Hindu Festival: Onam

Kerala, with its lush vegetation and the waves of the Arabian Sea lashing its coastline, is one of the most beautiful states of India. Its landscape is unlike that of any other state of our country. The sea makes inroads into the mainland in several places and fishermen with their catamarans and sailboats dot the horizon. The sea overflows onto low-lying areas when the tide is high, forming lakes and backwaters. There are also many freshwater lakes 'which are rich in seafood. Coconut palms growing straight or arched, some touching the earth in a deep curve trying to reach the sunlight, grow in abundance.

This land was home to the king Mahabali, who was the grandson ofPrahlad and son ofValchana, both great kings. Onam is celebrated for three days in memory of that time, the golden age of Kerala. The people believe that Mahabali comes to Kerala to see his people once a year because of a boon granted to him by Vishnu in his Vaman avtar.

Onam falls on Daadshi of Bhadrapad or the 12th day of the waxing moon in Bhadon (in AugustSeptember), when the rice fields have been harvested. It is two days before Anant Choudesh, when the immersion ceremony of Lord Ganesh is being celebrated in Maharashtra and some of the other states of India.

The people of Kerala count the days of a month according to the moon cycle; each day is dedicated to a star and has a distinct name. The stars, like the tith, may overlap or vanish altogether, thereby sometimes resulting in two days dedicated to the same star, or not having one particular star at all in a given month (depending on whether the star is at the position which determines the day). The calculation tallies with the lunar calendar. The date of course changes every year according to the English calendar. It is best ascertained by using an almanac (jantri or panchang).

Onam has become the festival for everyone in Kerala and has been declared a national festival by the government. It is celebrated with great fervour irrespective of caste or creed. It is, of course, a harvest festival but during this time, after the harvest, everyone rejoices with thoughts of the time of Bali, who brought great peace to this land.

The people of Kerala are 100 per cent educated, but are very simple in their habits and dress. The women mostly wear off-white saris made of cotton, although terry cot and pastel shades are becoming popular. On festive days the sari worn has a zari in the centre. Glaring designs are shunned.

All women wear flowers - jasmine in single or double strands decorate the hair, falling alongside single plaits of hair. On festive occasions flowers are woven into intricate designs and put on the base of the head. A strand of jasmine or any small seasonal flower is a temptation to which most women, old or young, succumb. Women in South India do not cover their heads as they do in the north. The men wear lungis with zari for occasions, otherwise too the lungi is the common dress for men. The upper part of the body has a cloth known as utthariyeem hanging on the shoulder and reaching to the waist or a little higher. This is also off-white, with zari for occasions. Nowadays, shirts or kurtas are worn as upper garments and the lungi or dhoti still worn around the waist and legs. The Keralites often pick up their long lungi from the lower ends and tuck it into the waist, thus making it into a half lungi and allowing the legs free movement in water.

The story of Mahabali or 'Bali* is told in the Bhagwat Purana. Bali was a noble, generous righteous and powerful king who ruled with justice, wisdom and generosity. Although he was an asur, no devta was as noble, in thought or action, as him. He never refused anyone who asked for a boon. He did tbeViswajit Yagna under the guidance of Guru Sukre (who is the guru of all asurs). This bestowed on him the strength of the three worlds. No one could stand against Bali. The people loved him and he glowed like a jewel. He looked so handsome that Indra (the king of the devtas who was always afraid that his throne would be taken by someone who became too noble) got very jealous.

Indra had, time and again, foiled the divinity reached by several sages who had by their actions or tap (great meditation) nearly reached his stature. This time the devtas approached Vishnu to come to their aid. Narayan (Vishnu) was aware that an asur dynasty would not in the end be good for the earth and so took the Vaman avtar as the son of Aditi and Kashyap, and remained in the form of a small boy with an umbrella and a kamandal, even in adulthood.

Mahabali was, at this time, about to perform the Ashvamedha Yagna so that he be ,proclaimed the most powerful king in the three worlds. He decided to do it on the banks of the river Narbada. He was proceeding with the rituals, when he saw a great glow coming towards the yagshala. He found a small boy, glowing like the sun, with a kamandal in one hand and an umbrella in the other, coming towards them. Bali knew it was no ordinary child and in all humility asked him to sit down. He asked him to demand anything he desired as his glory and sanctified the yagshala. The child demanded three paces of the ground, measured by his own foot. Bali thought that three paces of a child's foot was not enough and told the child to ask for something more. The child Vaman insisted on three paces. Guru Sukre saw through the game and told Bali not to accede to this demand as he was being cheated and that in such a case there was no sin in going back on his word (so the Vedas say). Sukre knew that it was Vishnu in the guise of Vaman, but Bali did not budge; he had given his word. Sukre left the gathering in disgust, thus giving permission to his pupil to do as he wished. Vaman took the first step and became Lord Narayan, one pace took the world and the second took the heavens. Then there was no land left and Narayan became Vaman again and asked where he should take the third step. Bali asked him to step on his head as he would be blessed by the feet of Narayan, and so he was sent to satalalok (pathal lok) with one foot on his head, but was blessed with the words that even after losing everything on this earth he would gain eternal wisdom and the personal love and care of Lord Narayan.

