By Dr.A.Sreekumar Menon
Before discussing the various aspects of Thiruvonum festival, it is perhaps apt to give a synoptic view of the land â€“Kerala and its traditional culture and social fabric. Kerala which is called as â€œGodâ€
The land of Kerala is immensely blessed with lush green vegetation savanna greeenlands , thick forests, tranquil beaches, stunning mountains, rich wild life with elephants,sambar deer, tiger, lion – headed macques, langurs and so on ., scores of pilgrim centers/temples, 44 major rivers and rivulets cress crossing the breadth and length of the country. Almost a quarter of land is covered with forests endowed with 3500 species , most of them growing in western Ghats called â€˜silent valleyâ€
It is a most advance state in India with high literacy rate, literacy rate being94.50 on all India level and lowest child and maternal mortality and morbidity.There are districts which have achieved 100 percent literacy .It also as an example for neatness and hygiene maintained by people, both personal and environmental. It is also a state where women are highly educated. One out of three Doctors is a lady. .similarly in other professions like teachers, lawyers, engineers, architects, Computer professionals, there are large number of women. It is also high in political awareness. Both men and women participate in politics in large numbers in local administration and administration at the District and state levels. The percentage of people who exercise franchise in national elections is much higher in Kerala compared to other states.. Kerala has also been recognized by National and international agencies like U.N.D.P for efficient running of Public Distribution System . Kerala model has been recommended elsewhere.
Kerala is the most advanced state in India on development index which includes many criteria of socio-economic development .. People are very simple or austere in their life- styles. They are not ostentatious or show off . . They donâ€
Kerala stands as a testimony for inter-religious harmony. All the temples, churches and mosques stand shoulder to shoulder to each other. Sometimes one fails to distinguish between them. Different communities have adopted each otherâ€
This shows the secular spirit of Keralities .The predominant Hindu community in Kerala never converted any one from their religion to Hindu faith .They are peace loving people . Though they are very articulate regarding their views and demands through mass protest, processions, strike etc, those are conducted peacefully and resorting to violence is very rare.
Our India is a land of festivals. Kerala is no exception. Some of the major festivals of Kerala are Onam, Vishnu, Thiruvathira, Mahasivaratri, Navaratri, Sreekrishna jayanthi, Christmas, Ramadan, Mohrum and so on. In addition there are innumerable local and temple festivals. Of all the festivals, Onam is a very important festival. We can consider Onam festival as the jewel in the crown of Kerala. All Malayalees, where ever they are, whether they are in the native place or in any part of the globe , irrespective of caste and Religion celebrate onam festival with enthusiasm, pomp and grandeur. It is a force of emotional and cultural integration of people of Kerala It is a centrifugal force or unifying force, developing oneness among the people. ItÂ is like Ganesha festival in Maharashtra, Durga puja West Bengal, Dussera festival in Karnataka, Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu, Holi festival in North India , Bysaki festival in Punjab and so on. It is celebrated at the levels of individual households with religious fervor, at the community levels as a Social and cultural festival and at the state level to showcase the cultural richness of Kerala. At the state level, it is combined with the celebration of Tourist week for promoting tourism both within the country and from outside. An outsider can experience the essence of Kerala culture, if he spends days in Kerala during Onam festival. Kerala with vibrant and hospitable people revive their glorious past during Onam celebration .The festival is not celebrated ostentatiously , on the other hand in most austere manner, keeping sacredness of the occasion and by practicing love and amity towards the fellow beings in letter and spirit .
The name Onolsavam came from the word Shravanoslsavam which means festival that falls in the shraavana (Sanskrit) month or 1st of Malayam month-Chingam or Aug-sep The beauty of the festival lies in its secular fabric..All Malayalees irrespective of distinction of caste and Religion celebrate it with fun and grandeur. It is believed that Onam celebration bagan to be celebrated during sagham period. Records of celebration can be found from the time of Kulashekhara Perumal who ruled Kerala during 800 A.D.
There is a lot more to Onam than being just a festive occasion or an occasion for joy and merry making .It reflects the faith of the people of Kerala , belief in their legendary past, religion and worship. It shows the high spirit of people who go out the the way to celebrate the festival and even the poorest of the poor remain contented during Onam day forgetting poverty and hardships. It gives the message of several moral /ethical /human /spiritual values which help humanity by being swallowed by rank materialism for which scientific and technological capabilities are utilized.
