Makara Chowa - Sadya That Feeds The Soul
Image Credit: The Makara Chowa saad does not repeat any items | Instagram - @inderjeet_singhbamrah

Located 11kms away from bustling Thrissur, and off a national highway, stepping into Chembuthara (or Chemboothara) still feels like taking a step back into the past. The small village is known for its picturesque environs, with narrow, somnolent streets and verdant patches. But on the first Tuesday of the month of Makara (which begins on January 15, according to the Malayalam calendar), Chembuthara casts off its laidback air and throbs with activity and energy. This is when its most important event, Makara Chowa (or Chovva), takes place. 

The festival is a significant one not only in Chembuthara, but in all temples where the goddess Bhagavathy is worshipped. However, few celebrations can match the scale of Chembuthara's, where a procession organised by the village's Kodungallur Kavu Bhagavathy Temple draws up to a thousand visitors. In fact, so synonymous is this celebration with Makara Chowa that it is interchangeably known as Chembuthara Pooram by the locals.

On the day of the festival, the unassuming premises of Chembuthara Kodungallurkavu temple are entirely bedecked in strands of flowers. Torans woven with paddy are stretched across open spaces. The main event involves between 40-50 temple elephants, brought out in a row. They are adorned with traditional gold-plated accoutrements: the thalekkettu or nettippattam (which covers their brow and upper trunk), kuda (umbrellas made of silk, with elaborate tassels), venchamaram (flywhisks), and alavattom (peacock feather fans). Apart from this finery, the elephant may also wear bells around its ankles or neck that jingle as it moves through the parade. A mahout or priest seated atop the elephant holds a golden plaque embossed with the goddess' likeness. 

As the caparisoned elephants take their place, the Panchari Melam strikes its first notes. This is the ensemble of percussionists who perform at temple festivals in Kerala. The musicians use elathalam (cymbals), kombu (long, curved horn), kuzhal (akin to a shehnai or nagaswaram) and the chenda (narrow drum) to create their distinctive rhythms.

The devotees and tourists sample the Sadya at Bharath Hotel | Instagram - @divyanithins

Of course, where there is an Indian festival, there is bound to be a variety of food. While the temple has its own "prasaada oottu" on special occasions, the devotees and tourists who throng the Makara Chowa procession site have other options as well, including heading back into Thrissur to sample the sadya at the famed Bharath Hotel.

Known for never repeating an item on its sadya (served of course, on a banana leaf) in the course of a week, Bharath has been an indelible part of the Thrissur food scene since it was established in the 1960s. From ghee roast to puttu-kadalai, sadya standards like olan, aviyal and thoran, to evergreen favourites like idli and dosa, the hotel is well-equipped to feed hungry crowds (after all, it is a popular pitstop for attendees of the even more sumptuous Thrissur Pooram as well), dishing out its Central Kerala-influenced cuisine. When spiritual sustenance is followed by food for the soul, what more could you ask for?