Saturday, September 02, 2006
Onam or Thiruvonam, as it is popularly known, is the most popular festival of Kerala. This festival is celebrated for 10 days, starting from Atham or Hastham. The tenth day after atham is Onam. Onam celebration continues for a couple of days more after Thiruvonam. It is celebrated in the Malayalam month of Chingam(between August 15 and September 15).
The legend is that long ago, an asura King by name Mahabali was ruling our country. Mahabali was the grandson of the great Prahlada. (Lord Vishnu had taken Narasimha avatara to prove to Prahalda's father that God is present everywhere and to slay the cruel king, who was torturing all those that worshipped the lord Mahavishnu). King Mahabali was a very kind and benevolent king who took care of his subjects very lovingly. During his rule, people were very happy and content. A popular Malayalam folk song says that during the rule of Mahabali, all people were alike(there was no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or status), people did not have any fear of anything or anyone else, there was no cheating, no theft and not an iota of falsehood. The king became so popular that Gods in the heaven started fearing of their downfall. The Gods prayed to Lord Mahavishnu to arrest his rising popularity. Lord Mahavishnu took birth as the son of Aditi and Kasyapa, as Vamana(the dwarf). He visited Mahabali as a dwarf bramachari, when the king was performing a yagna. The charisma of the young boy was such that the king himself rose to welcome this unexpected guest and offered him a seat. The king asked Vamana what gift he wanted. Vamana humbly said, he wanted only three feet of land. The king urged him to ask for more expensive gifts, but Vamana did not want anything more than 3 feet of land. The king's guru, Sukracharya, with his divine sight at once knew the boy was no ordinary Brahmin and advised the king not to yield to the boys wish. The king did not want to go back on his promise and arranged for the ceremonial offering. Sukracharya hid himself in the nozzle of the king's water vessel, to block the water from the pot (During any ceremonial offering, as the offering is made to the receiver, water is poured on the hands of the receiver, as if to indicate the giver is washing off his right of the gift). Vamana poked a stick to remove the block and Sukracharya was blinded in one eye. As soon as the ceremonial offering was made by the King, Vamana's stature grew and with his one step he measured the whole earth and the sky, with the second one he measured the Patlaloka and he asked the king, where to measure his third step. The humbled king, who by now realised his guest was none other than the Lord, knelt before Vamana bowing his head and requested the Lord to put his third step on his head, for who can be more blessed to have the Lord's foot on his head. With his third step Vamana pushed Mahabali to Pathalaloka, but before going down to Pathalaloka, the benevolent king asked for a wish. His wish was that he should be permitted to visit his subjects once a year. The wish was granted and it is on Thiruvonam day, every year that the good king visits his subjects. That is why, the whole of Kerala make preparations well ahead of Thiruvonam to welcome their good old king, in all pomp and gaiety and make their homes as joyful as they were during Mahabali's rule. They decorate their houses and prepare grand feasts. There is a saying in Malayalam "Kaanam vittum Onam Unnanum"(One has to celebrate Onam, even if he has to sell his agricultural land).
This festival is celebrated by all Malayalees across the board. People of all religions celebrate Onam. It is the harvest festival of Kerala. After the Kallakarkitakam(the worst month of monsoon furies) the whole of Kerala is full of blossoms of all kinds to welcome Ponnin Chingam(golden Chingam), The preparations for Onam begins much earlier to Atham. As Kerala's farmers harvest their first crop, they offer it to God, which is known as Illam Nira. Few sheaves of the harvested crops are taken to the temple by all. After the Pooja, the sheaves are broght back home as the "prasad" to the accompaniment of chorus of Nira, Nira, Nirayo Nira, Illam Nira, Vallam Nira, Nira Nira Poli Poli(Let there be bountiful everywhere, at home, in the granary, everywhere). One or two sheaves is pasted in all rooms and the remaining sheaves are hung as a bunch in the centre hall of the house.
During this month there is a bountiful harvest of all vegetables and Kerala's own Nendran banana and the landscape is strewn with flowers of all colours and sizes.
Starting from Atham day, girls and womenfolk decorate their front yard with fresh flowers, known as Pookalam. The sumptuous Onasadhya or Onam lunch is the most important feature of Onam. A grand lunch is prepared on Onam day, which includes rice as the main course, with varieties of vegetable curries. Some of the vegetable specialitiesprepared on Onam day are, Sambar, Kalan, Olan, Aviyal, Thoran (Nendrankai peel thoran), Erisssery, Pulissery, Kichadi, Pachadi, Kootukari, Puliinji and Narangacurry. Along with these vegetable preparations, Valiya pappadam(big papad), banana chips(salty as well as sweet), and Pazha Nurukku are also served. The dessert comprises two or more varieties of Payasams like Ada Pradhaman, Parippu Pradhaman or Chakka Pradhaman or Pal Payasam. (I shall try to give the recipes for the above later).
After the Onam lunch, the womenfolk get together and sing and dance, which is known as Kaikottikali or Thirvathirakali. The menfolk used to engage in Villupattu an instrumental music played on the bows made of wood.
In the southern parts of Kerala, which are lined with back waters and rivers, boat racing is conducted during Onam.
It is a major festival in many of the temples and there are many legends for the various celebrations in the different temples.