Onam, the famed harvest festival of the South Indian state of Kerala is known for it's simplicity and the fervour with which people cutting across age, social status, caste and religion take part in the colourful celebrations running for seven to ten days across the state from Kasargod in the North to Parassala in the south. There are many events forming part of this colourful celebration, the most impotant of them being the Pookkalam, onasadya, the pulikkali, thiruvaathira kali
Lore has it that King Mahabali, an Asura (demon) king, who once upon a time was ruling Kerala with great prosperity and peace was the focus of jealousy of the Gods. Aditi, the mother of Devas pleaded with Lord Vishnu to curtail Mahabali'sm powers, lest he be all powerful and his fame spread all over. Lord Vishnu decided to come to the earth and test the good nature of the King. Lord Vishnu came to the earth.in the form of Vamana, a Brahmin and asked the King for three feet of land. With the first and second feet, the Vamana took away the heaven and the earth and wanted the King to show him the place to keep his third feet. The King who realised that it was Lord Vishnu who had come to meet him, allowed Vamana to keep his third feet on his head and got himself pushed into hell.
But before going out, the King extracted a promise from Lord Vishnu that he be given an opportunity every year to visit his people. ( Another lore has it that it was Mahabali's ego which was given the treatment by Lord Vishnu). Anyway, whatever be the story, the boon granted to Mahabali released him from the recurrent cycle of birth and death and allowed him to visit his people once every year. It is this promise which is being fulfilled every year when the King visits his people in Kerala to enquire about their well being and prosperity.
It is usually observed that the malayali living outside the state, cutting across religion and social status, celebrates the festival with great fervour than the people within the state.
The colourful floral arrangement (called pookkalam) across the homes, offices, organisations and educational institutions of the state, the tiger dance (pulikali) in Trichur, the cultural capital of Kerala and the boat races in the backwaters of South Central Kerala, people take part with great enthusiasm in the celebrations, making Onam, the harvest festival, a very memorable event in the minds of the people, coming year every year.
The traditional pookkalam, a treat to the eyes, used to be arranged by the children and womenfolk in the homes. During the holidays we find kids going around the country side collecting all types of colourful flowers which they can lay their hands on. At home, the womenfolk gather around and play the famedthiruvaathira dance while others arrange the pookkalam. Thiruvaathira is a dance where ladies with small sticks and dressed in traditional malayali attire, move around in circles with alternate members moving in opposite directions. A treat to watch, this dance requires lot of patience and practice and is thoroughly enjoyed by all age groups in the state. Newspapers and social organisations have come forward to organise pookkalam and thiruvaathira competitions which make the celebrations doubly memorable. Malayali samajams, the gathering place of malayalis outside the state to help preserve and continue the rich culture of the state, are the main catalysts which promote the onam celebrations.
Pulikkali is an intreresting pastime during onam time in the north part of Kerala, especially in the culturally rich areas around Trichur. Men in shorts, get their bodies painted or coloured with designs of the tiger and leopard and move about with very graceful movements of these felines, a virtuoso treat to the mind and eyes.
The onapudava, the traditional custom of new cloth or dresses being given to all members of the family by the elder is also a time of great enjoyment and revelry among the housefolk. The family elder making the purchases for the other members of the family, by itself gives a revival to the clothing and textile industry in the state. The state government and private establishments within the state give the traditional bonus to it's employees as a mark of the goodwill of the state towards the working class and this brings great joy to the people.
The snake boat (chundan vallom) race is another favourite pasttime of the menfolk. Of all the many boat races in Kerala during Onam, the most popular and best is the Nehru trophy boat race on the Punnamada kayal in Alapuzha district conducted on the second Saturday of August every year. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who visite Alapuzha (Aleppey) in 1952 was given a rousing reception in Alapuzha by the people in the presence of these snake boats. Nehru was very moved by this reception and after having gone through the tremendous excitement of saling in a snake boat, donated an ever-roling trophy to be given to the winner of the boat race. It is now called the Nehru trophy boat race. These 120 ft long boats, carrying from 90 to 110 sailors, made in Aanjili wood has also the record of being the longest boats used for sports purpose in the world.
Some of the more popular snake boats teams are Kaarichaal, Chambakulam, Paayipaadu, Kaavalam, Alapaatu, Aanari, Cheruthana, Aayaparambu, St.George, Jawahar thaayankari, Vallamkulangara, Sri.Ganesh, Paarthasarathy are the popular teams who participate in the Chundan Vallam category. Indira Gandhi boat race conducted in the backwaters of Kochi in the last week of December, to promote tourism, Champakulam boat race held in the pamba in the month of Midhunam, Aranmula, Payippad, Kumarakom are some of the other boat races in kerala.
There is a serious doubt whether the Onam celebrations have of late taken an unusual turn for the worst with crass commercialisation being observed in many parts of the state. Days before the main day of Thiruvonam, hotels had started their booking of the traditional lunch of Onasadya, a sumptuous lunch on banana palm leaf, with variety of vegetarian dishes, fried banana chips, sambhar, pappad, dal curry mixed with cow milk ghee, topping up everything finally with the payasams and paalada. Onam celebrations are incomplete without the Onasadya. Onasadya is thus an integral part of Onam where ever in the world it is being celebrated. Top hotels in the state charge anywhere from rupees 300 to 400 per lunch with the lower hotels charging from 75 to 100 rupees. Instead of having theonasadya at home, malayalis are packing themselves in hotels paying money for the sadya.
This is also the time when companies start their annual disposal plans of old, slow-moving inventory of cloth, electronic and white goods. The newspapers are galore with advertisements hailing the massive discounts being offered, some realistic and some not so. The common man is lured into these traps by the merchant class and big companies, with only profits as their motive and service the least, bringing in a consumerist culture in the minds of the people, wanting them to buy and collect more of electronic gadgetry and white goods at home, even though there is actually not much use of those goods in the ordinary malayali household.
Gone are the times when malayalis used to get together and take part in great numbers in the celebrations. Nowadays with nuclear families, with father, mother and one kid or at most two, it is selfish interests which count more than the camaraderie and the revelry associated with Onam and king Mahabali. Gone are the days when irrespective of the social status, people used help out the poor in the society by giving out in cash and in kind.
Let us hope that malayalis across the world realise the worth of this festival and preserve it's pristine qualities in the truest and natural form for posterity to be proud of.