Project Description

Globally, there are more changes and assimilations happening in lifestyles than ever before, driven by various factors such as technology, market, art and academic discourses. While it is open to debate whether such rapid assimilations will lead to a “better” culture, it should not be doubted that we need a focused effort in documenting this transition period – photography is an apt medium for such an effort. Project 365 is a collective photo-art project initiated by EtP (Ekalokam Trust for Photography) that attempts to photographically capture the existing practices, lifestyles and cultures even as they are being forgotten or discontinued, and gets its importance in the collective thought behind each individual effort.

Arjun Ramachandran is contributing a series of images based on the Iyer community towards the second phase of Project 365, that creates contemporary visuals of the Classical-era port towns Tyndis, MuziRis and Korkai. The series is titled The Iyer Life. This photo essay on the Kalpathy Car festival is a part of this ongoing series. Kalpathy is a Tamil Brahmin hamlet in the Palakkad district of present Kerala, which is known for its yearly Car festival.

KALPATHY CAR FESTIVAL   |   Arjun Ramachandran

Horses are generally accepted to have been brought to the Indian peninsula by travellers from across the sea, or from the north; so too must have been the introduction of chariots. Chariots are historically seen as becoming popular after the invention of the spoke-wheel. The importance of the chariot in the military of Vedic tribes is underlined by it being used by most of the major of the heroes in Vedic mythology. However, its limited agility and maneuverability saw it being replaced by cavalry, as soon as wild horses that could carry armed men were tamed, but the chariot continued to sustain as an image in the mythological stories which had already been building up. Of course, the chariot is known to have served as the primary vehicle for the kings, royal family members and noblemen.

It is claimed that the earliest surviving chariot festival is the one in Puri. However, the chariot festival traditions in Puri and Bhubaneswar seem to be the only ones that are seen outside the Tamilakam region. Therottam, as it is called in Tamil, came to Palakkad via the Tamil Brahmin community that trickled in through the Western Ghats in the second millennium CE. The Kalpathy festival is held over a period of 10 days, such that the last day of the festival falls on the 1st day of Vrischikam (Karthika) month. Vrishchikam is a period of rituals and festivals in many places, notably Sabarimala and Tiruvannamalai. Today, the Kalpathy festival is attended by many communities apart from the Tamil Brahmins, although the festival is conducted by the residents of new and old Kalpathy, and Chathapuram. Much like the rest of Palakkad, the Kalpathy festival has allowed for a mixture of what could be called the Chera culture and the Pandyan culture. In fact, the name Palakkad itself is claimed by some historians to have been a reference to the Palai landscape of Sangam literature. In a more mundane claim, it is linked to the Pala tree that is seen abundantly in Palakkad. (Palai is a flower that is also seen here. The flower and its connected landscape were used as a metaphor for a particular mood in Sangam poetry.)

The idea of the presiding deity going around the village is curiously similar to the way kings were described as going around to hear the problems of the people, especially when taking into consideration the analogy that between the deity and the king. This could be a plausible explanation for the roots of such chariot festivals. In spite of the strict Vedic foundation of the rituals involved in it, the Kalpathy festival can be seen to contain a mixture of motifs and traditions – interestingly, like the Makara sculptures that adorn the chariot used for it. Makara is a term that is translated as crocodile in contemporary usage, but traditional paintings and sculptures depict it as a mixture of multiple animals, usually with at least one aquatic animal. Many part-human part-animal figures are also present in traditional iconography, among which a sphinx-like manifestation can be seen, which is very close to the Hellenistic sphinx. The chariot itself contains many of these anthropomorphic forms sculpted on it, apart from “realistic” animal and human forms.

The wooden wheels of the chariot were replaced by iron-cast ones this year, and saw a JCB replacing an elephant for helping in pulling the chariot. However, one elephant was still used. Both nadaswaram music and melam are played during the procession, but the evening concerts are yet to branch out from Carnatic music and bhajans.

Photography © Arjun Ramachandran | Project 365 Public Photo-Art Archive Tri-Sangam Ports

Arjun Ramachandran is an upcoming photographer, with interests in cinema and literature. He extends his services as Associate Editor of Photo Mail. He writes in English and Malayalam.