Bali asked for one favour: that he be allowed to visit his people on earth once a year. It is believed that he comes to see his people on Onam. The people rejoice to know that he is with them and want to show him that they are as happy as they were when he was their ruler so as not to cause him pain and unhappiness.

The celebrations start exactly ten days before Doadshi, i.e., from the Dooj of the waxing moon to Doadshi of the waxing moon and as in Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga puja and Pongal, everyone is out to have fun.

The houses in Kerala are usually kept so clean that there is no need to do any sort of spring-cleaning before Onam. The furnishing is minimal but the kitchen has a lot of pots and pans which are kept shining all the year round. The weather here is not like in North India) where it becomes very hot during the summer, with hot dusty winds depositing dust on the walls and every nook and corner, and it becomes incumbent to whitewash and clean the houses just after summer (before Diwali being an ideal time). Tamil Nadu is also very hot and sultry during summer. The winter is not so cold, hence Pongal is chosen for spring-cleaning when everyone is bursting with enthusiasm.

In homes, the celebrations for Onam start with decorating the gate or the main door as well as the inside of the house. Branches full of coconut (red coconuts are used for this purpose), banana leaves, along with coconut fronds decorate the corners and walls of the house. There is no deity associated with Onam and there is no special puja', still the housewife performs daily rituals with a little extra piety. The first day of Onam is known as Attam. On this day the formal functions start with the housewife and the other ladies and girls of the house waking up early in the morning, taking a bath and dressing in clean (usually new) clothes. They wear jewellery, generally of gold.

Children also get up very early and, after bathing, go to the parks and market to pluck or buy the flowers and flower petals which will decorate the home. The women of the house prepare the ground on the east side of their house, making it smooth and then spreading cowdung evenly on which the petals or flowers are placed in a manner which is beautiful to behold. If the cowdung becomes dry, a little water is sprinkled on it so that it can hold the flowers in place; wet cowdung acts as a light glue. The attam is usually round in shape and the artistry of the young comes to the fore. A lump of cowdung is put in the centre, symbolising Ganesh. Once the attam is completed the women gather round it and dance and sing special songs, in praise of Mahabali. Clapping of hands is with the person on either side, much like the Danda dances of Rajasthan or Maharashtra.

Every day the flower decorations are renewed; the old one is not scraped but water is sprinkled on top and a thin layer of cowdung added and a new design carefully patterned on it. This is done right up to the main day of Onam and every day everyone dances around it.

Community attam is becoming popular now and common grounds are used for singing and dancing around beautiful flower decorations which are guarded day and night; in fact, people keep guard, turn by turn, to see that no one takes away the fresh flowers brought in for decoration every morning or even an evening before.

For ten to fifteen days, something or the other in the name of social or cultural activity takes place in homes and at the state level.

On the third day of Onam, feasts are arranged by families at lunchtime and everyone is invited in one home or another. The food is vegetarian; the main dish is rice with many types of curd, vegetables and kheer.

Food in Kerala is served on banana leaves; each one is about two feet in length, and on the left of the leaf a little pickle is placed along with banana chips (a favourite with Keralites), papadom and different types of curd, either mixed with cucumber (pachei), or fried ladies fingers (khistry) and coconut chutney. Rice, the main dish, is served with many types of vegetable curry. A different curry is served with each helping of rice. The first course is usually with sambhar and pure ghee. Then comes rasam and aviyal (a large number of vegetables cooked in a curry, again a speciality), thuvasan (string beans cooked dry in a little mustard oil, mustard seeds and grated coconut; cabbage can also he prepared like this), kalan (dahi with some vegetables), and oalan (a type of yam cooked like a vegetable).

The kheer can also be of many kinds. These include:

  • Ada (rice or wheat made into chappatis and cut into small bits with milk and sugar added and cooked.
  • Parippu (made with milk and lentils). (3) Seviya (milk, vermicelli and sugar). (4) Payasam (dry rice, brown in colour).

Presents are given to anyone one wants to. What is to be given to whom is carefully worked out before the festival begins.

The government celebrates Onam with boat races and pageants. On the Onam day the government takes out floats as it does on Republic Day, with each competitor vying with the other for the prize. School children, and the police and other organisations form a parade. Elephants from nearby temples are decorated and paraded on the main road as they are considered auspicious. The parade goes onto the main roads and the Governor takes a salute. There may be some illuminations in shops, but houses are not illuminated at night, as this is a daytime festival.

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