Festival? Totally… like every five minutes.

by Joanna D.

The first festival was crazy awesome. It was the last of a ten-day celebration of food. Mostly sweets. Mmmm, sugar. India special. But that wasn’t what I was there for. Oh no, it was much bigger than a festival for sweets.

It was evening, as most things like this happen after dark. Binu, and Aji took me to a temple dedicated to whom I believe was Murugan, Ganesha’s brother. A handsome god; he’s powerful and rides a badass peacock that’s usually standing on a cobra. Everything was lit up with old bulb style Christmas lights. The walkway, the trees, the temple. Huge depictions of Murugan placed throughout the grounds. Little stands everywhere with sweets and toys and fun things to look at. Hundreds of Indians. Maybe six white people, including me. It was nice to have my two Hulk like escorts. Not only did I feel protected, they took me to the behind the scene spots where I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. It was the end of a 40-day preparation, of what I was told to be nearly two hundred men, consisting of restricted diet, no touching women, daily offerings and pujas. All day people were getting ready for the event. Surely the mound of hot coals had been burning for hours perhaps days. The energy was amazing. Both light and heavy… intense. Beautiful smiling faces waiting in anticipation.

The grand finally? A skewer through the face and a nice walk over the mountain of coals. Bare foot fire dancers.

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Before being led through the awaiting crowd these men, some just boys, had a rod put through their face. Shish kebab style. There really is no other description for it. After putting the end parts on the rod they ended up with a trident through the face. We weren’t allowed to see them in person but several cameras captured the action and displayed the scene on large screens throughout the area. I watched in awe. Unbelievable.

All of a sudden the crowd shifted, and the men cam running through. Each participant had two other men escorting them; they held garlands of flowers and peacock feathers mounted on a wooden arch around their shoulders.

After a short time, perhaps more blessings, they started to come out, one by one. Some walking, some running some stomping or literally dancing through the mound of coals. A few paused in the middle or stuck their hands in the pile and tossed coals into the air. They kicked at it, danced around it… played in it. It was amazing. Something I had never seen. And may never see again.

Festival two… again brought by Aji and Binu, who both watched out for me as they sent me into the midst of the action. I really don’t understand what this one was about. It seems that there are four more days of it. And then another, for another temple, will take its place. This is what I wrote while sipping pineapple juice and waiting for Bhajan to start, which I ended up missing do to my curfew.

“Om namah shivaya… What that actually means in me?  Sitting here in India, after witnessing some awesome festival proceedings, listening to some terrible 90’s American club music in a Tandoor/Mexican/Chinese restaurant owned by a guy named Darma. Surreal. Was at temple earlier watching and listening to some awesome drumming. I mean these guys were going for it. So rad. Powerful. They were accompanied by some sort of horn – looked like a clarinet on steroids. They were preparing for the festival but it felt like it already was the festival. There were floats with different deities on the back. Lit up and doused with marigold and jasmine flower garlands. Prasad – offerings, of orange “juice” and butter biscuits being passed around the grounds. Children all dressed up with flashy dresses and make-up. Three people… men? Women? Not sure – one dressed at Shiva, one possibly Parvati and the other… not sure about that either. They were all waiting for the elephant to show up who would lead them on a long walk to another temple, conveniently located just down from my house. I hope the music doesn’t play all night. Time to go. We get to the road and WATCH OUT! Here comes the elephant. That thing had the biggest penis I have ever seen! Holy shit! After the shock wore off … watching him slowly wonder by. Sensing he is not happy. Almost wonder if it is on drugs or somehow – some part of it – has just ultimately given up – succumbed to it’s existence of captivity. But still it has a power, a presence as it passes by. Magnificence and control. We continued back to the rickshaw. To Molly’s, yeah… that’s the name of the restaurant. Eventually the festival procession will pass by and the real celebration will begin.” 

It did, it will go on for another three days. And then it will start again at another temple. And then another and another through the end of the month. God I love Kerala.