Going to an Indian temple festival has always been a dream of mine. To witness the ancient culture, reborn through the ornate ensembles of the gold plated elephants, carried through the rhythmic sounds of the beating nagada, hiding within the cracks of the crumbled temple walls… Who says time travel doesn’t exist?
Immersing myself in decades old tradition is where I find the source of the magic that persists.
Call it fortuitous that my husband and I arrived to Fort Kochi during the height of Kerala’s festival season. We learned the closest one was about an hour ride outside the city, in the old kingdom of Tripunithura. There lay Sree Poornathrayesa, the epicenter for elaborate celebrations. This temple is one of the greatest in Kerala, so naturally it hosts one of the biggest festivals, Vrishchikoltsawam. This eight day, 24 hour extravaganza kicks off the festival season and draws people from all over the region to participate. Including us.
A temple festival isn’t something you buy a ticket off Eventbrite for. It’s not something you find at the foot of your hotel door. It’s a sacred, antiquated space that lies beyond the outermost reaches of the walled city, and took quite a bit of conversation with the locals and some negotiation on a tuk-tuk.
There’s something equally inspiring about the journey getting there. Cutting through tilted alleyways, speeding over brown mouthed rivers, unsettling the dust of time-warped communities. While my adrenaline sped up it felt like the rest of the world sped down. I heard the trumpets first, followed by the unified sound of elephant trunks. My head was on a swivel, taking in all it could as I bounced over the uneasy gravel, my hair sticking to my lip gloss in the windowless back seat of our tuk tuk.
As our driver stealthily maneuvered into what San Francisco would deem an authorized tow-away zone, I could feel the burning sense of fulfillment at arms reach. And in my nose, thanks to the heaping pile of elephant dung we parked next to. Swatting through the gnats and crowds of people, we made our way to the mouth of the temple under the spell of captivation.
Entering the heart of Sree Poornathrayesa, in our direct line of sight was a row of about 20 tusked elephants, adorned with jewels and gold trunks. They carried the temple’s deity, Lord Vishnu, who blesses childless couples that pray in his presence.
I didn’t pray that day.
They also carried a group of young men, clad in white cotton robes, who swayed tinseled silk parasols, white tufts and fans made out of peacock feathers to the tempos of the unified trumpets, high above the crowd.
I watched the customs of our great ancestors come to life in the shadow of the hidden temple, a witness to the magic reborn. I felt it buried in the hot Indian sand, I heard it blend with the highs and lows of the orchestra, I saw it gleaming in the reflection of the elephant’s ruby caparisons. I opened my soul to the experience, enraptured by the wonder and the manifestation of the dream I’d always had.