERUTHURUTHY, on the banks of the Bharatpuzha (aka “Nila”) River 32km north of Thrissur, is internationally famous as the home of Kerala Kalamandalam, the state’s flagship training school for kathakali and other indigenous Keralan performing arts. The academy was founded in 1927 by the revered Keralan poet Vallathol (1878–1957), and has since been instrumental in the large-scale revival of interest in unique Keralan art forms. Non-Hindus are welcome to attend performances of kathakali, kudiyattam and mohiniyattam performed in the school’s wonderful theatre, which replicates the style of the wooden, sloping-roofed traditional kuttambalam auditoria found in Keralan temples. You can also sit in on classes, watch demonstrations of mural painting, and visit exhibitions of costumes by signing up for the fascinating “a day with the masters” cultural programme (Mon–Sat 9.30am–1.30pm; $20, including lunch).
Buses heading to Shoranur from Thrissur’s Priya Darshini (aka “Wadakkancheri”) stand pass through Cheruthuruthy; the nearest mainline railway station is Shoranur Junction, 3km south, served by express trains to and from Mangalore, Chennai and Kochi. The former palace of the Raja of Cochin, the three-star hotel and ayurveda spa occupies an idyllic position on the banks of the Nila, where you can admire a crystalline pool, partly shaded by coconut palms.
GURUVAYUR, 19km west of Thrissur, is the site of South India’s most revered Krishna temple, with hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims pouring in year round to worship at the shrine. As usual, non-Hindus are barred from entering, but it’s still worth coming on a day-trip to visit the Punnathur Kotta Elephant Camp, 4km north of town, where the temple’s elephants reside. Some 67 pachyderms, aged from 8 to 95, live in the park, munching for most of the day on specially imported piles of fodder. They’re cared for by their personal mahouts, who wash and scrub them several times a week in the sanctuary pond. As with domestic elephants everywhere, only approach an animal if the wardens allow you, as they can be unpredictable and dangerous.
Thrissur is best known to outsiders as the venue for Kerala’s biggest annual festival, Puram, which takes place on one day in the Hindu month of Medam (April–May; ask at a tourist office or check online for the exact date). Inaugurated by Shaktan Tampuran, the Raja of Cochin, between 1789 and 1803, the event is the culmination of eight days of festivities spread over nine different temples to mark obeisance to Lord Shiva, at the peak of the summer’s heat. Like temple festivals across Kerala, it involves the stock ingredients of caparisoned elephants, massed drum orchestras and firework displays, but on a scale, and performed with an intensity, unmatched by any other.
Puram’s grand stage is the long, wide path leading to the southern entrance of Vadukkunnathan Temple on the Round. Shortly after dawn, a sea of onlookers gathers here to watch the first phase of the 36-hour marathon – the kudammattom, or “Divine Durbar” – in which two majestic elephant processions, representing Thrissur’s Tiruvambadi and Paramekkavu temples, advance towards each other down the walkway, like armies on a medieval battlefield, preceded by ranks of drummers and musicians. Both sides present thirteen tuskers sumptuously decorated with gold caparisons (nettipattom), each ridden by three young Brahmins clutching objects symbolizing royalty: silver-handled whisks of yak hair, circular peacock-feather fans and colourful silk umbrellas fringed with silver pendants. At the centre of the opposing lines, the principal elephant carries an image of the temple’s presiding deity. Swaying gently, the elephants stand still much of the time, ears flapping, seemingly oblivious to the crowds and huge orchestra that plays in front of them, competing to create the most noise and greatest spectacle. When the music reaches its peak around sunset, the two groups set off towards different districts of town. This signals the start of a spectacular firework display that begins with a series of deafening explosions and lasts through the night, with the teams once again trying to outdo each other to put on the most impressive show.
If you venture to Thrissur for Puram, be prepared for packed buses and trains, and book accommodation well in advance. As is usual for temple festivals, many men use the event as an excuse to get hopelessly drunk. Women are thus advised to dress conservatively and only to go to the morning session, or to watch with a group of Indian women – and at all times avoid the area immediately in front of the drummers, where the “rhythm madmen” congregate.