Monthly Archives: September 2011

Onam – ‘The spirit of Kerala’ !


From glooms to cheerfulness, from shoe-string budget constraints to prosperity, from the dullness of heavy rains to the freshening radiance of gentle sun rays, … that Onam to Keralites – arguably the chief festival of what’s dubbed as the God’s Own Country, Kerala.

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Kerala tours

Kerala’s most celebrated festival occasion ‘Onam’ is the hallmark of a new calendar year. ie., Chingam 1st which marks the beginning of the New Year in the Malayalam calendar, called as  ‘Kolla Varsham’. Chingam, which follows the last month of Malayalam year ‘Karkidakam’, offers a sharp contrast from its predecessor in terms of climate and lifestyle. Karkidakam is the month of monsoon characterized by heavy lashes of downpour plus subsequent diseases where people have to take various means to improve their frequently ailing health condition and, due to this month’s volatile nature people won’t conduct any important or joyful occasions such as marriages, new house warming, …  whereas Chingam is a new dawn of cheer & good times for Keralites. This is the time of harvests, plentiful special occasions like marriages and, above all the celebration time of Onam!
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Onam for Kerala is not just a mere festive occasion, more than that it symbolizes the spirit of Kerala’s vibrant culture & legacy. This festival is celebrated by all – people from all wakes of life and each & every religions here – for Keralites this is the testimony of their brotherhood & pride! Origin of Onam is in fact timeless. Few interesting legends are associated with the beginning of Onam, of which the most prominent one is connected with ‘Mahabali’ ancient King of Kerala.
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A demon King who held sway in not only Kerala but all the mythical three worlds namely Heaven of gods, Earth of humans, and the Netherworld. His rule was regarded as the best in every respect which is yet to be surpassed by any known ruler! Ballads describe Mahabali’s rule as the one where people lived in utmost prosperity, happiness & joy prevailed everywhere, and the word ‘crime’ was virtually unheard / unknown. Without doubt, an ear that is beyond compare with the present governing system!!!
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It is believed that Gods grew anxious about the expanding prowess & fame of Mahabali that they sought the help of Lord Vishnu (the preserver god in Hinduism’s holy trinity) to oust Mahabali. Lord Vishnu took the form of a Brahmin kid ‘Vamana’, went to meet Mahabali and requested him 3 footages of land as alms. King Mahabali, known for his virtuous of keeping promises, agreed to do so. Instantly Vamana assumed a gigantic form. He measured Heaven with one footstep and Earth with another step. With Vamana’s third step looming large & the destruction of the King’s subjects almost a certain, Mahabali voluntarily offered his head to rest that third step so that the kingdom & subjects will be saved. Vamana’s feet pushed Mahabali to Netherworld. However, impressed by the King’s care towards his subjects, Vamana (Lord Vishnu) granted Mahabali a boon that he can visit his people once in every year. That occasion came to be known as Onam.
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Onam festival occasion begins with the Malayalam calendar day ‘Atham’ (usually falls in mid August to early September every year), followed by ten days with a grand fiesta on ‘Thiru Onam’ day. ‘Atham’ is welcomed by Keralites with a colourful procession called as ‘Athachamayam’, a procession with richly decorated sets that depict mythological events. The procession in central Kerala’s Tripunithura town (former capital of Cochin State) is a particularly famous crowd puller.
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From Atham onwards every home in Kerala gets ready to greet their beloved King by decorating their house’s threshold with artistic flower patterns (known as ‘Pookalam’). From Atham to Thiru Onam; every day a new pattern of Pookalam will be prepared in homes – to mark the significance of each Onam day.
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The grandest celebration takes off on Thiru Onam day. Besides the decorated Pookalam & clay-made representation of Mahabali, all household will wear new cloths – a custom that signifies the triumph of good times over troubled times, prosperity over hardship, plus the token of welcome of their beloved King. Women get busy to prepare the traditional Kerala feast ‘Onam Sadya’ – a lavish feast where rice with wide variety of vegetarian dishes is served on a banana leaf. Some standouts of this Onam feast are Upperi, Sharkara Varatti (banana fried chips & fried banana coated with sugar) and Payasam (a delicious nectar-like dish).
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To add up the celebrations of Mahabali’s return & good times, women in Kerala households perform the dance from ‘Thiruvathira Kali’ / ‘Kaikotti Kali’ – a group of seven or eight ladies, wearing customary Kerala dress, encircle a lighted lamp and perform uniform rhythmic dance movements with clapping of hands.
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On the other hand Male folks also form friend circles and celebrate Onam their own with games like ‘Puli kali’ (performing Tiger-like pranks), ‘Sayippum Kaduvayum’ (Hunter and Tiger / Leopard showdown), etc.
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Onam occasion is celebration time in every aspect with most of the reputed Snake Boat Races of Kerala such as ‘Payippad Boat Race’, ‘Aranmula Boat Race’, ‘Chambakkulam Boat Race’, also take place in the days that follow Thiru Onam.
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Earlier years were filled with so many local-styled entertaining games & activities during Onam holidays. But as modernity and nuclear family concept have taken their toll, much of the good old Onam games & activities are confined to Television channels’ studio sets and cultural stages. Whatever it is, the legacy of Onam always prevails and it continues as a driving force of Kerala’s unity & integrity – most certainly forever.