Onam festival last for 10 days., starting from the day of Atham. . Of these the first three days namely Atham, Utradam and Thiruvonum are most important days .During those ten days, people whether they are rich or poor stay happy . They show love, brotherhood and hospitality towards each other .Any person even stranger visiting Malayalee families on Onam days are treated as guests and they participate in Onam feast. The Apthavakya or grater saying: Athidhi devo bhava meaning guest to be considered as God is practiced in spirit .It is the time to renew social bond and communal harmony. After torrential south- west monsoon, the sky becomes crystal clear Crystal clear water gushes through rivers and rivulets. Plenty of green vegetation crop up.
Plants put forth flowers and trees bear fruits. There is a bumper crop of paddy .Nature is at its best. There is natural bounty and prosperity everywhere .People are over joyed at this time and it is in all respects time for celebration.
Onam like other Indian festivals is not merely a festive occasion or occasion for merry making. It has a legend which encompasses myriad messages which are in the form of guiding principles of life. It has a religious significance for Hindus. It is a day of special worship of Mahadevar or Mahavishnu. The legend goes like this . There was an emperor called Mababali ruled over Kerala .He was a righteous king. He loved his subjects as his children. He was known for his generosity and charity. . There was equality among people. There was no rich and poor. All were prosperous and lived happily .They were hale and healthy .People were truthful and trust worthy. There was unity between thoughts, words and action. There was absolute justice in all transactions. There were no thefts, robbery or deceipt or intimidation or exploitation. There was no hatred and ill feelings against any one. All lived in peace and harmony as one large family .Elders were respected for their age and wisdom .Members of the family lived as a unit. In other words, it was a golden period. It is said that Mahabali could yield great influence people on earth and neither world by virtue of his good rule. He was also very powerful as he had obtained the boon from his long meditation that no one could harm him.
Devas or heavenly beings were scared thinking that his influence might extend to heaven . They approached Indra , the king of Gods for solution . They hatched a plan. They decided to take advantage of his charitable nature to oust him from his position . Mahavishnu assumed the form of drawrf Brahmin. Mahababali was performing a yagna. At the end of it , it was a practice to give away things to Brahmins as charity .Looking at this opportune moment , Vamana as poor dwarf Brahmin appeared before Mahabali and asked whether he would grand his request .Mahabali told that he would give him whatever he asked .Vamanan then asked that he wants three foot measure of land . Mahabali immediately offered, with out paying heed to his guru Sukracharyaâ€
The Brahmin then saidâ€ I have one more step left where do I put my leg . The earth is no longer available nor the sky. What do you have to say?â€ Mahabali without second thought with folded arms asked him to to place his third step on his head .Mahabali could have denied . Having staunch faith in Dharma, he could not break his promise.He also felt that denial on his part will bring harm to his people. As he loved his subjects, he did not want any harm to be caused by him .While putting foot on Mahabaliâ€
we celebrate Onam in its sprit or in its true way not when we make merry or make a grand Onasadhya or Onam feast ,but when we understand the powerful messages of human values which Onam and the legend associated with it represent and practice those values in our day to day and make our life more wholesome .
Lord Vishnu was impressed by the generosity of Mahabali and urged him to ask him a boon . Mahabali , being deeply attached to his people had no other wish except to see his people being happy once a year during Onam day.Mahavishnu readily granted his wish and told him that people of Kerala will give him ceremonial welcome once a year during Onam .Thus Onam celebration is said to commemorate the golden rule and offer ceremonial welcome to the visit of legendary king Mahabali to see his people living in prosperity and return with feelings of joy and also as a special occasion to propitiate and invoke the grace of Mahavishnu, the supreme power and the Lord of creation of the universe .There is a temple in Trikkakara in cochin dedicated to Mahavishnu known by names Vamanan and Trikkakarappan.The colorful Onam procession with caparisoned elephants and, with colorful umbrellas kept on their backs moving with rhythm of vadyamelum or drum beats starts from this temple and culminates there.
