More Onam Ramblings

Ever since I could remember, Onam has always been a time of sparkling joy, lively camaraderie and unadulterated fun. Added to that are gastronomical delights and endless round table conferences we have at home. No doubt festivals play a vital role in nurturing relationships and cementing bonds that stand the test of time. So, Onam is a stockpile of a lot of wonderful memories. 

Today, I see vested interests wishing us, Keralites, ‘Vamana Jayanthi’ instead of Onam. All media will be after this today. Analysis, discussions, points of view… However, to me there is no need for any dissection or postmortem. Why, you may ask. 

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I am reminded of a lovely story about the one and only Buddha, that is mentioned in one of Suttas. According to this, there were lots of people who were displeased about Buddha and his discourses. One such clan leader was quite angry that one of his followers had become a disciple of Buddha. Insecure that he will lose his position if more join the fold, he stormed into Buddha’s presence and started hurling insults and calling the Master, choicest abuses.  

Buddha, being Buddha, remained calm and collected. When the man kind of stopped, the Buddha asked him, “Sir, do you get visitors coming to meet you?” 

The man, completely lost at what Buddha was coming at, gruffly replied, “Yes.” 

“Do you also be a perfect host and offer them eats and drinks?”

Carried in the flow of the conversation the man replied, “Yes. Why not?” 

Buddha continued in his serene style, “Suppose, the guests said that they don’t want what you have offered, where will the eats, drinks and courtesies go to?” 

“Back to my pantry and me, of course. They’ll all come back to me and I’ll enjoy them with my family.”

Buddha calmly continued, “If I too don’t accept what you flung at me today, where will they go? I do not accept them. You may take these back. Yes, it is all yours” 

Light dawned on the man. 

It is this story that I want to share with our Vamana Jayanthi wishers, for I feel strongly about it. To me Onam is Mahabali’s homecoming and nothing else. Taking a leaf from Buddha’s story, I do not accept Vamana Jayanthi wishes. You may keep it to yourself. For, if I don’t accept what you give me, it goes back to you.

And, sorry, am not allowing anyone to hijack the myth we have lived with and sanctify a new story. 

Onam Ramblings -2

Onam Ramblings -2

Onam is at a time when Nature is bountiful and beautiful, in the Malayalam month of Chingam (it is in August-September). The festivities begin before 10 days – on the day of Attham star. On the ninth day is the first day of Onam – Uthradom star, 10th day is Thiruvonam (the second day of Onam, by far the most important day), the 11th day is the third Onam (Avittam star) and the 12th day is the fourth day of Onam (Chathayam star). Floral carpets are made in the front courtyard of homes. Back in my home district of Palakkad, some even start laying floral carpets a month earlier, from the 1st of Karkadakom, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Onam.

Traditionally, cow dung is spread and the petals of flowers are laid on it. Many beautiful designs are artistically created with flowers of various hues. I remember that when we had cattle at home, it was easy to get cow dung. Besides, those days our cows were fed with natural food including hay and plenty of grass. Cow dung was vital and auspicious for all kind of festivities – it was used to plaster mud surfaces. The dung evidently was hailed to have a lot of anti-bacterial properties and even considered to be a natural disinfectant. Now, we don’t have cows at home. And the ones who have cows feed it with artificial feeds and very less hay and grass, which are its natural food. Hence, the cow dung procured is of poor quality and it really stinks. Hence we don’t spread cow dung as a base anymore. The morning ritual of plucking flowers for the floral carpet had its share of enthusiasm and fun. Here is a floral carpet that we made.

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Vadamalli (Globe Amaranth), Marigold and Hibiscus floral carpet

We stop making flower carpets from the ninth day – the day of 1st Onam. In Palakkad district we make clay models of Mahabali, called Madevar, and keep it in front of our courtyard. In the past, we used to make the models ourselves on the previous day of the first Onam. All of us, Mummy and all the daughters, join happily in the process. The clay, which is cleared from stones and other impurities, is mixed with the right amount of water. Beating it on stones, and keeping it broad at the base, it is given a tapering shape. The central Madevar is  bigger and the other two, one on each side is of the same size. The threesome are then laid on a wooden seat. The base is decorated with three steps. Then the steps are decorated with mostly Vadamalli or Globe Amaranth (the purple flower in the picture above) or yellow coloured marigolds. Once the steps are done, coconut leaf splinters or Eerkali is pierced onto the top and sides of the wet Madevar. This is done so that it is easy to decorate the Madevar with flowers – by next morning it would dry up and fixing it would be difficult. Besides this set of three, there are 4 smaller Madevars also that are prepared.

