Thiruvananthapuram: With Kerala’s most important festival Onam just two months away, artists of a family are busy painting murals on thin wooden slabs, depicting myths connected to Lord Vishnu to be dedicated to the famed Padmanabhaswamy temple in the city.
Known as `Ona villu` presentation, it has been a centuries old custom to dedicate pieces of the multi-colour artwork on `Thirvonam` day to the presiding deity of the royal temple, one of world’s richest shrines with huge treasures hid in its underground vaults as found during the recent inventory.
The tradition of making `Onavillu` has been kept up for the last three centuries by craftsmen of Vaniyammoola Vilayil family in Karmana in the city, who trace their roots to Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu.
"Our forbears were brought here and settled by the illustrious King of Travancore Marthanda Varma, who rebuilt the ancient temple in its present magnificent form in the 18th century," Bin Kumar, master-craftsman from the family said.
"Hailing from Viswakarma community (artisans and sculptors), our forefathers had played a key role in designing and executing the elegant sculptures and granite carvings of the temple," he said.
"After the work was completed,they were settled in the city by the king and given the right to make Onavillu."
In the beginning only a few pieces were made and dedicated to the temple. But over the years, demand for the artwork has grown. Last year, 1,001 pieces of Onavillu were made and given away to devotees, who booked them in advance by payment after the ceremonial dedication to Padmanabhaswamy, Kumar said.
Since Onam is a festival linked to `Dasavathara` (10 incarnations) of Lord Vishnu, themes mostly connected to Vishnu are painted on `Ona Villu.` But last year, paintings of Vigneswara and Dharmasastha (Ayyappa) were also done in the medium, he said.
The legend behind Onam is that Lord Vishnu incarnated as Vamana, the dwarf and banished King Mahabali to the netherworld after Gods in heaven grew jealous of the King who ruled Kerala in an egalitarian manner.
Before getting banished, Vamana granted Mahabali’s plea to allow him visit his subjects on `Thiruvonam’ day of the Malayalam month `Chingam` every year, when Malayalis the world over celebrate Onam. This year Onam falls on September 9.
In Hindu mythology, Vamana is Vishnu`s fifth incarnation. Local tradition has it that presentation of Onavillu gives an opportunity for Mahabali to see the other five incarnations.
Apart from the image of Lord Padmanabha reclining on the mythical serpent Aanantha, themes like Krishna Leela (episodes connected to Sree Krishna) and Sreerama Pattabhishekam (anointing of Lord Rama as King) are also depicted on Onavillu.
The unique artwork derived its name from the word `villu`, which in Malayalam means bow, the shape of the wood on which the painting is done. Bow also resembles boat and the princely state of Travancore was also known as `vanchi nad,` which in Malayalam means boat-shaped land.
The first 12 pieces of Onavillu is presented by craftsmen to the temple on Thiruvonam day and after the dedication ceremony are taken to the Travancore palace. The rest are given away to devotees who book for them in advance by paying the charge fixed by the temple authorities.
To start with, wood, mostly mahogany, is cut and chiseled into thin slabs of up to 4.5 feet length as the medium to execute the painting. Natural dyes, made of plant leaves and finely powdered stones are used to make them. Work is executed in a mingling of five shades-yellow, red, blue, black and white.
"This is an art requiring both creative talent and devotion. We carry out the work in a sanctified atmosphere with utmost dedication to Lord Padmanabha. Craftsmen follow some ascetic routines for 41 days like shunning mundane pleasures," he said
"We have in our joint family painters, sculptors and craftsmen who work on various media. But before Onam season we all gather in the family workshop and concentrate on making Onavillu", he added.