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A festival that commemorates a community's fight against smallpox

The Irinjalakuda festival, which boasts of pluralistic traditions exclusive to this small town, brings people together in the time of the pandemic

The illuminated facade of St Thomas Church during the festival (Geo Paul Thattil)

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In a scene from the Malayalam blockbuster Minnal Murali, the hero Jaison, played by Tovino Thomas, is dressed as Santa Claus, revelling in the festivities when a Christmas “miracle” turns his life upside down.

But in Thomas’ own hometown of Irinjalakuda in Thrissur, Kerala, Christmas is almost surpassed by another festival, the Pindi Perunaal, which boasts of pluralistic traditions exclusive to this small town. Typically, Pindi Perunaal is celebrated over three days from 6 January, provided it’s a Saturday. If 6 January is not a Saturday, then it begins on the first Saturday after 6 January. So this year it began on 8 January, with events scaled-down and covid-19 protocols in place.

Pindi Perunaal (the banana palm festival), has its roots in the old Feast of the Epiphany, or “Three Kings Day”, commemorating the first manifestation of Christ to the Three Kings or Wise Men according to the Western Church, and his baptism, according to the Eastern Church. Legend has it that once upon a time the residents of Irinjalakuda were struck by smallpox. The local church asked the families hit by the disease to mark their homes with a burning torch stuck on a banana palm, so that the vicar could visit the homes, pray and offer rice and eggs to sustain the ill. Each afflicted home was given a tiny arrow, or ambu, a symbol of St Sebastian, the protector against infectious diseases, who was martyred with arrows.

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The tradition of decorating banana palm stalks continues even today, as does the symbolic blessing of miniature brass arrows—lending the festival its other name, Ambu Perunaal. Today, it transcends religion and is celebrated by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike in Irinjalakuda.

“For us, Pindi Perunaal is a community festival, bringing everybody together. There is no difference between a Hindu, Christian or Muslim. All my friends used to come with me to the church and to celebrate the Perunaal. We would put up a pindi (banana palm) at home and decorate it with coloured flags. There are competitions and prizes for the best-decorated pindi. Celebrations include processions, which we all take part in too,” says Thomas.

“Festivities begin the preceding week with an informal gathering of representatives from the church, the local mosque and temple, ending with a salkaram, or a meal for everyone,” explains Jojo Vellanikkaran, a zoology professor who retired from KE College, Kottayam, and is a committee member, St Thomas Cathedral, Irinjalakuda.

Every year, cars make way for a traditional bullock cart that travels around town with drummers beating on a huge nagaaram announcing the dates. On Saturday, church representatives visit the homes of those who have asked for a blessing, with a thali of rice, a miniature arrow and sometimes an egg as part of the Blessing of the Arrow. The thali is kept in each house as a blessing for the day and collected in the evening. Miniature brass arrows are made in advance for members of the parish, with hundreds more being made for Hindu and Muslim families.

On all three evenings, homes and shops on the streets leading to the church are illuminated and pandals set up. Floats are paraded and processions, accompanied by bands, go on till the early hours. Sermons and festivities are held on Sunday; Monday is a day of prayer for the deceased. Traditionally, a display of fireworks rounds off the festivities. Nowadays a less polluting version, the varnamazha, or shower of colours, has become the norm.

“The arrow used to come to our home, we worshipped it, and later went to see the illuminations and to the church. Pindi Perunaal was celebrated with as much fervour as Onam,” reminisces Prof. K. Satchidanandan, a poet, critic and former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, who taught English at Christ College, Irinjalakuda, before moving to Delhi.

Rohini Menon, a research scholar on South Asian religious performances and rituals, says Kerala is unique in its inclusive and localised traditions. Religious and caste divides were always there in Kerala, she adds, yet it is notable that festivals in the state see huge participation from communities, regardless of caste and religion. These, she notes, bring out the cultural identity of an individual rather than religious identities.

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When I was growing up, my family would be invited every year to be part of the ambu blessings. “Everyone has to be welcomed home and given the best food, that was the mantra,” says Jaya Jacob, a classmate.

Celine Anto, or Celine Aunty as we called her, was known for her elaborate spreads. “In the olden days, food was made for roughly 500 people. We would need to get women to help us. The snacks were distributed in woven baskets. Food, beverages and snacks were served till 2-3 am in the night,” she says. Dinners and lunches with chicken, fish and pork dishes would be surpassed only by the array of snacks—achappams (rose cookies), kuzhalappams (rice snacks), kozhakkata (modak), cashew macaroons, kozhiada (rice pockets filled with spicy chicken), sarkara cheeda (sweet crunchy rice pellets) and wheat halwa, to name just a few.

Nowadays the menu reflects the times. Teresa Joseph, Celine Aunty’s daughter-in-law, says: “Over the years, we started setting a theme. We have had a chocolate grazing table with fondue, chocolate cannolis, double chocolate brownies and cakes. We had a beach theme with boat-shaped sandwiches and blue curacao beverages. But whatever theme we decide on, traditional snacks will always be served,” she says.

London-based Sidin Vadukut, director, strategy, Clarisights, who grew up in Irinjalakuda, calls himself a Perunaal freak. “For me, it was an opportunity to eat interesting things, meet extended family, watch the fireworks. You would attend one of the services, take part in the processions, walk with the brass bands to the church grounds—it was absolutely magical,” he says. It is, once again, a beacon of hope in troubled times.

Supriya Unni Nair is a Bengaluru-based writer.

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