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Friendly Neighbourhood Festival

Friendly Neighbourhood Festival

March 14, 2010

I expected the local temple festival to be a quiet and restrained affair. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

By Varkala standards, the air was a little bracing one January morning last year when our elderly neighbour informed my girlfriend and me that the local Hindu temple would hold its festival at the end of the month; it would run for four days.  Now, this temple isn’t large or overly celebrated; just another neighbourhood temple, really.  That, combined with the fact that I was still relatively new in India and had no idea what the phrase ‘temple festival’ actually meant, led me to a somewhat understated reaction. A festival, I thought.  How quaint.

Over the next couple of weeks leading up to the festival, excitement and expectations grew.  On the final night, there would be a Kathakali performance that lasted all night, and six or seven elephants would join a parade at dusk down our street.  It sounded like good fun, but I’d heard of festivals nearby that had fifty or even a hundred elephants.  How incredible could six or seven be?  You’ll enjoy, said our neighbour.  Sure, I said, trying to believe him.

The festival began at 3 a.m. on a work night, with music.  It was much more than just ‘music’, though.  Massive speakers had been placed strategically around the neighbourhood to ensure that any respite was absolutely impossible, and cranked up to 11.  At dawn, it was replaced over the PA by bone-rattling drumming.  ‘Okay, okay!’  I wanted to shout.  ‘I believe in the festival!  I am now excited – and festive!  Can you just let me sleep for a few hours each night?’

No chance.  When there wasn’t music or drumming, young folks let off fireworks and firecrackers in the schoolyard next to our house.  Sometimes there was music, drumming and fireworks all at once.  It all added up to an experience I figured I’d never forget, but for all the wrong reasons.  All night we lay awake, eyes pinned open by the noise, and all day we fended off sleep and deprivation-induced hallucinations at work.  There is a natural order to things, and it seemed to have been completely subverted.

Come the final day of the festival, I was more than ready for it to be over.  Still, I tried to keep high spirits, it being my first.  Within seconds of the parade’s start, however, it took no effort to smile.  Or to laugh with delight, or to gape in amazement.  First came a band of drummers, about 20 rum-stoked youths in dhotis beating out an intoxicating rhythm; then dancers carrying huge fountains of red, orange, pink, green, gold that stretched three metres up from their shoulders; then Kathakali actors swathed in ornate costumes and vivid makeup; then children, some as young as five, carrying ceremonial oil lamps.

Finally, the elephants arrived, weary with their heavy attire but still a fitting and impressive end to the parade.  Our landlord and his family, who came for the day, fed each elephant bananas and puffed rice in a dutiful and dignified manner.  We later learned this was a yearly tradition for all the houses on the street.  I looked on in wonder: this ‘experience I figured I’d never forget’ could now be added to my collection of cherished memories.  The colours were extraordinary, and the indescribable energy in the street was something I’d never felt before.  I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and family back home all about it.

The elephants and drummers and dancers sashayed on down the street.  My conversion complete, I turned to my landlord and exclaimed with glee, “That was INCREDIBLE!  Did you enjoy it too?”

His expression barely altered, save for a flicker of respectful amusement at my glee. “Yeah… well. Another festival, I guess.”


  • Jez Hunziker
    Jez Hunziker
    24.01.13 05:00 PM
    Hilarious Elephant Festival Video
  • sanjay
    27.04.11 09:14 PM
    Please do not visit this fetival , it is animal cruelty in the name of hinduism
    Please watch this video to see what they do to the elephants for this festival
  • Girish Hariprasad
    Girish Hariprasad
    21.06.10 01:39 PM
    Hello Barnaby

    There are big temples and small temples in Kerala. They differ in size, architectural style, rituals, festival methods etc in different parts of the state. Caparisoned elephants, Kathakali, drum beats, oil lamps etc. are part of a temple festival in Kerala. It may be "another festival for a Keralaite" like your landlord despite all its grandeur and cultural quality. Drum beats might feel unbearable, anywhere in the world, especially if we are not accustomed to it. Maybe this is why majority of Indians, especially Keralites, still despise western rock music, with all its hard beats, savage string pickings and howl-like vocal. What is your opinion?
  • Varkala Traveler
    Varkala Traveler
    09.05.10 09:10 PM
    Varkala is yet another beach but not super crowded yet. Almost like less crowded Goa or a quieter Kovalam. Nice place.
  • Ronald Morais
    Ronald Morais
    02.04.10 06:57 PM
    Welcome to India, Barnaby
  • Josh Judkins
    Josh Judkins
    20.03.10 03:19 AM
    Hello Barnaby!

    Wonderful article! I hope you're doing well over there, and look forward to following your exploits via Twitter. =)
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    18.03.10 04:41 PM
    Haha, yes, this year I embraced the all-night music and drums. Firecrackers, on the other hand... few things incense me more than having a peaceful sleep shattered by deafening blasts. The first time it happened, I thought terrorists had blown up the coconut trees in the back yard and was appropriately panicked; now, I settle for a few seconds' heart failure before calming down and telling myself it'll soon be over.
  • Nalini Hebbar
    Nalini Hebbar
    14.03.10 08:42 AM
    The temple festivals are a colourful affair but for the noise...but you can't beat a silent drum can you?...It's meant to wake the Gods up!!!

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