Onam is Kerala’s own classic and revered festival. This ten day long festival brings in the best of festive spirit among the people of Kerala and is celebrated with much splendor. Bedecked elephants sway to the tune of panchavaadyam band at the famous temple at Trikkakkara where the idol of Lord Vishu as Vamana is worshipped. Thousands of devotees arrive at Trikkakkara temple to pray and participate in the Onam sadya (feast). Spectacular boat races take place along our fabulously long coastline and crisscrossing rivers and inland water ways. Celebrations and cultural programs are held all across the state to mark Onam festival.
As I get ready to celebrate Onam, crispy golden banana chips are piled on a tray to cool on my kitchen counter. I hurriedly chopped fresh ginger to make puliinji, the quintessential ginger pickle for Onam sadya. While cutting and chopping and stirring the pots, my memories took me to a different place and time- the Onam celebrations of my childhood in our extended family. It was not a one day celebration – as the old saying goes – Atham Pathonam – the festivities stated ten days ahead.
After the torrential rains of the monsoon season fade away and the bright sunlight of early spring graces Kerala’s tropical landscape, a profusion of colorful flowers bloom all over the land. Early in the morning we would start collecting flowers to decorate the courtyard with the intricate flower design pookkalam. On every one of those ten days we would make a pookkalam in a different shape and colors. In the middle of this flower design my mother would place pyramidal image of Trikkakarayappan (Lord Vamana of the temple of Trikkakkara) also fondly called Onathappan, made of clay or wood, and decorate it with fresh flowers. Then she would a light bronze oil lamp and fragrant incense sticks, and offer ripe plantains and ela ada (steamed sweet coconut and rice flat cakes) to the lord.
At Onam the traditional gift is onapudava, thin cotton fabric sometimes laced with golden borders. In my childhood my uncle stood near a pile of onapudava next to him. My mom picked out the right gift for each person in the extended family and handed it to him. One by one we faced toward the east and received the onapudava from his hands. Farmer tenants leasing our land for cultivation used to bring bunches of green and ripe plantains and other vegetables to the house as onakazhcha (Onam gifts). After receiving these gifts my uncle presented them also with onapudava. Banana bunches and large pumpkins were hung from coir hangings around the nadumittam (the inner courtyard).
The big event at Onam is the sadya, feast, served around noon on both Uthradam, the previous day and on Thiruvonam day. Cooks would be busy in the kitchen from early dawn preparing a sumptuous vegetarian feast. Tasting a dish while preparing it, is a taboo. You are not allowed to serve another person, especially lord Trikkakarayappan, the food you have already tasted. The skill of a traditional cook depends on his or her ability to judge taste with the eyes and nose. When all the dishes were ready, a huge banana leaf was spread in front of Onathappan and the feast was served.
After the offering of food, we sat down cross-legged on straw mats and a sumptuous feast was served on fresh green banana leaves laid out on the floor in front of us. Later girls and women performed a hand clapping folk dance called kaikottikali around Onathappan.
The Parthasarathy temple at Aranmula near the Pampa River in Kerala celebrates the famous water carnival- vallamkali – during onam festivities. Legend has it that a devotee from a nearby village offered food to a hungry pilgrim, who requested him to send rice and vegetables to Aranmula temple and disappeared. That pilgrim was none other than Lord Vishnu. The tradition of sending rice and other things needed for a feast from this village on water boats to Aranmula continues to this day. Snake boats accompany this boat carrying these offerings to the temple. Devotees pray and offer Valla Sadya to the villagers who come to the temple in row boats. They are considered representatives of the Lord himself and are treated regally. Today Valla Sadya is so popular it is served at the temple every day from late July through October.
Harvest Festivals: Nira and Puthiri
These days Onam is often referred as the harvest festival of Kerala. In times past harvest celebrations were known as Nira and Puthiri. While Nira celebrated the bringing of the first stalks from new harvest to the house Puthiri celebrated the cooking and serving of the new rice from a good harvest. These festivals were celebrated mostly by temples, farming families and landlords on a chosen day during the ten days of Onam festivities. Today Nira and Puthiri are observed only in Hindu temples.
Puthiri was celebrated either on a chosen auspicious day or on the day before Thiruvonam festival in our home. Early in the morning a couple working in the farm brought new rattan baskets filled with the first batch of parboiled rice from the new harvest and freshly prepared avil (pounded rice) to the house. The baskets were placed in front of a lighted oil lamp at the front room of the house. In our home my mother prepared the Puthiri in a large silver bowl. All of us would cup the palm of the right hand, place a piece of fresh banana leaf on it and turn toward the east and receive a small serving of Puthiri from our uncle. By noon the paayasam (rice pudding) made with the new rice, freshly cooked new parboiled rice and various curries would be ready. When the cooking is finished, all cooking vessels with the food would be moved to the center of the kitchen floor in a circle. My mother carrying a lighted lamp (changalavatta) would walk three times around the assembled food. My uncle would walk behind her with a bowl of new avil and sprinkle a few grains on all dishes.
