Onam is a time when one of Kerala’s most prominent indigenous art forms, Pulikali, is performed. In some places, it is also known as Kaduvakali. The rhythmic dance is enacted by artistes who are dressed as a puli (cheetah) or a kaduva (tiger). While Pulikali is an art form performed on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam, the dance in Thrissur, which has an ancestry of about 200 years, is considered the oldest. It is also the most popular and classical of all types of Pulikali. Special training is mandatory to perform this art form.
Performers who dance in the guise of a Puli or cheetah are called Pulikalikkar. The dance is performed to the rhythm of Vadyamelam or orchestra native to Kerala. The Pulikalikkar use body paint and face masks to resemble to resemble the tiger or cheetah, the stripes being in dark yellow and black. To resemble the Pullipuli or the cheetah, it is mandatory to start with big spots from the back of the body. The spots become smaller as they reach the front of the body till the belly.
The Varayan Puli or the tiger can have up to six types of stripes, from patta vara (stripe) to zebra vara. The paint is applied after removing body hair. Achieving the resemblance of a tiger on the body of the artist requires considerable effort. The face mask is created by cutting a piece of paper and using glue to attach the teeth made by cutting and shaping chooral (the common rattan plant).
The tongue is usually made by cutting a bicycle tube. The chin and face of the mask are glued with hair. The final touch-up for the Pulikaran is done by using appropriate shades of the conventional colours for the face. Pulikali is usually performed in Thrissur on the fourth day of Onam. During the days of Onam, the Pulikottu or the beats that usually accompany the dance, reverberate through Thrissur. Those are the days on which the people of Thrissur, the land of Pandi or Panchari Melam and Panchavadyam, hails the Pulikettu (occasion of pulikali). The special rhythm of Pulimelam composed by Thottungal Ramankutty Asan goes back to 70 years. No other place has this special rhythm except the Pulikalli in Thrissur. The Pulikalikkars perform the dance to the beat of this uniquely engaging asura rhythm with bells attached to their waist.
There are special Pulikali troupes called Pulimada, Melakot, Viyyur, Kottapuram Centre, Viyyur Desam, Ayanthol, Thrikkumarakudam, Poonkunnam, Paturaikkal Kokala, Peringaon etc. Pulikalikkars undertake 41 days of fasting, from the first day of Karkidakam to the fourth day of Onam which is when they have their bodies painted for the performance in the evening. The rituals for getting into costume begin the night before. The dancers arrive at the Thrissur Swaraj Round for the Pulikali only after offering coconuts to Lord Ganesha at the Vadakkumnathan Temple.
Tableaus are set up for spectators. It is said that Pulikali first originated in Thrissur in a procession associated with the Pancha-taking ceremony of the Pattani Muslims. It is a popularly held belief that Pulikali entered the arena with grand performances in relation to this procession which began from the Post Office Road to a region called Kokola. Apart from the fair, the elephants, and the Pooram, Thrissur has its own tiger festival that is much revered and loved. During Onam, in the Southern districts, tiger games are also performed with dried banana leaves which they use as a costume, and palm leaves for a face mask. A man in the guise of a hunter is also present.