Onam celebration lasts for 10 days starting from Atham day and culminating in Thiruvonam day. of these days, first three days namely Atham, Utradam and Thiruvonum are most important days . Preparations for Onam celebration starts several days in advance in Kerala homes. Houses are swept and kept clean and tidy .On Atham day ,people wake up early hours, take bath, wear new ethnic dress . Men wear Kasavu mundu or jerry mundu 4 meters of pure white superfine clothe of two layers with golden jerry border ) around the waste and pavmundu (another piece of clothe with jerry border , smaller in size than the other one) ,folded put on the shoulders. Ladies wear one piece of clothe with jerry as lower garment and with another piece they cover the chest. They also wear traditional Kerala ornaments made of gold like mullamottumala , Poothali, Nagapadam necklaces, kadakam vala (bracelets with intricate designs and motifs of Gods and Goddesses and bejeweled) etc .Men put vermillion on their forehead with sandal paste . Ladies put bindi withkumkum and sandal paste .Children also get dressed up in new clothes. Small mundus (pieces of clothes) of pure silk in yellow color supposed to be preferred color of Mahavisnu called Onapudava bought new are wrapped around hips of children.These children wear such clothes ceremoniously for the first time . These clothes are similar to typical kerala dress which men wear. All people visit the nearby temples, after bath in the early to offer worship for the coming year to be auspicious.
Just a day before Onam day , the idol of Mahadevar meaning supreme God , Vishnu in the form of Vamana Avathar. With clay. Children go around and brink clay (stcky soil) which Potters use to mould pots and other things. It is pressed into a shape of a cone. Three pieces two smaller than the third are made. Smaller pieces are kept stuck to the large piece on either side. Balls are made with the clay. Three balls of increasing size are fixed on the top of central piece and one ball each on the pieces kept either side, representing crowns. These idols are decorated with flowers. Flowers both that of flowering plants we plant and wild flowers. The use of wild flowers symbolizes our intimate relationships with nature. The idols are kept simple in form. Anyone with a little skill or dexterity of hands can make it , unlike in the case of Idols of Ganesha for Ganesha chathurthi festival or idol of Durga for Durgapuja, which only skilled artisans can make and which is heavily priced and not affordable to common man , who has to shell down money which is his own or borrowed . One finds no such commercialization associated with festivals of Kerala. The Idols are made by one of the elders in the house. It is not quoted with any toxic dyes only white lines are put horizontally with solution made from rice flour.. This shows simplicity and the habit of self-reliance of Keralities. It also shows safety consciousness and action based on vivekajnana in Sanskrit or discriminatory knowlede or the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, which is prescribed in our ancient scriptures for the development of wholesome personality. As these Idols are made of pure clay and no toxic materials used, it dissolves easily when they are immersed in tanks or rivers, as an act of ceremonious culmination of the festival and poses no environmental hazard. Even today, the same practice is followed and it shows environmental consciousness of the people. It was pointed out earlier that Keralities keep their environments clean and hygienic .The above practice gives added support to this view regarding the habits and life style of people , which are worthy of emulation .
After returning from temple, they prepare a portion of their court yard for making pookalam or flowerbed .Children go round and collect flowers with exhilaration. A layer is made on the front court yard with cow dung (which according to modern science has antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties) which acts a glue to keep flowers in their places and flower petals are arranged on it in beautiful designs. Before flower arrangement starts, elderly ladies adorn the Mahadevar Idol with lines on the Idol with a white solution made of rice flour . With the same solution, a grand design is made with hand with motifs of lotus flowers, birds, animals etc. Making such designs is a an art of traditional skill which only few elders possess in the families. The act of making designs is called aniyuka in malayalam.Ladies and girls who are endowed with native artistic talent does flower arrangement with enthusiasm. It brings out their artistic talents. Competitions are held for pookalam preparation and prizes are given to the best one. The pookalams with its myriad hues and designs are cynosure to the eyes. It is pookalam or flowering season . It would appear that the mother Nature is spruced up or decked up for the festival . The flowers are changed daily At the centre of pookalam Mahadevar Idol is placed on a stand a lighted a Nilavilakku â€“traditional bronze /Bell Metal oil lamp with stand ( which is a fine piece of Kerala handicraft and which is symbolic of Kerala cultuture) is kept on the left side of the Idol. Ghee or sesame oil and cotton wick are used (. Before starting any function, there is lighting of lamp to invoke divine grace and blessings for auspicious ending of whatever is initiated. Light or Jyothi it is called in Sanskrit stands for knowledge and virtues or all , that is good as opposed to Thamas or wickedness, according to Our ancient spiritual treatises . Thus when lamp is lit , we are reminded of our commitment to practice virtues in life .( It has been found that the smoke that results from burning of cotton wicks immersed in ghee and sesame or castor oil is healthy .Eye tech or surma or kanneszuthu mashi as it called in malayalam which ladies use to line the eyes as part of makeup is found to be good for eye sight .It is a case of age old wisdom which we are losing fast due to modern influence of consumer culture .)