The next day, after taking bath, we decorate the sides where Hibiscus and other bigger flowers are fixed on to the splinters. Daddy would get lotus flowers from our pond and these amazing flowers will find a pride of place on the centre of the Madevar. Once this is ready it is time to keep the Madevar in front of our home. Mummy prepares the rangoli dough with rice early in the morning. She grinds it to a fine paste and makes it into such a consistency that she can draw the designs. It is a painstaking affair, but Mummy does it with such remarkable ease and élan. Once the design is done, Mummy reverentially keeps the Madevar in the middle of the design. Then puja is done. On a plantain leaf, banana, flattened rice and jaggery is served. The lamp is lit. Flowers are offered. Coconut is broken. Agarbathis and camphor are lit. This officially marks the beginning of Onam. Food is served to the deity before we eat our lunch and dinner. Mummy still does this very religiously. Salute her spirit and creativity! Our Mom rocks! 🙂

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Mummy creating the rice flour design to house the Madevar

On the Second day is Thiruvonam and we make another set of threesome Madevars and eight smaller ones. This time, Mummy makes a bigger design for this one. Plus we have to move the previous day’s Madevar ahead of the second days’s one. On the third day we make one big clay Madevar with four small ones. It is kept at the gate of our home. Probably three sets refer to the story of 3 steps taken by Vamana. Onam is such a festival that all living beings partake of the feast. Crows and birds to eat the offerings we leave in front of the Madevar. Even ants have their fair share nibbling at the rice dough designs. Every night after Puja, the Madevars are brought inside home. Next day all the old flowers are removed and new ones hoisted on them, before they are taken outside amid the design Mummy makes. Now, we find it difficult to get clay and hence the changing times have forced us to get the ready-made Madevars available in the market. We even got one made in wood by a carpenter. The work is easy but am sure all of us miss the joint effort of making Madevars at home. Sometimes it rains during Onam and then we rush to take in the Madevars. If it’s heavy, it washes away all the designs too.

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Madevars and the decorations

Onam is the time for sumptuous feasts. We have a wide variety of dishes and side dishes that we prepare to celebrate Onam. Plain rice is the main course. There are wet and dry dishes – Sambhar, Avial, Koottu Curry, Kalan, Olan, Inji Puli, Pachadi and Thorans (yummy and fingerlicious… I can only drool at Mom’s very tasty fare) form part of our lunch. It is interesting to note that all the dishes use plenty of scraped coconuts, a staple for us Keralites. It is also noteworthy that at home we never use onions, garlic and garam masalas for our Onam feast. Payasam is the sweet dish that is prepared. We make different kinds of payasams – the all time favourites being Palada Prathaman, Chakka (Jack fruit) Prathaman, Semiya Payasam, Paal (Milk) Payasam to mention a few. (Drool…) Another feature is that non-vegetarian dishes are a strict no-no. Even otherwise, non-vegetarian dishes are once in a blue moon affair at home. 🙂 Ona Sadya is always served in banana leaves. Salted banana chips called Kaaya Varuthath and sweetened (with jaggery) banana chips, papad, pickle and banana also are served in the banana leaf. Well, there is a fixed spot in the banana leaf too, where each dish should be served! Rich or poor, the sadya is such a key aspect of Onam that there is a saying “Kaanam vittum Onam unnanam” which roughly translates to “if you have to sell your property, so be it, but we must have an Ona sadya.”

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A traditional Ona Sadya – and that’s me, drooling! 😀

Onam times are get-together times too. Now all of us are in different parts of the country and me in Dubai, it is not always possible for all of us to congregate at home for Onam. Nevertheless, all most of my siblings reach home and spend the time with our Dad and Mom. We get new dresses called Onakodi. Women, wear either Kerala Saris or the two piece dress called Mundu and Veshti and men wear shirts and dhotis. It is relevant to note that the colour of these dresses is ivory or off white, probably in stark contrast to the verdant landscape around. We exchange greetings with extended families. Many people visit temples. However, we don’t go to temples on Onam days. All temples are throng with devotees and we hate going to crowded places.

In other parts of Kerala, there are lots of other games and celebrations like Vallam Kali or boat races, Kaikotti Kali, Ona Pattu, vadam vali (tug of war) etc. Boat races reign supreme with lots of foreigners and tourists teeming the backwaters of Kerala to witness the battle of oars and their rhythmic Vallam Kali Pattu or boat race songs. In central Kerala, especially Thrissur it is the Puli Kali that is the cynosure of all eyes. In North Kerala, Onapottan, the symbolic representation of Mahabali, in colourful mask and headgear visits homes, blessing households with prosperity and abundance. Palakkad has its share too in the form of Kummatti Kali and Onathallu. In our nearby village of Pallassena, there is this competition among Nair men. It probably owes its roots to the prowess of Nairs who were warriors in armies of Kolathiris. Onathallu enacts war-like scenes, with men engaging in physical combat. There are strict do and don’ts – so it involves a certain structured form of confrontation and is done under the watchful eyes of elders.