Puthiri feast was served in a unique way. Festival food is always served on banana leaves spread horizontally in front of each person. But on this occasion, the leaves would be arranged vertically and the first dish served would be paayasam (rice pudding) prepared with the new rice. A meal starting with desert! As children we used to love this change in order. After a small serving of paayasam along with ghee and honey, the leaves would be turned horizontally, very carefully of course, and the rest of the meal would be served. The rice cooked would be from the new harvest. Enn curry, a simple curry of eight different vegetables is a special vegetable curry that is prepared only for this festival.
The story of Onam
Thiruvonam celebrates the birthday of Vamana, the fifth avathara or incarnation of Lord Vishnu. According to Hindu mythology Lord Vishnu took the Vamana incarnation to oust asura King Mahabali from his throne. The story goes that during the reign of King Mahabali peace and prosperity reigned. The proud King Mahabali was performing the Aswamedha Yaga (sacrifice of a horse) to gain more strength and power. Devas were threatened and concerned about their own supremacy. Aditi, the mother of devas, requested the help of Lord Vishnu whom Mahabali worshiped. Lord Vishnu entered the Yaga sala (place of sacrifice) disguised as a dwarf Brahman.
Not knowing that the visitor was Vishnu, in an arrogant tone the king asked him, “What is your preferred gift, young man”?”
Vamana replied politely, “All I want is three steps of land that I can measure with my foot.”
Mahabali laughed and told Vamana, “Measure the land anywhere you want, with your little feet.”
Assuming the cosmic form, with two steps, the lord measured the earth and the sky. Then he asked the king, “Where should I put my foot for the third step?” Mahabali, realizing the presence of the almighty, removed his crown and asked Vamana to place his third step on his head. In recognition of Mahabali’s humility, Vishnu granted him his wish to return to Earth, once a year, to visit his people.
Onams of a bygone era
During the early centuries Thiruvonam was popular festival in south India. The ancient Sangam text Pathupaattu includes a poem Maduraikanchi by poet Mangudy Marudanar, one of the noted poets of the Sangam Age. It describes the Onam celebrations in the Pandyan capital of Madurai at the Koodal Alagar temple. In Sangam poems Koodal was the ancient name of Madurai. At the portals of the famous Ranganatha temple complex at Srirangam stands an idol of Vamana, worshipped as Tirukkural Appan and Sri Vamanaperumaal. Vamana Jayanti celebrations were held on a large scale at this temple. Another famous temple celebrating Vamana Jayanthi was the famous Vishu temple of Sri Vekatesawara at Tirupathi. For reasons unknown, by 10th century A.D. Onam became confined to Kerala and the celebrations became focused on Mahabali’s visit and the bounty of Kerala’s rice harvest.
During the reign the Maharajas of Kochi, the ten-day celebration at Tripunithutra (town where Kochi’s royal palaces were situated) used to begin with Athachamayam. Story goes that this procession was symbolic of the maharaja’s trip to a nearby Trikkakkara Vamana temple. The temple at Trikkakkara celebrates the annual festival on Onam day. The maharaja, dressed in full regalia commanded the procession sitting in a decorated pallakku (palanquin – a covered seating for one person carried by poles on men’s shoulders) accompanied by the Nayar brigade (militia brigade), police, the cavalry and three decorated elephants. After the parade, the maharaja would hold a levee at the Kalikotta palace (a palace built during the Dutch Period). At this time the officers paid their respects to the maharaja, and received presents of puthans (coins wrapped in fresh banana leaves). Afterwards they were treated to a sumptuous Onam sadya. Everyone who came to see the procession was also offered food at the sarvani (public feast), some oil for a bath and one puthan as gift. After India became independent and opted for a democratic rule, the princely states ceased to exist and Athachamayam also faded away. Today a state government sponsored Athachamayam procession takes place at Tripunithutra.
In times past onam rituals included various types of games and parades. After the grand meal, it’s time for people to indulge in recreational activities and enjoy the festival. Men were engaged in rigorous sports which are collectively called, Onakalikal. These include ball games, combats, archery and Kerala version of Kabaddi. Women participated in specific dances like Kaikottikali and Thumbi Thullal for the festival of Onam. Women performing the graceful clap dance Kaikottikali in their traditional gold bordered mundu presented a splendid sight. Entertaining events like Kummatti kali and Pulikali were other events during Onam season.
Onam in the 21st Century
Onam is a festival that has evolved and changed over time. Today this holiday has lost some of its old-world charm and religious significance. Large family reunions are a thing of the past. Gone are the days when the entire household assembled in the kitchen to prepare the sadya. No one plays the old Onam games anymore. With the enforcement of the land reform act, land tenancy has totally disappeared. So there are no more onakazhcha for the landlords or onapudava for the tenants.
Now there are more government-sponsored boat races and Kathakali (dance drama) performances in major cities. Today the festival attracts tourists to the state. Hotels and resorts across the state work overtime to give tourists a taste of Kerala’s most important festival. Other than tourists, the hotels are also catering to those who are too busy to prepare a traditional feast at home. From a purely Hindu religious festival centuries ago, now it is a celebration of good will and good food by Kerala’s Hindus, Christians, and Muslims.
With covid-19 is still raging, temples in Kerala are closed and no public observation of festivals or mass gatherings are permitted in the state during this year’s Onam.