“There was once a time when mahabali reigned over the land;
And all the people lived as one then….”
Goes a folksong in Malayalam sung during the festival of Onam , the biggest festival for the people of Kerala. Onam is celebrated by all Keralites, belonging to all communities and is a ten day extravaganza for the people of Kerala. The festival has numerous traditions, rituals and legends which surround it, the practices and folklore varying as we travel from the north of kerala through the middle and to the south.
The most popular legend surrounding Onam goes thus; in time immemorial, a just and popular King called “Mahabali’ ruled over the people of Kerala. Mahabali was the most powerful king in all the worlds and the land and its people prospered under him. All the earth and even the heavens were under his control. The ‘Devas’, heavenly beings, were struck by jealousy at his good fortune. The devas’ mother, adithi, appealed to Lord Vishnu, the keeper of the Universe, to end mahabali’s domination. Vishnu took the form of a young sage and proceeded to the place where Mahabali was conducting an elaborate ritual, a ‘yaagam’. Mahabali welcomed the disguised young sage, Vaamanan, with respect and offered many riches to him in gratitude for his holy presence. Vaamana, in his cunning , refused but asked for this favour-“ I want you to give to me what little land I can measure with three footsteps”. Hearing the young child’s request, Mahabali happily gave his word.Suddenly the sage grew in size until he couldn’t be measured by mortals. In one step he covered the earth, in another the heavens, and finding no place to place the third step in, turned to Mahabali. Te just King was determined to abide his promise He bowed down in front of the Lord and offered his head for Vaamanan to place the next step in. Lord Vishnu was pleased at Mahabali’s devotion and granted him one wish before placing his next step. Mahabali had one wish- to be able to come to his kingdom every year to meet his subjects. Vaamanan granted this wish and blessed Mahabali who was pushed down to the underworld and installed as the King of the underworld called ‘Paathalam’.The day on which Mahabali comes back to earth to visit his beloved subjects is celebrated as Onam when each household in Kerala celebrates the return of their King and gears up to welcome him with festivities, feasts and merry making.
Onam falls in the month if ‘Chingam’ in the Malayalam calendar. Chingam is the first month of the year and is traditionally the season of plenty, coming as it does at the end of the rice harvest and the beginning of spring after months of monsoon rain in Kerala.Onam starts on the day of ‘atham’ and goes on for ten days, ending with ‘thiruvonam’ the grand festival when Mahabali, also known as naveli, visits the homes of each of his subjects to see for himself that they’re not in want. The people of Kerala, on their part, elaborate preparations to welcome him.
Rituals and traditions
The most important part of Onam preparations is the creation of flower decked designs in the front court yards of homes. This is done by the children who, especially in rural areas go in search of flowers each dawn to prepare the designs. The designs are prepared with all types of flowers available and the traditions associated with them vary from place to place. Traditionally, the types of flowers used increase as the festival progresses; starting with one type of flower, traditionally a white herb called ‘thumba’ and ending with ten or more varieties on the final day.. On the final day of Onam, a special floral design is prepared, with offerings made to ‘Thrikkakarayappan’, the deity of Vishnu at a famous temple associated with Onam legends. Small wooden or clay cones representing the deity are placed amidst the flowers and offerings of rice cakes are made. At noon on the final day, a grand feast is prepared and families get together to celebrate. The Hindu temples also carry out special rituals to mark the occasion. Even though most traditional rituals are based on the Hindu way of life, Onam is celebrated by all Keralites irrespective of their religious backgrounds and is even celebrated with enthusiasm among the expatriate community.
The famous Vamanamoorthy Temple at Thrikkakara Panchayat in Ernakulam is dedicated to the Lord Vamana. It is one of the very few temples in India dedicated to Lord Vamana. The most important event of the religious calendar here is Onam. The Onasadya or the Onam feast is held in a grand manner in the temple with a large number of people cutting across religious barriers participating in it.
There is also a place called “Pathalam” in Kalamassery, Ernakulam and it legend says that Mahabali was banished to the underworld at this very spot.
No festival is complete without delicious food. And this is no different for Onam. In fact, the number of dishes that are a part of the traditional Onasadya(feast) can leave even the most hardcore foodie worried. A full-scale sadya has around 15 dishes. The sadya is served on a plantain leaf and it is eaten sitting on the floor. The main dishes include parippu, erissery, kaalan, olan, avail, kootucurry, pappadam and of course the sweet payasam. Payasam is a sweet liquid pudding. It is of several types. Below is a recipe of the Parippu paayasam which is made from parippu, coconut and jaggery.
Ingredients: 250 gms Parippu (Green gram dal) 1 coconut
1 tablespoon ghee
a handful of cashew nuts and raisins.
Clean the dal and fry it in ghee till light brown.Boil the fried dal in water till it is cooked. Make a thick solution by heating jaggery with some water. Add this solution to the boiled dal and stir for 10 minutes. Extract the milk of the coconut. This is done by grinding the coconut and squeezing the milk out of it. This is called the first milk. Keep this aside. Then add a little water to the ground coconut and squeeze more milk out of it. This is called the second milk. Add the second milk to the dal and jaggery mix and stir for 10 minutes. Then add the first milk and and boil. Fry the cashew nuts and raisins in a little ghee. Add this to the paayasam.
Onam is the time for people of all ages to get together with their loved ones. Men, women and children take part in the festivities of Onam that are now an integral part of the culture of Kerala.The festivities usually occur on the eve of Onam or follows the feast on thiruvonam day.
The Kaikottikali is a form of dance performed by women during Onam. They are dressed in their finest silk set mundu and they sing and dance in a circle around the vilakku(the traditional Hindu oil lamp in Kerala). The songs are from the ancient stories and legends from Hindu mythology.
The boat race is yet another activity of the Onam season. The backwaters of Kerala are taken over by the long Chundan Vallam(snake boats). These boats are constructed according to specifications taken from the Sthapathya Veda, an ancient treatise for the building of wooden boats. During the race, the still backwaters become battlefields for the boat race and enthusiastic people cheering their favourite teams throng the lush banks of the lake. People even climb the coconut trees to get a better view of the race. The Nehru Trophy Boat Race and The Aranmula Race are the most famous boat races in Kerala.
Onam is not complete without the famed “pulikali”. The men folk paint themselves as tigers and dance on the roads to te accompaniment of drums and cymbals. The Pulikali is indeed a sight to behold. Although the Pulikali is performed all over the state, this is seen at its best in Thrissur district of Kerala during the fourth day of Onam(naalam onam). On this day, thousands of men are painted yellow, red and black to resemble tigers and enthrall the audience with their magical performance.
The children too are not to be left behind in the Onam festivities. Long swings are tied to the branches of large trees like the mango and jackfruit trees. Children play games and sing onapattukal(songs of Onam). During atham, children are seen running all over the countryside picking flowers for the pookalam.
Onam is a festival of togetherness and all these games and festivities are a way for bringing people closer to one another.
Onam, for the modern day malayalee, is a grand shopping festival in addition to being a time to renew family ties and take a break from routine life. A month before Onam, the shops and streets in Kerala come alive as traders prepare to woo the holiday shoppers. Onam is traditionally the time to gift new clothes to one's near and dear and the whole of kerala goes into frenzied shopping. Needless to say, this is the best time to shop on Kerala as merchandise from all over India converge here this season.
The feast prepared on Onam day is also the result of endless preparation and shopping. The modern kerala family chooses to eat their Onam feast at restaurants, most of which come out with a traditional menu for the season or get together with the extended family to celebrate. -- nandini.
Article by Nandini, St Teresas College, Cochin.