Puli Kali: Pulikali in Thrissur- Origin, History, Main Attractions

Literally, Puli Kali means tiger's dance. Puli Kali is a unique recreational folk art form where artists paint themselves as tigers or leopards and dance across the streets.
Puli Kali is celebrated with great gusto particularly in Thrissur district in the state of Kerala. On the fourth day of Onam.


  • It is performed around Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala. The harvest season in Kerala lasts between late August to early September. It is said that Vaman, one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu descended on Earth to destroy an evil King(asura) named King Mahabali. 
  • Mahabali was very powerful and his kingdom encompassed the three worlds as described in Hindu mythology. Vaman, who was a Brahmin kid, appeared to King Mahabali and asked for as much land as extended over his three steps. 
  • The kid started growing bigger and bigger. In his first step, he covered the sky and the earth in his second step. Mahabali had realised that he is Lord Vishnu. When the kid asked the king where he should put his third step, the king, not wanting to insult the lord, answered that he can step on his head. 
  • Impressed by his politeness and reverence, Vaman gifted him with a boon that the king will get to see his subjects once in a year. As soon as Vaman stepped onto his head, Mahabali happened to attain salvation and enjoyed his boon to see his subjects annually during the harvest festival of Onam.


King Mahabali was an asura. He was powerful, vigorous and spirituous. Ultimately, tiger or leopard became a simile for him.  The history of Puli Kali can be traced back to the times of King Maharaja Rama Varma, the Maharaja of Cochin 200 years ago. He encouraged this grand celebration of Onam. 

Since then people started performing this peculiar art form on such a massive scale. As the ritual goes, the artist first shaves off all the body hair. Then another experienced painter paints his body with a single coat of paint which is specially made by the painter himself. Once the first coat dries up, another coat is applied so that the colours become more vibrant and brighter. It takes a whole day to paint a man into a tiger.

Puli Kali Now

In olden days, men used to paint their whole bodies with paint and no other accessories were used. Experienced painters used to work all night before the event day along with the performing artist.  In today’s time, women and children too, participate in the event and paint themselves into tigresses and young tigers. Along with paints, items like fake tiger-like teeth, moustaches, masks, tongues and jingling belts are also used by the artists. 

Main Attractions

Preparations for Puli Kali (Source)
Main attractions of the event are the men with pot-bellies dancing out the steps on the beats of some traditional instruments like chenda, thakil and udukku. They enact various scenes like a tiger who is to prey or a game hunter hunting a tiger. They try to mimic real tigers by imitating their gestures, facial expressions and body language. Hundreds of men painted as tigers perform their peculiar dance steps with their bellies across Swaraj Round. The celebration is sponsored by a distinguished Puli Kali committee. Many troupes participate and compete with each other. The troupe with the best body paintings, dance and overall performance is awarded a cash prize.

Puli Kali has emerged as a major tourist attraction over the years. People visit Kerala during August and September specifically to witness this marvellous procession celebrating history, art and culture. In the guise of these men, King Mahabali comes to see his subjects filled with joy and laughter and bless them with even more of it.

This post was published by Ishika Wahane

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