Onam brings alive the hopes of a welfare state
Onam is all about spreading happiness. It’s not just to human beings; but to all living beings around us. Onasadya, the traditional multi-course cuisine served on a banana leaf, is the highpoint of Onam celebrations. But on the Onam day, in traditional Hindu families, before humans are served with sadhya, cows and cattle are fed after putting sandal paste on their foreheads. There is a canard being spread that Kerala Hindus don’t consider cow as sacred. In some places in Kerala, even ants are fed rice powder a day before the Onam.
According to Hindu tradition, feeding and protecting the animals is one of the five sacrifices a person should undertake daily. We don’t believe in the Biblical axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve human beings. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to de-Hinduise the festival. Onam — minus these philosophical and spiritually uplifting principles – will prove to be a celebration of barren and mad mirth.
Ideally sadhya dishes –a normal sadhya can have about 24-28 dishes – should have all the seven tastes – sweet, sour, saltish, pungent, bitter, astringent and alkaline. But in the modern times, it is difficult for a nuclear family to prepare so many items. So they stick to some basic items such as boiled brown rice, parippu, pappidam, sambar, avial, thoran, kalan, olan, achars, inchi kari, kaya varuthathu (banana chips), sarkara varattiyathu and payasam (kheer). Coconut is an ingredient in most of the items. The number of dishes is increased as per the requirement. If you are too busy and can’t take up the pain of preparing it by yourself, you can get an Onasadhya delivered at home for a price. But this facility may be available only in major towns of the state.
The ten-day harvest festival starts with Atham asterism in Malayalam month of Chingam (August-September) and culminates on Thiruvonam. It is a celebration of bounty, equality, conservation of nature, resource-sharing and bonhomie. In olden days, it was the responsibility of the feudal families to provide Onakodi (new clothes), foodgrain and all other paraphernalias for their retainers to celebrate Onam. In many Hindu households, living beings such as ants and cattle are fed before they consume sadhya. Times have changed so are the social realities. Still Keralites across the globe celebrate Onam with much fanfare and gusto. The Kerala government organises Tourism Week celebrations related to Onam, to showcase the state as a premier tourism destination.
Although the Onam has its origin in Hindu mythology, people belonging to all castes, creed and religion celebrate this. It is a state festival. The legend has it that on the Thiruvonam day, Mahabali, the Asura king who once upon a time ruled Kerala, come to visit his subjects from his abode in Patala (the underworld). The story is Mahabali was a just king and looked after his subjects very well. In his regime, people were happy; there was no cheating; there was equality everywhere. It was an ideal kingdom. A Malayalam mellifluous song, which has emerged an anthem of Onam, captures Malayalis’ idea about a welfare state.
Maveli nadu vanidum kalam,
manusharellarum onnu pole;
amodathodu vasikkum kalam,
apathangarkum ottilla thanum;
Kallavum illa, chathiyum illa
Ellolamilla poli vachanam….
(When Maveli/Mahabali used to rule the kingdom, all the citizens were treated equal; people used to lead a happy life and there weren’t any accidents; there were deception or cheating; no one talked untruth…)
As Mahabali’s popularity grew, devas (gods) became jealous. They sought Lord Vishnu’s intervention.
Vishnu disguised as a Brahmin boy (Vamana) and went to the king’s court. The king asked what he wanted. The boy said he wanted three steps of earth. When the king gave the nod, the Vamana assumed a massive human form and in two steps he measured earth and universe. He asked where he has to keep the third step. The king sat on the ground and showed his head. Lord Vishnu placed his foot over his head and pushed him down to the Patala. Buy before this, Lord Vishnu gave the king a boon to visit his kingdom once a year. People welcome him by putting beautiful designs using fresh flowers (pookkalam) in front of their houses. Near the pookkalam, Hindus will then install an image of Thrikkakara Appan or Onatthappan (Lord Vishnu in the form of Vamana) in their home.
How Onam is celebrated
Onam is not about culinary delights only. Athachamayam (royal parade on Atham) in Tripunithura near Kochi marks the beginning of the Onam festivities. There are variations in the way Onam is celebrated in different regions. On the tenth day, clay figures of King Mahabali in various forms are prepared and are painted red. These are decorated with a paste made of rice-flour and water and are placed in the front courtyard and other important places in the house. Some of these clay figures are in the shape of cone and others represent figures of Gods. Those in the shape of a cone are called, ‘Trikkakara Appan’ – Lord Vishnu in Vamana avatar. Historians postulate that the onam festival originated at Trikkakara. People believe Trikkara was the capital of mythical king Mahabali’s kingdom.
On the Onam day, pujas and prayers are performed under the leadership of a senior member of the house. For the puja first ata, prepared from rice flour and molasses, is prepared and offered to god. Members of the household clad in Onakodi (new dresses) will join in for the ceremonies. People thank God for good harvest and pray for the blessings in the coming year. After this male members make loud and rhythmic shouts of joy called ‘Aarppu Vilikkukal’. Before people consume Onasadhya, all food items prepared in the house are placed before lighted traditional lamp as an offering to God. People also visit local temples where special prayers are held.
A host of cultural and sports events are conducted across the state in connection with the festival. Tourists arrive in huge numbers during Onam festival. Classical art forms such as Kathakali and folk dance forms such as Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali and Thumbi Thullal are performed as part of the festivities. Thiruvathirakali or kaikottikali is performed by women clad in traditional Kerala dress. Although Pulikali (tiger dance) or Kaduvkali (bear dance) is performed all over the state, the Pulikali event held in Thrissur is a major tourist attraction. Artists paint their body like that of the tiger and dance to the beating of traditional percussion instruments such as chenda and thakil.
Kummattikali is a mask dance. Men clad in skirt and sporting funny masks of old ladies dance to the tune of beats. The masked dancers go from house to house performing the dance.
Kathakali performances are organised in various parts of the state in connection with Onam. Various youth clubs and temples across the state organise Kathakali performances. Ottamthullal performances are organised in temples as part of the Onam celebrations.
Thumbi Thullal is also an all-women folk dance, performed on the occasion of Onam. The lead performer of the dance is called ‘Thumbi’, who sits at the centre of the circle of women. She starts to sing a song, while other women join her by clapping hands. As the music reaches its crescendo, Thumbi, who holds a bunch of Thumba leaves, makes frantic moves, just like a possessed woman. Then slowly song’s tempo is decreased.
Similarly, there are several traditional sports and games associated with Onam. Tholpanthu kali or thalappanthu kali is popular game played in southern districts. Two teams take part in the game in which leather ball is used. Boat races, tug-of-war, kabaddi and kayyankali are among the important games played during the time of Onam. Archery is also a part of Onakalikal. Indoor games such as chess and cards are played by elders and women. Large , decorated swings are put up during Onam season and children and women enjoy swinging while singing traditional songs. Besides, games like Thalayana adi (pillow fight) and flag-post climbing make adrenaline rise among youth.
Although pressures of modern life style and disintegration of joint families have taken some sheen out of the Onam celebrations, still Malayalis all over the world won’t like to miss their favourite festival. Old-timers rue that they get to watch many games and events associated with Onam only on TV.
(Picture is only for representational purposes)