Fireworks War: Competiton to Outperform Led to Puttingal Tragedy
Every year, the Puttingal temple witnesses a literal battle of fireworks between two competing groups, striving for that spectacular finish to end on a winning high.
A Kambapura is a kind of an open shed, traditionally endowed with a coconut fronds-plaited roof where crackers and bombs used for such festivities are stored. The Puttingal temple, however, had erected two elaborate open cemented structures with a concrete roof to serve as their Kambapuras.
It was one of these that came crumbling down, with huge chunks of concrete getting blasted almost two kilometres away, thereby spreading the on-ground extent of damage over a wider area.
The Casualty Medical Officer on duty at the Kollam District Hospital, Dr Harish, confirmed the same to TNM when he revealed that most of the injured who were brought in primarily had lacerated wounds in which debris particles were embedded, rather than actual burns from the blast.
If we had just stuck to the traditional Kambapuras, maybe the tragedy would not have taken on such massive proportions. Do you know that most people who died or were grievously injured had injuries sustained from being hit by flying debris? Unlike what’s believed, not many were burnt.Arun Lal, advocate who lives nearby
The fireworks associated with the temple’s festivities have long been a bone of contention among the devotees, in terms of the extent of fireworks that were actually needed to appease the deity.
But one thing they do all agree on is that the fireworks must go on.
The ‘Kambam’ as it is usually known is divided into four segments. First comes the ‘Padayottam’, where a series of crackers are burst first by one group and then the next.
This is followed by the ‘Varnapakittu’, which loosely translates into a literal ‘burst of colours’, released by the next batch of crackers onto the night sky. The third round is ‘Mukhaamukham’, a face-off between the two rival groups.
And then the final ‘Poraattam’, which is the actual fight that seals the winner. It’s also commonly known in local parlance as ‘Ashaanteh Ishtam’ (as per the Maestro’s wish).
Ashaan refers to the leader of each of the competing groups which consist of around 10-15 team members. Simply put, the last-round battle can be fought as per the whims of the leader, a kind of blank cheque handed over to the group to strive for maximum impact, in terms of fireworks.
What Went Wrong
Owing to the ban imposed on competing this year, the temple authorities chose to showcase this year’s ‘Kambam’ as a joint display by the two groups led by Varkala Krishnankutty and Kazhakuttam Surendran respectively – at least that was what was officially projected to the district authorities.
So instead of the usual procedure of having the two groups competing from the two Kambapuras respectively, both the groups had to host their fireworks from just one Kambapura, to avoid any semblance of a competition.
The rivalry, however, was very much intact, with both groups racing against time to come up with the ‘better’ bang. So each group had lined up five to six ‘ammittu’ (a kind of cracker-bomb, some of which weighed almost 16 kilos) which, in itself, was dangerous in case of a misfire. Three vehicles loaded with these bombs were also on standby.
Witnesses say that team-members were seen hugging the amittu close to their chests to avoid time-lag between each blast. What happened was that one of these amittus did not rise high enough and exploded just six to seven feet off the ground. The ensuing sparks from the blast fell onto the lined up ammittu, which caused a lateral explosion that then spread to the nearby vehicles, triggering off a bigger explosion and bringing down the entire Kambapura in a matter of minutes.
What then followed was the biggest man-made tragedy to be etched in the annals of Kerala till date.