Thrissur Puram 2012: Photography with nowhere to turn – Part I

First, some background:

Thrissur is a district in the state of Kerala, India. What sets Thrissur apart from other places in the state is one massive festival that takes place every year (Puram means festival), the Thrissur Puram. To learn more about this festival, click here and here. It’s being going on for 200 years, and was first organized into the current format by the Sakthan Thampuran, the king at the time.

Imagine hundreds of thousands of people, more than 50 elephants, killer heat and fireworks that guarantee a heart attack. Read on.

Basically the festival is one long event that spans two days – I got the feeling there wasn’t a single break anywhere. For the purposes of capturing this event, I broadly broke down my ‘visits’ to the main ground into three parts:

1. The morning when the elephants arrive
2. The kodamattam (Malayalam for ‘changing parasols’) – this is the main event that spans three hours
3. The fireworks – begins at 3 a.m. and lasts for an hour or so

The morning when the elephants arrive

Bang at the center of Thrissur town is the Thekkinkadu maidan, encircling the Vadakumnathan temple. Curiously, the puram is held in front of this temple, but it does not participate in the festival. This year, a total of 8 temples participated, out of which the two ‘traditional heavyweights’ are the Paramekkavu Bagavathi Temple and Thiruvambadi Sri Krishna Temple. The kodamattam and fireworks are actually competitions between these two temples.

In the morning, elephants from all parts of Thrissur begin their journey towards the center. Thousands throng the streets, following this march. Being summer, the light gets pretty harsh after nine thirty.

My aim was simple documentation – no fancy art stuff. One thing I realized immediately is that I had to get to a higher vantage point. In the first photo, the elephants march into the temple. The second photograph is of a temporary ‘gate’ (one among four I think) that are on the road (a round one) that surrounds the grounds. The third photo shows the temporary scaffolding constructed for the media.

I always try to shoot at ISO 100 or 200, and only push higher (a max of 6400) when forced to do so. My favorite aperture is f/8 or f/11 – I like everything in focus. For this trip all I had was my Canon 550D and the 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. I knew I wouldn’t have any issues since it was blisteringly hot day – easy to stay within my ideal settings. Finding the right light was going to be tough part.

Another reason I wanted great depth of field is because the kit lens is pretty soft, and the autofocus on the 550D is great, but not as perfect as focusing zoomed in, in live view. Shooting at f/11 I knew confidently even if I missed the mark, I would still have usable photos. The fast shutter speed also helps in arresting motion.

Manual mode wasn’t going to be fast enough. Even in the morning the crowd was tremendous, and constantly moving. I was with my family, and I didn’t want us to lose each other. I came to the disappointing realization that I wouldn’t be able to carefully compose my shots or find exciting angles. I had to make do with what I got. I set my camera into aperture priority mode.

The elephants stand in a line, facing the main temple. Each elephant has three riders – the mahout, and two devotees. It is a long ritual that will go on for hours. The lines come in waves, and the elephants are extremely well-behaved, especially when facing all kinds of humans with cell phone cameras and DSLRs in their hand.


The third image (first among the last six) is probably one of the rare moments when I tried shooting at f/4.5. At the telephoto end the kit lens has a maximum of f/5.6 – not very useful in this circumstance, so I let that idea drop.

Being an amateur, I was trigger happy – until I got bored, that is. After all, they were repeating the same patterns again and again. I decided to look for something else:


It was not just manners that kept the elephants so disciplined! There have also been incidents (one this year too!) of elephants going haywire – and this is a live televised event. In fact, my dad was interviewed by a television channel.

The first image shows preparations for the fireworks that will happen early the next morning. That’s what I was here for!

If I had to sum up the morning with just one shot, this would be it:

After this I moved on to lunch. We had to be back for the main event post lunch. The elephants weren’t going anywhere. Continue on to parts two and three.