Puli Kali also known as Kaduvakali is a colorful recreational folk art from the state of Kerala. It is performed by trained artists to entertain people on the occasion of Onam. On the fourth day of Onam celebrations (Nalaam Onam), performers painted like tigers and hunters in bright yellow, red, and black dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and Thakil. Literal meaning of Pulikali is the 'play of the tigers' hence the performance revolve around the theme of tiger hunting. The folk art is mainly practiced in Thrissur district of Kerala. The festival attracts thousands of people to the city.
The origin of Pulikali dates back to over 200 years, when the Maharaja Ramavarma (Sakthan Thampuran) is said to have introduced the folk art, who wanted to celebrate Onam with a dance that reflected the wild and macho spirit of the force. Later, Muslim soldiers of the British Army stationed in Thrissur in the army cantonment area (Pattalam Road) used to celebrate with great fervor. They popularised the folk genre with steps and body language peculiar to a tiger being stalked by a hunter, enacting a play of the hunter and the beast. Along with the celebrations, they used to perform the art form decked as tigers with peculiar steps resembling the tiger, then known as 'Pulikkettikali' which was immensely enjoyed by the locals. Pulikali in Thrissur is held in memory of this event.
A striking feature of this folk art is the colorful appearance of the performers. A particular combination of tempera powder and varnish or enamel is used to make the paint. First of all, the dancers remove the hair from the body, and then, the base coat of paint is applied on them. It takes two to three hours for the coating to dry. After that, the second coat of paint is applied with enhanced design. This entire procedure takes at least five to seven hours. A large number of artists gather to apply paint on the tigers. It is a meticulous process and often starts from the wee hours in the morning. By afternoon the Pulikkali groups or 'sangams' as they are called, from all four corners of Thrissur move in a procession, dancing, pouncing and shaking their bellies to the beat of the drums through the streets.