Onam – 2014
Introduction of Onam festival
Onam is a Hindu festival celebrated by the people of Kerala. The festival falls during the Malayalam month of Chingam (Aug – Sep) and marks the commemoration of Vamana avatara of Vishnu and the subsequent homecoming of the mythical King Mahabali who Malayalees consider as their King. In Kerala, it is the festival celebrated with most number of cultural elements such as Vallam Kali, Pulikali, Pookkalam, Onathappan, Thumbi Thullal, Onavillu, Kazhchakkula, Onapottan, Atthachamayam etc. Onam is reminiscent of Kerala’s agrarian past, as it is considered to be a harvest festival.
It is an ancient festival which still survives in modern times. Kerala’s rice harvest festival and the Festival of Rain Flowers, which fall on the month of Chingam, celebrates the Asura King Mahabali’s annual visit from Patala or Patal (the underworld). Onam is unique since Mahabali has been revered by the people of Kerala since prehistory.The King is so much attached to his kingdom that it is believed that he comes annually from the nether world (Patal) to see his people living happily. It is in honour of King Mahabali that Onam is celebrated. The deity Vamana, also called Onatthappan, is also revered during this time by installing a clay figure next to the floral carpet (Pookalam). The birthday of Sri Padmanabhan, the presiding Deity of Thiruvananthapuram, is on the Thiruvonam day in the month of Chingam. Thiruonam day is the most important day of Onam. In Onam 2014 Thiruvonam date is September 7.
The floral carpet, known as ‘Onapookkalam’ is made out of the gathered blossoms with several varieties of flowers of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to serve the decorator’s purpose. It is considered a work of art accomplished with a delicate touch and a highly artistic sense of tone and blending. (In a similar manner North Indians make something called “Rangoli” which is made of powders of various colors.) When completed, a miniature pandal, hung with little festoons is erected over it.
Traditionally, Atthapookalams (pookalam made on the Atham day) included flowers endemic to Kerala and the Dashapushpam (10-flowers), but nowadays all varieties of flowers are used. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vamana are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house along with the Pookalam, and beautifully decorated with flowers. In the recent years, the floral designs have evolved from the traditional circular shape to unique designs depicting different cultural and social aspects of Kerala life. All over Kerala, Pookalam competitions are a common sight on Onam day. People start putting atha-pookalams from Atham ( First day of 10 day festival ) till thiruvonam, while some put Onam Pookalams till the 28th day after thiruvonam. Breathtaking Snake Boat Race and exotic Kaikottikali dance are some of the most remarkable features of Onam.
Story of Mahabali and Vamana
Mahabali’s rule is considered the golden era of Kerala. A long time ago, an Asura (demon) king called Mahabali ruled Kerala. He was a wise, benevolent and judicious ruler and beloved of his subjects. Soon his fame as an able king began to spread far and wide, but when he extended his rule to the heavens and the netherworld, the gods felt challenged and began to fear his growing powers. Presuming that he might become over-powerful, Aditi, the mother of Devas pleaded with Lord Vishnu to curtail Mahabali’s powers. Vishnu transformed himself into a dwarf called Vamana and approached Mahabali while he was performing a yajna and asked for alms. Pleased with the dwarf brahmin’s wisdom, Mahabali granted him a wish. The Emperor’s preceptor, Sukracharya warned him against making the gift, for he realized that the seeker was no ordinary person. But the Emperor’s kingly ego was boosted to think that God had asked him for a favor. So he firmly declared that there is no greater sin than going back on one’s promise. He kept his word. The Vamana asked for a simple gift — three paces of land — and the king agreed to it. Vishnu in the guise of Vamana then increased his stature and with the first step covered the sky, blotting out the stars, and with the second, straddled the netherworld. Realising that Vamana’s third step will destroy the earth, Mahabali offered his head as the last step. Vishnu’s fatal third step pushed him to the netherworld, but before banishing him to the underworld Vishnu granted him a boon. Since he was attached to his kingdom and his people, he was allowed to return once a year from exile. Onam is the celebration that marks the homecoming of King Mahabali. It is the day when a grateful Kerala pays a glorious tribute to the memory of this benign king who gave his all for his subjects.
Varoius Cultures followed during Onam.
During the Onam, Keralite Hindus install an image of Thrikkakara Appan or Onatthappan (Vishnu in the form of Vamana) in their home. Many lamps are lit in Hindu temples of Kerala during this celebration. A palmyra tree is erected in front of temples and surrounded with a wooden balustrade and covered with dry palmyra leaves. It is lit with a torch and burned to ashes to signify that King Mahabali went to Patala as a sacrifice. The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappaatt, or Onam songs, and rock one another on swings slung from high branches.
Onam season is often associated with creativity as weavers and potters go for excess production to cater to increased demands for their products during the season, especially in North Kerala regions of Kannur and Kasargod. Handloom fairs are an integral part of the spirit of Onam festivities these days. In some parts of Kerala, people indulge in various games and dances during and post-Thiruvonam. These are known as Onakkalikal. These include competitions such as Ox races (Maramadimatsaram), Uriyady, food eating competitions, Pookalam competitions etc.
Onapottan in traditional costume is a custom in northern parts of Kerala. Onapottan visits houses during the onam and gives blessings. Of late Onapottan has become a rare sight, confined to villages.