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Onam: the festival
Festival of Colors, lights, tradition and customs
Onam is the biggest and the most important festival of the state of Kerala. It is a harvest festival and is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm all over the state by people of all communities. According to a popular legend, the festival is celebrated to welcome King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam.Onam is celebrated in the beginning of the month of Chingam, the first month of Malayalam Calendar (Kollavarsham). This corresponds with the month of August-September, according to Gregorian Calendar.
History The association of Onam with Thrikkakara temple goes back to decades. It is one of the few temples in the India that is dedicated to Lord Vamana. Thrikkakara temple is situated in Thrikkakara, a village Panchayat in Kochi. The temple is the center for all the Onam related celebrations over the world and is considered to have been the adobe of King Mahabali. It is also believed that King Mahabalis presence is felt on the 10 day festivals galore. During Onam, a pyramidal statue of Vamana is placed in the temple and worshipped. King Mahabali is said to have been sent to the underworld Patala by Lord Vamana with his foot, hence marking the genesis of the Onam festival. The etymology of the name Thrikkakara ('place of the holy foot') is also derived this way.
Legend: Mahabali, an Asura(demon) was the son of Devamba and Virochana. He grew up under his grandfather, Prahalada, who installed a strong sense of righteousness and devotion in him. Bali succeeded Virochana as the King of Asuras by wrestling with Indra and other Devas. The devas then approached their patron Vishnu and entreated him to restore Indras throne over Heaven. In heaven, Bali was advised by Sukracharya to perform Ashwamedha Yaga so as to maintain his rule over the three worlds. Vishnu, disguised as Vamana to help the other devas of the heaven. A small Brahmin boy, Vamana approached Bali and requested for a grant. The grant asked by Vamana was land, although only as much land as he could cover with three paces. After repeated warnings from Balis guru, Bali went ahead and granted the boon to Vamana. Vamana then grew to an immense size, and, with his first pace, traversed all of the earth and the underworld. With his second pace, he covered Heaven in its entirety. This led Bali to accept his defeat against Vamana. Bali offered his own head as a stepping-stone. Mahabali made a request to the Lord Vishnu that he wanted to meet his people once a year; Lord Vishnu granted his wish and that is how it is indicated that the King comes every year during Onam time to visit the festival to Kerala.
Culture The cultural forms of Kerala come out during this festival and the spirit during the ten day long , is bright and rich in its form. It is a grand treat to be a part of the culture and heritage of this place during this part of the month. During Onam, the Vamana avatar is dressed in different styles using sandalwood paste, ornaments, flowers and clothing which and this is called Chaarthu. Each day indicates one style of the 10 avatars of Vamana deity. On the ninth and the tenth day of Onam, Pakalpooram, a grand procession involving leading the main deity Vamana, on a ceremonial elephant around the temple premises along with Panchavadyam. This is how it is done in every part of Kerala including Guruyavur temple.
Folklore Colorful and festive mood, kick starts in Kerala when the folklore kicks in. There isnt a better start than Athachamayan festival, which is the push for people to celebrate this wonderful tradition. The festival features a street parade accompanied by heavily decorated elephants, musicians, and various dancers.
Another enchanting feature of Onam is Vallamkali, the Snake Boat Race, held on the river Pampa. It is a colorful sight to watch the decorated boat oared by hundreds of boatmen amidst chanting of songs and cheering by spectators. Games are a huge enjoyed part of Onam.
Various games like Onakalikal, Talappanthukali(ball game), Ambeyyal(archery), Kutukutu and combats called Kayyankali and Attakalam are played during the festive season.While men indulge in activities like this, women take the creative route to enjoyment. Thiruvathira is performed majorly by women who dance in circular motion around a lamp in between Pookalam is another famous part of Onam where the house entrances or indoors are decorated with flowers. This is called Onapookolam where the women of the house are also involved in competitions to come up with interesting designs to welcome King Mahabali into their houses.
Boat race Vallamkali or the snake boat race is another event which is the synonym for Onam. The Nehru Trophy boat race is generally held in Punnamada Lake, Alapuzha. The name Nehru trophy comes from the history that happened in 1952 where the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru was given a glorious welcome into Kerala escorting the huge snake boats. The 100-120 foot long canoes carries around 90-120 rowers who row the boat in fast movement which moves like a snake. It is definitely a pride to win the game and own the trophy. Though the competition is fierce, the main outlook of this,is to bring out the tradition of Kerala through boat race.
Music and Dance forms Traditionally, Onams famous dance forms are Kummatikali, Pulikali Thumbi Thullal that are performed by both men and women.. Kummattikali is a famous dance form which imbibes masks and colorful costumes into the picture. It is a procession where the dancers go from house to house to perform the dance form. Kathakali is a common dance form performed on the day to depict historical and mythological stories of the King, deity Vamana etc. Pulikali is the fondest dance form where men disguise themselves in the tiger dress and dance in sync with the vigorous beats of Chandi
Dress During the time of Onam, a common tradition is followed by all the Keralite elders. Onakodi is a famous tradition where the elders of the family gift the young ones with gifts and dresses. This is a custom that has been followed from the beginning of the culture. This indicates love and affection towards young members of the family.
It can also be noted that, the dress gifted will consist of Mundu(Traditional cream zari saree) for women and Veshti (Zari cloth) for men. All said and done, Kerala is rich in its true culture, folklore and colorful site. Onam is the one time that brings out the rich ethnicity and customs of Keralites. Keeping an eye on every tradition possible, Onam is the best time to visit Kerala!
Vamana Jayanti vis-à-vis Onam
BJP president Amit Shah wishing people Vamana Jayanti reflects a vested political agenda and an attempt to homogenise Hinduism disregarding local heterogeneous myths of Kerala, said historian K N Panikkar.
Shah's post caused a controversy as it came soon after a piece published in the Onam special issue of R S S mouthpiece Kesari cited the Srimad Bhagavatam to claim Onam was originally celebrated as Vamana Jayanti.
Panikkar said Onam and King Mahabali are part of a secular and egalitarian myth encompassing people of all castes and religions.
“It's a known fact that the R S S is using divisive methods to gain a foothold in Kerala. By appropriating Onam as an upper-caste Hindu festival, they are trying to divide votes along caste lines,“ he said. Panikkar said Kerala has long stood for plurality of religions and diverse voices.
“We had our own local myths that may or may not be part of other national myths. The beauty of Onam is that it speaks about a king who reigned over a just society . Denigrating the myth by superimposing it with Hindutva agenda to make political inroads is dangerous for the secular fabric,“ he said.
Rajan Gurukkal, social scientist and historian, said there are ancient scriptures that mention Vamana Jayanti and that it was celebrated by the Brahmin community .
“Vamana's birthday falls on the Thiruvonam as per Malayalam calendar. Later, myths like that of Mahabali must have been added to assert the brahminical hierarchy ,“ he said.
Gurukkal questioned the existence of King Mahabali. “It's possible that at a later stage King Mahabali got this subaltern image as the Dravidian underdog and Vamana became the brahminical deity . Onam, in due course, became a secular festival, removed of its feudal vestiges,“ he said. K T Ravi Varma, who penned the book `Mahabali: Myth and history of Onam', says there is no mention of Mahabali in Rigveda and it was a later addition.
“It seems as though the Bali myth came from outside and it was mentioned in Mahabharata. Bali, over course of time, became Maveli, the magnanimous king. Anyway , when Onam became a celebration as the return of King Maveli at least for a day, the myth finally came out of the four walls of the temple and became a popular festival,“ he observed in his book.