On the 3rd Onam Day, after the Puja, all the Madevars are brought back home. Nowadays, we wash, clean and dry them and keep it safe for the next year. The post-Onam Ayilyam-Makam, described as the Onam of tenants and labourers, is celebrated in Palakkad. this is 16 -17 days after the fourth Onam. This Madevar used to be a fat one called the Maksthadiyan. Along with this we used to make 16 small ones. We also used to make clay shapes of snakes, grinding stone and grandfather and grandmother too. In the rangoli that Mummy makes this time, she would write all our names and draw pictures of a conch, drum, wheel (Vishnu’s chakra), mace (Gada), lotus etc.

Onam is a harvest festival. I remember, when we had paddy fields, harvest times used to be just after or even coincide with Onam. The previous month (Karkidakom – mostly July), sees Kerala at its rainiest. I remember in my childhood, it used to rain and rain. Azure skies were never seen in this month – instead was dark and sombre, wet and damp. People were forced to stay indoors. Naturally money was so scarce for all, that they called the month “Kalla Karkidakom” i.e. cursed month of Karkidakom. There was hunger,  illness and starvation. Once the rains stopped, people eagerly waited Nature to shower bounties, and to celebrate . With harvests, money came in and so did Onam.

Now, we have moved away from being a predominantly agrarian economy. Instead, we have started selling Karkidakom as a month to do Ayurvedic treatments (and, it sells big time!), have converted it into a spiritually important month, with people reading Ramayana and visiting temples and shrines. We have even packaged our Monsoons as tourism packages. However, with global warming, even the pattern of the monsoon rains have changed. This year for example, we got much less rain than what we normally would – at least in Palakkad

Onam as a festival  is completely multi-sensory in experience. It’s a veritable feast for the senses, the panchendriyas. No doubt, we the people of Kerala, are quite proud of this secular festival, when all over the nation there is a veiled threat to its fabric. If you want to visit Kerala, let this be the time to do so. May the vibrant colours of the Pookalam, the rhythm of Puli Kali and the spirit of Vallam Kali bring you all a Happy and Prosperous Onam!

Onam Ramblings – 1

You can’t feel anything but blue, for Onam is just two days away. Thanks to Eid break, I do have holidays too. Airlines to India have an uncanny knack of doubling, trebling or as of now, quadrupling air fares during summer, holiday and festive seasons. Though the governments, state and centre, eagerly welcome remittances (the more, the merrier – much valued foreign currency!) everyone including the national airlines milk expats high and dry, with mercurial rise in airfares. So love as much as I would, I don’t think I will go home despite holidays. So, what will I do for Onam? Reminisce, I suppose is in order. And nostalgia is going to be the predominant mood.

If there is a festival that cuts across barriers of caste, creed, community, religion and gender, that is Onam. While most festivals in various states of India, based on the lunar calendar, are celebrated in different names mostly on same days, Onam is one that is entirely different. For example, Vishu in Kerala is the new year celebration which is known in other states in varied names – Ugadi, Gudi Padwa, Bihu,  Baisakhi and so on. To my knowledge, (I could be wrong – if there is, do let me know) there’s no other festival similar to Onam. It is nonpareil! 🙂

Onam is the festival that celebrates the annual return of the Asura King, Mahabali. Myths celebrate the rule of Mahabali (Maveli) as one of absolute bliss and prosperity. A particular song that describes the times translates to:

During times that Maveli ruled
Equal were all people treated
Times were of happiness
No one had to face travails
Sorrows, diseases weren’t there
Children’s deaths were unheard
No baddies were ever spotted
The land only had the good
No thefts and deceptions
Nor did any speak lies
All (measuring) weights and scales were right
And there was no chicanery.

If this is not an Utopia, what is? Probably, Mahabali was the first socialist leader! He was benevolent, wise, judicious as well as extremely generous. So much so that the Gods felt quite envious and insecure about his popularity. The mother of Gods, Aditi, approached Lord Vishnu (the Preserver in the Hindu Trinity and whom Mahabali was an ardent devotee of) and sought His assistance. Being of very charitable disposition, Mahabali was approached by Lord Vishnu in the guise of a brahmin dwarf or Vamana. The Vamana requested for some land. Mahabali gladly gave what was asked. The King’s preceptor, Shukracharya, sensed the identity of the visitor and warned Mahabali. But his word was sacred to Mahabali. Vamana grew in size and with his first step measured Heaven. With the second, he apportioned the Netherworld. The third step would be the earth and knowing that this would destroy the Earth, Mahabali offered his head as the last step. Pleased by the King’s humility and integrity, the Vamana granted him a boon. Mahabali is said to requested that he be permitted to visit his subjects every year in the lunar month of Chingam (falls in August – September). Onam marks the visit of Mahabali’s homecoming.

