Santha S. Nair is almost always in khaki. As head constable with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at Pallipuram here, she is used to adhering to a strict schedule, maintaining perfect lines as she marches in a parade, keeping her face impassive, and managing accessories such as a rifle. On Saturday morning, she had assumed an entirely different appearance.

Garbed in the traditional ‘munde-neriyathe’ (set-sari), her hair held together by a rope of jasmine, her face beamed with pride at the efforts of her five-member team from the CRPF, one of the 51 which participated in what is arguably the most popular traditional flower carpet competition held here — Parle-The Hindu MetroPlus Pookkalam Contest. The festive spirit of Onam had been captured at the Government Women’s College auditorium, where the competition was held.

“This is actually the first time that we’re taking part in a competition of this scale outside the boundaries of the camp. Our job demands discipline, and even though this is a competitive event, for us it is a way to celebrate and enjoy,” Ms. Santha said.

“We look around and we see such perfect works of art, but I could not be happier with how ours turned out,” said inspector Ambika Rajan.

Three teams had turned up to represent the CRPF camp, all of them dressed in matching traditional attire. These were the teams that won the best flower carpet titles at the camp, where this year a competition was organised by the CRPF Wives Welfare Association led by Sapna Ajay Bharathan.

“This is a Central organisation, and we are used to being transferred to locations across the country. Wherever we go, we obviously need to be a part of and experience that culture,” she said, indicating two members of her team, from Rajasthan and Assam. It was their first experience of a tradition so intrinsically Malayali.

For this contingent from the CRPF camp, the Pookkalam contest was more of a celebration than a cut-throat competition, which it was to many who spent weeks chalking out designs and blending colours. What began as indiscernible streaks of chalk at 10 a.m. transformed into stunning showpieces that left no doubt as to the creative capabilities of the participants. The tension too was palpable once the participants were reminded that time was ticking away fast.

Almost in tandem with the beat of chendas that began to sound when half an hour was left, the tempo of the participants too picked up with frantic calls ringing through the hall, reminding each other to fill an empty geometric block or check the symmetry of their patterns. “The shape, we must maintain the shape,” muttered S. Beena as she stood and observed a complex pattern coming to life in the deft hands of her husband Skaria Joseph, a veteran of sorts, considering he has been a regular participant at various contests for the past 25 years. Three German nationals wandered in during the latter half of the day. “They are really not easy because you cannot have one shred of petal out of place. The colours are so beautiful and everything about this room is simply so happy,” said Leo, one of the tourists.