‘Onam is the most popular festival of Kerala. It is also the harvest festival…’. I remember byhearting this speech, in my school days. Most of us I believe didn’t understand the importance of this festival at that time. For me it was the time to play with my cousins. Holidays that lasted 10 days. Then slowly everything about onam became a competition in schools, colleges, offices everywhere. Competitive or not we Malayalis celebrate our special festival with great pleasure.
You know, making the ‘pookkalam’ (floral carpet) still energises me. When I was a kid that was the first thing I used to do, roaming around for flowers like Hibiscus, mimosa, biophylam (even before brushing). Now that I have a small garden roaming has stopped( Thanks to my sis in law). The only thing I hated at that time was the use of cow dung as the base for my carpet. Always used to call my mom to do that. Enough with the past lets talk present yea?
Keralites celebrate this festival like a rainbow, full of colours, brightness and joy. We buy new clothes, make a grand feast, make pookalam ( both large and small ), engage in (or used to ?) different activities and games with our family and friends. So what’s the myth behind this ? why do we celebrate this harvest festival ? . Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time..there was king called Mahabali. He was the noblest of all. In his reigning time there was no sign of crime, calamity or any bad bad things. His kingdom prospered day by day. Then someone noticed this great king and his full of life and charming kingdom. The God of lightning and rain – Indra, the most jealous fellow in Hindu mythology. Anyway Indra lost his sleep and appetite thinking Mahabali will take over throne soon by his good deeds. He and other Gods Prayed to Lord mahavishnu to stop that from happening. but Lord Vishnu had other plan for the king he smiled and said ” double okay Indra don’t you worry”. Then Vishnu disguised as a Brahmin dwarf went to the king and asked three feet land for his tapas (meditation). Mahabali readily agreed. tada !!!! the boy started growing up and up. With one foot he covered the whole earth , with the second the sky and there was no place left for the third foot. The mightiest king was true to his word and he showed his head for the third one. Seeing the king’s greatness Lord Vishnu said ” I am very pleased by your conduct oh dear king , I am sending you to a place that is way better than the earth and heaven”, its called Suthalam. But before vanishing to the underground the king asked one last wish, to visit his people once in a year, and the day he visits is known as Thiruvonam or Onam (a malayalam birth star) and we celebrate it to welcome the king.
Now, the celebrations starts 10 days prior to onam. We start doing the floral carpet from atham. The rituals vary from one district to the other. The carpet surely gets big each day. Each district in kerala has their own unique way of celebrating . Thripunithira’s ‘Athachamayam’, Trissur’s ‘Pulikkali’, Pathanamthitta’s ‘Aranmula Valla Sadya’ are a few in many. The ninth day we make ‘Onathappan’ who is Lord Vishnu ( some say its Mahabali and some its Lord Vishnu). Onathappan is made of clay. We place it in front of our house the Thiruvonam day. Kids do contribute while making onathappan, making cars and other toys or statues using clay (only they can understand what they are making). Making the grand feast is the other important task. Normally there will be around 12 vegetarian dishes. But the northern districts serve non vegetarian items too. Talking about feasts the Valla sadya serves 64 different varieties of curries.You will get whatever in that menu you asked for any number of time you want. You have to book a seat if you want to eat. In households steamed banana, banana chips, payasam ( a dessert ) is a must. After lunch we play different games or these days sit in front of the TV.
We all do love this festival. Families meet, greet, laugh and live. If Mahabali really do come and visit us, I am sure he will be happy too.