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Onappookkal – Onam flowers (from top left clockwise): Mukkutti (Sikerpud), Hanuman Kireedom (Red Pagoda Plant0, Thumba Poo (Slitwort)

No wonder then that the Onam continues to be a festival celebrated by all alike, irrespective of faiths! While there are concerted efforts at celebrating Vamana’s birthday (Jayanthi) in place of Mahabali’s visit, from some quarters, I strongly believe that it will always be a celebration about Mahabali, than Vamana. Sometimes even in losing, you win! That’s what happened to the genial Mahabali. He lost his Kingdom and got relegated to the Netherworld, yet, he gained eternity. The rains are over. Nature beckons. The blue skies, the lush greenery, the enchanting landscapes and the smiling flowers all seem to be decked for the festive time. And the eager populace (Keralites) to this day await his visit with much joy and celebration!:)

P.S: My next post will be about how Onam is celebrated at home… How I miss being home!! 😦 

Onam – The Legend

The word festival conjures in one’s mind myriad images – fun, festivity, good food and most often a religious connotation / connection. India being the land of festivals, we practically have a festival in a day, every day of the year. Don’t we Indians love to celebrate!

If ever there is a festival that transcends even religious barriers, it is Kerala’s own festival of Onam. Other than being a harvest festival at a time when Nature is at it best in beauty and bounty, there is also a well known legend connected to it. Like any other story there is long long ago to begin this one too. 🙂 The legend of Mahabali is narrated in the VIIIth canto of the ancient text of Mahabhagavatham.

Long, long ago Kerala was ruled by the Asura King, Mahabali. True to the lineage he was coming from, (Mahabali’s great grandfather was the illustrious and devout Vishnu devotee, Prahalada of the Narasimhavatara fame) Bali was an ideal ruler – benevolent, compassionate and most importantly true to his word. He was generous and charitable. Though an Asura (Demon), Mahabali was an ardent devotee of Lord Mahavishnu, the Preserver of the Hindu Trninty of Brahma (Creator), Vishnu and Maheswara or Siva (Destroyer). Naturally his fame and munificence spread everywhere. A folk song of the times goes like this:

“മാവേലി നാട് വാണീടും കാലം
മാനുഷരെല്ലാരും ഒന്നു പോലെ
ആമോദത്തോടെ വസിക്കും കാലം
ആപത്തങ്ങാർക്കുമൊട്ടില്ല താനും
ആധികള്‍ വ്യാധികള്‍ ഒന്നുമില്ല
ബാല മരണങ്ങള്‍ കേള്‍ക്കാനില്ല
കള്ളവുമില്ല ചതിയുമില്ല
എള്ളോളമില്ല പൊളിവചനം
കള്ളപ്പറയും ചെറു നാഴിയും
കള്ളത്തരങ്ങള്‍ മറ്റൊന്നുമില്ല “

When translated it means:

When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people were equal.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Death of children was unheard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbour.
When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless band.

His valour, administrative prowess and strength of character got him the title of Chakravarthy or Emperor. This confidence in himself is said to have made him ambitious. He wanted to rule the Earth, Swargaloka or Heaven and Pathaal or the underworld. The Devas (Gods) who inhabited the Heaven came to hear of this and shuddered with fear. Besides Bali’s name and fame made them extremely jealous and insecure. They ran to Lord Mahavishnu and beseeched Him to save them by doing away with Mahabali.

Mahavishnu is said to have taken the form of a poor brahmin named Vamana (dwarf) and appeared before Bali. Mahabali asked him what he wanted. “Three steps of land that can be covered by my foot”, he said. Mahabali told him he could take as much he wanted. As soon as his wish was granted, the Vamana began to grow in size. With one step he measured the Heaven and with the second, the Earth. There was no place to keep the third step. Mahabali knowing that this was no ordinary person before him, knelt in front of the Vamana, bowed his head and asked the third step to be taken on his head. As he was pushed down to the underworld or Paathala, Mahabali is said to have asked the Vamana for a boon. Since he dearly loved his land and people, he said he would love to visit them once every year. The King’s nobility moved Mahavishnu and he granted the boon, wherein he could visit his land once a year and that he would always remain one of the most loved of kings. In the Malayalam month of Chingam (in August / September as the Malayalam calendar is a lunar calendar) it is believed that Mahabali visits Kerala – and that is Onam time. All houses are decked to receive the King. Among other things homes are decked with floral carpets called Pookkalam. Courtyards are adorned with clay pyramids decorated with wet rice flour. And Mahabali is said to visit homes on the second Onam day – Thiruvonam.

Mathevar is placed on a wooden platform decorated with flowers and rice flour designs: My Mother's handiwork!

Mathevar is placed on a wooden platform decorated with flowers and rice flour designs: My Mother’s handiwork!