Many cultures around the world mark the harvest season with unique celebrations. In Kerala, India there is a festival called Onam that takes place in August or September with a large array of events. On the fourth day of the festivities, hundreds of dancers paint their bodies and dress up as tigers. These cheerful performers then move to the beat of the drums and march through the streets of Thrissur in a folk dance known as Puli Kali—which means Tiger Dance.
This Puli Kali tradition dates back approximately 200 years. It was introduced by Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran, the King of Cochin from the late 18th to early 19th century, as a way to celebrate courage, bravery, and the spirit of battle. While most of the performers are usally men, women have been joining the celebrations since 2016.
At the center of the Puli Kali are those who get in costume. They don bright orange masks, complete with whiskers, and spend hours carefully decorating their bodies with paint. While some performers cover their entire bodies with tiger stripes, the more adventurous ones transform their torsos into the intimidating face of a feline. All of the body art is done by experienced artists, who begin their work as early as the night before the celebration.
Since the main theme of the Puli Kali is tiger hunting, participants divide the roles of tigers and hunters. But it's not just a reverie for the sake of tradition. Teams actually compete for prizes in categories such as best drumming team, best tableau display, best eco-friendly vehicle, and best vehicle tiger display. In 2023, the winning teams earned cash prizes of Rs 40,000 to Rs 62,500 (about $481 to $752).
The date for this festivities changes from year to year, and is usually set by the local government in the weeks leading up to the event. While Thirssur is not usually counted among India's top destinations, this colorful tradition has certainly caught the world's attention—drawing new visitors every year.
Every year in Kerala, India, performers dress up as tigers for the Puli Kali folk dance—which means Tiger Dance.
At the center of the Puli Kali are those who get in costume. They don bright orange masks, complete with whiskers, and spend hours decorating their bodies with paint.
While some cover their entire bodies with tiger stripes, the more adventurous ones transform their torsos into the intimidating face of a feline.
This folk art happens during Onam Festival in Kerala name Puli Kali which means tiger dance, and it is performed by artists who paint themselves as tigers or leopards and dance to the rhythm of drums.