Onam- not just a harvest festival or a mythological Hindu celebration, it is instead an out and out Malayalee festivity. Come the month of Chingam (August-September) and this small southern state of Kerala turns into one big carnival showcasing the diverse yet rich and colourful cultural and traditional heritage. Irrespective of caste and religion, this grand festival is celebrated with equal zeal and fervour by the Malayalee community, reinforcing the secular character of the festival. The ten day long celebrations begin with Atham and culminate on Thiruvonam with the Onasadya, the elaborate spread of gastronomically delicious Kerala cuisines.
The harvest festival of Kerala has its origin rooted in Hindu mythology. The celebration marks the homecoming of King Mahabali (Maveli) from the underworld.
An Asura and the grandson of Prahlada, Mahabali was a benevolent and righteous ruler, and a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. His eminence among his subjects placed him at par with Lord Indra, who till then was reeling with pride. Threatened by Mahabali`s growing fame, the gods approached Lord Vishnu. The Lord, assured with the fact that Indra`s pride was contained, assumed the form of Vamana (fifth avatar) and asked Mahabali for three steps of land, as two Indras at the same time would result in an imbalance. In his pride, Mahabali promised to give away the three paces of land despite being warned by his Guru Sukracharya. The Vamana grew in size and measured heaven to earth, and earth to the lower worlds in just two steps. The King, unable to give away the third pace, offered his head, and so he was pushed down to the netherworld. However, the Lord granted Mahabali his sole wish to visit his land and people once in a year.
The Grand Procession
Athachamayam, the mega event, kick starts the ten day long Onam celebration, beginning Atham (First day of Onam). The parade, accompanied by caparisoned elephants, floats, music, folk dance and various other art forms beautifully depicts the cultural richness of the state. The grand procession starts off at Thrippunithura near Kochi.
Going back into historic importance of the event, the Maharaja of Kochi used to head his entire entourage from his palace to the Thrikkakara Temple.
The regal procession, which is also promoted by the Kerala government as a major tourism event, still maintains its majestic charm.
The Floral Carpet
Just like people in north India create rangoli, Pookalam, a hallmark of Onam celebration, is a design created with fresh flowers.
The size of the Pookalam is small on the first day, which gradually grows as fresh layers of different varieties of flowers are added to the floral carpet. The Pookalam is the biggest on Thiruvonam, the tenth day of Onam celebrations. A lamp is usually placed in centre of the Pookalam.
The Folk Art
Kathakali dancers in elaborate costumes enacting the epics and folklores, performers painted like tigers in bright red, yellow and black colours dancing to the beats of drums performing Pulikali; or maidens dancing to the tune of Thiruvathira pattu, in a circle around the Pookalam, accompanied by rhythmic clapping of the hands, known as Thiruvathirakali – the different forms of the folk dance are a common sight during Onam.
The Traditional Attire
Onakkodi, the new clothes worn on Thiruvonam has great significance among the Malayalee community. As the tradition goes, it is the eldest female member of the family who gives away the Onakkodi to the members of the family. Though a fading charm of late, many homes still follow the tradition of gifting new clothes to the near and dear ones.
Dressing up still remains an integral part of the grand celebration. The traditional attire includes off-white cotton kasavu saree with golden brocades for the women and white or off-white mundu for the men.
Image courtesy: Flickr.com
Thiruvonam & The Grand Feast
With the men, women and children decked up in new clothes, pookalam attaining its full bloom, fun and gaiety reaching the peak with Onappattu (song), dance and the grand feast, Thiruvonam, marks the end of the grand Onam celebrations. Thiruvonam commemorates the return of King Mahabali from netherworld.
Onasadya, the elaborate, strictly vegetarian spread, with minimum 11 essential dishes, the number going up to 24 (earlier 64 dishes were mandatory) served on banana leaves is one ultimate feast Malayalees look forward to. The delectable delicacies, the variety ranging from papadum to payasam, from avail to the sour and spicy inji curry, the gastronomical treat is the perfect, delicious way to end the ten day long festivity.
The Boat Race
Aranmula Vallamkali, the annual snake boat regatta is part of the extended Onam celebration post Thiruvonam. The snake boat race is organised in the waters of River Pampa at Aranmula on Uthrattathi, the fifth day starting with Tiruvonam.
As many as 50 boats decorated with golden laces, flags and ornamental umbrellas take part in the race. The oarsmen dressed in traditional white mundu and turbans sing traditional boat songs, `Vanchipattu` and row the huge snake shaped boats (Chundan Vallam) amid loud cheering by onlookers. The race focuses more on tradition than competition.
The race usually begins in the afternoon after prayers are offered at the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple. It is one of the major tourist attractions during Onam and is lately being promoted by Kerala government as part of the Tourism week.