Not long ago, the temple town of Thrissur, known as the cultural capital of Kerala, witnessed the rise of the tigress. Kerala has celebrated Pulikali—the Tiger Dance—for 200 years. Today, hundreds of (almost exclusively) men costumed as tigers and leopards mark the occasion with a massive procession through the streets of Thrissur. Donning masks and elaborate body paint that takes hours to apply, they perform a traditional folk dance before thousands of spectators every year. Two years ago, women finally debuted in the male-dominated parade: a historic occasion that made headlines across India and has since encouraged more women to seize their inner beast.
About 54 miles from Kochi, a major port city and one of Kerala’s largest, Thrissur isn’t the most obvious tourist destination for visitors to the state. People are more likely to choose the beaches of Malabar or the seaside town of Alappuzha. But Thrissur, steeped in religious tradition and Old World charm, offers cultural experiences that are unparalleled in south India.
“You can get the whole culture of Kerala in Thrissur,” said Rajesh Kumar, joint secretary of the Ayyanthole Desham, one of more than a dozen Pulikali teams in the town.
Pulikali was introduced by Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran, the King of Cochin from the late 18th to early 19th century, as a celebration of courage, bravery, and the spirit of battle. It takes place during Onam, Kerala’s revered harvest festival, when the entire state erupts in celebration during August and September. This year’s Pulikali is scheduled for August 28. (The tourism department warns, however, that the dates may change slightly, so check with local authorities before planning a trip.)
While women were not officially restricted from taking part in Pulikali over the past two centuries, their inclusion was seen as a long-awaited turning point. Ajita, a teacher from Calicut, took part in the parade last year. Although she felt a nervous anticipation as the day approached, she described a palpable, and infectious, sense of excitement in Thrissur during that year’s Pulikali, she said through a translator.
Women Integration and Growth Through Sports (WINGS), a group that works toward female empowerment, has led the efforts to bring women into Pulikali. Surya Gopalakrishnan, 26, an online coordinator for WINGS, said women had stayed away from the folk dance for fear of being harassed or leered at during the procession. But WINGS and other groups are fighting to create a safe space for them to be a part of the celebration. Gopalakrishnan believes that the greater participation of women is the only way to show their power.
“If you don’t go, you’re giving that baton to the [harassers],” she said. “That is why we do this.”
Pulikali isn’t just a colorful procession. It’s also a competition between local organizations called deshams. This year, about a dozen deshams are likely taking part in the festival, each bringing anywhere between 10 to 50 “tigers.” The procession starts at the heart of Thrissur, known as Swaraj Round, near the famous Vadakkunnathan Temple, and crowds line up on the streets to watch one of Thrissur’s oldest traditions come to life.
Teams are awarded prizes for costumes and folk-dance performances where participants play the roles of hunters and tigers, timing their movements to the rhythm of traditional percussion instruments called the thakil, udukku, and chenda. The preparations to transform men—and now women—into tigers and leopards begin the night before: Dedicated artists spend hours using oil paints to transform participants with white, orange, and black stripes or spots.
Thrissur wouldn’t always have made it onto a list of Kerala’s must-visit spots, but today’s growing women-led rebellion has breathed fresh life into Pulikali and added a new dimension to the town that celebrates it. Gopalakrishnan hopes to take part this year; teams won’t be decided until closer to the festival and she is still determining whether she can take time off from her job in Bangalore. But if she can manage to make the trip, she’s determined to represent her fellow tigresses.
“It’s my responsibility to show that it’s OK,” she said. “You can also go.”
Thrissur is accessible via road, bus, and train. Trains to Thrissur Railway Station depart from Ernakulum near Kochi as well as Kozhikode and Coimbatore, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. The state’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, is about 170 miles south of Thrissur and takes about seven hours to drive. For anyone traveling by air, the closest airport to Thrissur is Kochi International Airport, about 31 miles from town.