There’s a song that every body knows the words to. A tale that renders every heart glad no matter how many times they’ve heard it. A surge of joy that can almost be quantified when an entire people wait in collective anticipation for a particular event. Such, is the magic of a festival.
To every Malayalee, regardless of caste or religion, the festival of Onam is a time of homecoming – a time of unequalled plenty. A time of golden-hued memories and magical wonder, when a shared culture eclipses disparity of every kind. A time when the earth blooms in the hundred shades of happiness – awaiting the visit of her favourite king.
A time when Kerala is at her vibrant best. When colour takes on its free will and scatters itself unrestrained across the countryside. A wisp of wind ruffles the golden fields – banners of yore, signaling a joyous welcome
Falling in the Malayalam month of Chingam, Onam marks the annual homecoming of the mythical King Mahabali. A king whose reign saw no unhappiness, poverty or discord of any kind. A king so loved by his subjects for his legendary kindness that it made the gods jealous. King Mahabali’s was egoistic as much as he was generous and Lord Vishnu in the guise of Vamana the Brahmin dwarf, requested three paces of land - knowing that the good king would never turn down his request. Mahabali assessed the magnitude of the request according to the Dwarf’s stature and granted the seemingly strange request instantly. Vamana’s first step covered the entire expanse of the celestial world. His second step covered the length and breadth of the world of demons. Mahabali offered his head for the third step so that Vamana might spare the earth – the ultimate sacrifice the king made for his people. Vamana placed his foot on Mahabali’s head and pushed him down into the netherworld. However, before Vamana sent Mahabali into exile he granted him one boon. Mahabali requested that he be allowed to visit his people once a year. And thus like the legend goes, Mahabeli visits his people and his arrival is heralded by the full bloom of spring.
As the harvest festival, everything about Onam is highlighted in abundance and prosperity. The streets turn into teeming bazaars with shoppers trying to bag the best bargains. Shopping is an integral part of this ten-day long festival which begins with Atham and culminates on Thiru Onam. It is believed that King Mahabeli visits his kingdom on Thriuonam and his people dressed in their new Onakodi, a statement of their well being, waits for his arrival with much anticipation.
The Onam celebrations at Thrikkakara deserve special mention, for here is believed to be the capital of King Mahabali’s kingdom. A temple with a deity of Thrikkakara Appan or Vamanamurthy, the only one of its kind in Kerala celebrates the Athachamyam in a big way. This prologue to the Onam celebrations is marked by various folk art performances like Theyyam, Panchavadadyam, Chendamelam, Pambamelam, Karakattam, Mayilattom, Ammankudam, Aattakaavadi, Pulikalliwhich – providing a visual extravaganza for the festival revelers. The Pookalams or flower carpets in their riot of colors heighten this feast for the senses.
Onam carries spring in its trail and the winds, fondly called Onakatu, carry peals of delighted laughter far and wide. In this season of harvest, Kerala is at her beautiful best. Flowers bloom in uninhibited flamboyance and fields glisten in their ripeness. Just like most festivals, colour is an integral part of Onam and the Pookalam testifies to this. Intricately designed and carefully created, these flower carpets adorn every threshold starting from Atham, inviting the good king into their homes. The womenfolk of the household, dressed in the traditional kasavu settu mundu dance the traditional Thiruvathira, also known as Kaikottikalli around the Pookalam. The Thiruvathira is also danced around a lit brass lamp - its illumined polished surface paling in comparison with the dancers’ glowing faces.
The climax to the onam celebrations is the Onasadhya, the Thiruonam feast. Rice served on a plantain leaf with numerous vegetarian delights washed down with the epicurean combination of Papadom, pazham and paysam.
Perhaps the most spectacular programme on the Onam itinerary is the Vallomkalli. It’s human spirit in its savage best. Sheer, unrestrained human energy in mesmerizing unison, a lilting chant and the lusty bellow of a hundred oars cleave the waters of an unrelenting river – the true essence of trance. The snake boat races have held many a spectator in its hypnotic sway with the lyrical smoothness of the Vanchipattu completing the spell. The Nehru trophy Boat Race, which is the biggest team sport event in the world held on the Punnamada Backwaters of Alappuzha district, is probably the best place to catch the action first hand.
Pullikalli is yet another popular Onakalli , games that fill the festivities with more colour. Dancers with bodies painted like tigers dance to the beat of a drum animating the celebrations with the hues of excitement and charming eccentricity. Kummatikalli, performed by masked dancers adorned in leaves and grass enacting various scenes from the mythical texts is another folk art that lends brilliance and variety to the vibrant spectacle that is Onam.
(I wrote this piece long ago as an assignment at work. But since it didn't get accepted, I didn't see why I couldn't use it here!)