Painted in bright shades of yellow and black from head to toe, the 'tigers' pranced about the streets.

The ambiance was wild and electric. Rustic drumbeats and roars of the crowd filled the air.

Leaving their den, 300-odd men painted in leopard spots and tiger stripes stormed the city on Saturday evening to give a carnivalesque finish to the Onam celebrations in Thrissur.

Thousands of people thronged the Swaraj Round and bylanes to watch six teams stage the pantomime-cum-parade Pulikkali. Tableaux brightened the procession.

Painted in bright shades of yellow and black from head to toe, the tigers pranced about the streets.

The crowds goaded the dancers to let loose their best roars and growls. In quick response, the tigers cartwheeled and somersaulted.

Pot-bellied tigers were the highlight of the show. The fatter, the merrier. Pulikkali squads hunt for fat performers as faces of tigers and leopards can be drawn well on big bellies. Some performers wore tiger masks with twinkling LED bulbs for eyes.

People from outside may dismiss this as a crude belly dance.

But people in Thrissur know that Onam festivities cannot be complete without Pulikkali.

Even the rain that had been lashing the city for the last few days, took a break on Saturday evening.

“Preparations for Pulikkali start months ahead of the event. It is important to get even the small details right,” said Baby P. Antony, secretary of the Pulikkali Coordination Committee.

Painting on the body for the Pulikkali is not that easy, said 72-year-old Chathunni, the oldest Pulikkali performer in Thrissur.

“Paint plugs sweat ducts. Hence, getting the body painted is torturous. But the spirit of the event inspires to stomach the pain,” Chathunni, who has been performing the Pulikkali for the last 56 years, said.

Contingents from Veliyannur, Poothole, East Fort, Punkunnam, Viyyur and Mylippadam regaled onlookers. Each team staged two tableaux.

The processions, each having 41 performers, entered the Swaraj Round around 4.30 p.m. The contest was judged from 4.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m.

The city was immersed in carnival spirit from Friday itself. ‘Puli Chamayam’ exhibitions and ‘Pulival’ processions were held on Friday. The tiger dens were active from Friday night.

Pulikkali, a traditional art form of Kerala, is said to have originated in the late 18th century. It is a street dance, with no rigid rules. Each artiste creates his own style.

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