When I had called up hotels to book a room, receptionists had laughed and said every hotel had been booked months in advance. A friend said there’d be “a million people" attending, and “it’ll be so crowded there is no space to walk on any street in town".

Pachyderm country: (clockwise) A temple lit up at night. Photo: Aruna/Wikimedia Commons; chendas and elathalams (drums) in the procession. Photo: Prajith Prabhakaran; and the parasol jugalbandi or Kuda Mattom. Photo: Rajesh Kakkanatt/Wikimedia Commons

More than 50 elephants are selected for Thrissur Pooram, and a fortune is spent decorating them. More than 400,000 people throng Thrissur for the event. Most go through the 36-hour-long festivities without a break for sleep or rest.

Also see | Trip Planner/ Thrissur (PDF)

Given the scale, it is easily one of the biggest mass festivals in India.

The beginnings

A pooram is an annual temple festival, typically held after the summer harvest. In the late 18th century, there was a dispute among 10 temples about participation in the temple festival at Arattupuzha.

Raja Rama Varma, the ruler of Cochin, decided to unite these feuding temples and organize one temple festival. Thus the Thrissur Pooram was born in 1798. Because it was attended by the residents of the 10 villages where these temples were situated, it became the largest pooram in Kerala.

The first of the elephants

On the morning of pooram day, I made my way to Thrissur’s Thekkinkadu Maidan. I caught a glimpse of rocky grey in the distance. Eleven elephants stood in a row. Golden caparisons covered the elephants’ heads. The clearing in front of the Vadakkumnathan (Shiva) temple was completely packed with people.

Music piped up. Kombus (wind instruments resembling trumpets) blared. Chendas and elathalams (variants of drums and cymbals, respectively) resounded. A sea of hands went up in the air, one and all swinging to the beat of the music. Feet moved, dance steps were executed, a slow headbanging began in the dense, near-congealed crowd.

Music picked up speed, and the frenzy was transmitted to the crowd. Cardboard caps swung in the air like lighters at a rock concert. The elephants joined in and swished their ears in tune with the music. Then, abruptly, the music stopped. For just a moment, arms, fans, elephant ears flailed without guidance. The crowd gave way. The elephants walked forward one by one and entered the Vadakkumnathan temple.

The ceremony that had just concluded was the Madathil Varavu (temple entry). The first of the 10 participating temples had just taken a procession of its resident deity into the Vadakkumnathan temple.

Battle of the umbrellas

The evening brought the highlight of the festival—the Kuda Mattom, or the “umbrella swapping".

One row of elephants stood on the road in front of the maidan (ground). For half a kilometre, the road on either side of the elephants was crammed with people. Another set of elephants stood at the far end of the maidan, some 200m away. A vast ocean of people completely packed the field in between. Human presence filled your view, no matter where you looked. Movement was impossible. Not an inch of space was to be seen anywhere on the entire stretch of road.

The action began. Young men atop the elephants lowered a red parasol that they held, swapping it for another yellow parasol from down below and raising the latter parasol. They did this in one fluid, nonchalant movement. As the new parasol was raised, the hum of the nearly 400,000-strong crowd swelled into a roar of approval.

Across the road, men atop the other elephant team deftly executed the same parasol-swapping manoeuvre. Both teams did this time and again, flaunting parasols of different colours. The roar of people spread across the road swelled and ebbed with the raising and lowering of parasols.

The display of multicoloured parasols began to resemble a jugalbandi between the parasol swappers and the crowd’s thunderous cheering. One team raised a parasol with an idol of Krishna in front, the other shot back with one of Bhagavathi. One team’s Shiva was countered by the other’s Parashurama, as a yellow sunset coasted down the road brimming with people.

Fire in the sky

The grand finale of the Thrissur Pooram was the fireworks display (the vedikettu) at 3am.

I reached the Swaraj Round at 2am. This is the circular road surrounding the Thekkinkadu Maidan. Its entire 1km circumference was packed. I was confronted by a wall of stationary people at the entrance to the round. It took me an hour to move 100m through the sweat-drenched crowd.

Time inched ahead. 3am, 3.30am, 4am—the fireworks refused to begin. My eyes grew bleary, strained. 4.15am, 4.30am. More people poured in—the approach roads were overflowing.

4.45am. Nothing yet. 4.50am. Silence. BOOM. People hesitantly perked up, as if unwilling to believe their sleep-worn senses. Pause. BOOM. A third and a fourth boom followed in quick succession. Those sitting and sleeping were up on their feet. The first big sparks went up as a massive green flower of fire bloomed 50m above. More colourful fire-flowers erupted in the sky, to the beat of a progression of firecracker-thuds. People covered their ears. The rattles of a firecracker-chain filled the air. I was 40m from the fireworks, yet the ground under my feet shook with throbbing explosions.

Pounding explosions, sparkling fire-flowers, clatters of cracker-chains packed the air, pausing briefly, only to start on the other side. It had been a long day. It was 5am; nobody had slept a wink; everybody had used up enough energy for a week. Yet the moment was so riveting that everybody stood in rapt attention, gazing at the sky.

As abruptly as they’d begun, the fireworks stopped. Silence smothered the surroundings. The chill of early morning crept into the grey air. There were wisps of smoke, and the first faint rays of the sun began to peer through them.

The Thrissur Pooram will be held on 12 May.

Write to lounge@livemint.com