Thus preparation for Puja gets completed.( Puja is worship with some rituals like offering flower petals , vermillion , ghee to the deity circumambulating the lighted lamp and the flame of burning camphor before the deity , ringing bells and chanting slokas in praise of deity .The word puja came from the word poojya meaning venerable.)
This is the simple ceremony of installing the deity Mahavishu incarnated as Vamana Various traditional dishes are prepared during times of worship as offerings to deity or called as â€˜Prasadâ€
responsible for the creation , sustenance and dissolution of the universe or universal drama. Onam spirit is imbibed which acts as conscience keeper or check our cravings and animal instincts from running amok.
It is believed that King Mahabali visits each house to see his people in happiness, joy and contentment. Pooja is performed three times a day, morning, noon and late evening before Mahadevar.Different kinds of sweets and savory are prepared as Naivedhym or offering to God .The eldest member of the family calledâ€
All stay happy no matter whether theyare richor poor . They for get their worries and stay high spirited .There is festive mood all around .who ever visits including strangers , visits the house are treated as guests . The epicaying â€˜Athidhi devo bhavaâ€
Apart from household function , Onam is celebrated as a social event or as â€˜harvest festivalâ€
Of late they have to buy food items from the market . During Onam times special coperative markets called Maveli Onachanda are organised. Where the essential things are available at reasonable rates .
These markets are run ( Govt supervis In old times there was self â€“suffiency in food production . Of late the situation changed. Many items had to come from other states .) Elders in the family who are experts in the traditional Kerala type of dishes engage in cooking . Coking each ite m is elaborate to retain special taste . cookingstarts the previous night .all family members , including children providehelping hand . Thus it was an act of pefect co-operation and team work . All enjoy what they do .Cooking begins with raw materials . They are ground to paste . No ready made powers are used . Vegitables are cut uniformily to particular shapes and shapes. Even cutting vegitables was a skilled activity . So the food items prepared not only was mouth watering but was also to cynosure to our eyes . It was an arena to exhibit culinary skills about which they were proud of . They enjoyed the act of serving and being hospitable .with the result , Onasadhya was not only a real treat to our pallets but soothing experience.and an opportunity to revive the culinary skill of the past . Elders in the family , guests and children were given foodfirst. Any one happen to visit lunch ime is a guest . It was a social custom in Kerala that ladies including aged take food only after serving food to men and children .It is an indication that they are source of nurturance or maternal love and sacrifice and not due to superior status assigned to men . It is spirit of self-sacrifice inculcated in the minds of women who were the custodians of families .women take care of others before they take care of them selves.So every action reflects age old Kerala culture and values. Only incisive mind can understand that subtle message of human values.
One of the marvelous facet of Onam is unfolding of Keralaâ€
There are a number of community events like Athachamayam or grand procession with caparisoned elephants in Tripunithara , the abode of elsewhile cochin Royal families ,Snake boat race at Alapuza , Aramula uthrattathi boat event , staging of Kahthakali, dance drama of Kerala at Kalamandalam , near Trichur , grand procession with decorated elephants with essemblage of vadyamelam in Trichur which is called the cultural capital of Kerala . Of thesesnake boat race deserves some elaboration . The event is held just a few days before onam in vembanatu kayal or vembanatu back waters which speads a large area with scenic beauty of nature .A large number of big and small canoes which are speciallycrafted and are very efficient for navigation build using ancient skills ,take part . In each canoe , there will be large number of persons for toeing who are highly skilled in toeing the boats . The people in each boat try to overtake the other boats with compitive spirit . They work in unison or high sense of coordination and put their best efforts . Hundreds of peole assemble on either side of the lake to motivate , cheer up and infuse compitive spirit in the rowers . The event portrays the need for team spirit and thrust of efforts in leading to success , the need to be in high spirits or motivated and the need for acting as a source of encouragement in scoring success in any field of human activity .Here two types of competitive spirit are seen namely competing with oneself and competing with others or compiting with one self or trying to do oneâ€