Visiting God’s Own Country was on the cards for a long time
and there couldn’t be a better time to book Kerala tours than during the famous
harvest festival of Onam. While I got myself into the festive mood I discovered
that Onam is much more than just the beautiful and intricately done
Pookolam(flower decorations), it’s root date back to the time when King
Mahabali ruled the kingdom.
State: Alapuzzha, Kerala
How to reach: The nearest airport is Trivandrum and Cochin, there are plenty of buses plying from Cochin and trains are well connected to Cochin and Trivandrum from other parts of the country.
Stay: A stay on a houseboat is recommended.
The story goes that the great King Mahabali sacrificed his
kingdom to keep up his word to the Brahmin who came to his door step and asked
him for as much land he could cover in three steps. But little did Mahabali
know that the disguised Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself. So, with his first two
steps he covered the earth and the skies and for the last one stepped on the
head Mahabali’s and pushed him to Patal. Such was the love and adoration that
Mahabali had for his people that he requested Lord Vishnu to allow him to visit
the kingdom once every year, his arrival each year is what marks the
festivities of Onam.
The entire state is bathed in the colors and revelry to
welcome King Mahabali. The first day of fête is called Atham. I was lucky to be
welcomed by a local family to be a part of the celebration which begins with Pookolam.
This brings all the pretty sari clad women of the household together. Drapped
in a cream and gold sari I too lend my creative touch to the Pookolam taking
shape in the front yard, which my host Aarti tells me grows in size with more
layers and colors added to it each day during the ten day festivities.
With the excitement in the front yard brimming, the spot
light shifts to the ritual of cleaning the home and gearing up for breakfast
which is a spread of steamed banana’s and fried pappad. After breakfast its
time to lend a hand to Aarti to sling a swing to the branch of high tree in the
courtyard and jazzing it up with flowers. She goes on to tell me that this will
soon be the centre of all the excitement as we pretty women will sing and swing
along and soak in the festivities! After a day of rituals, legendry tales and
fun, I can’t wait for the days ahead to unfold.
As expected, Aarti and her family have been more than
hospitable and I am thoroughly enjoying myself through the rituals and festivities
of each day. With “Utradam- the ninth day of Onam” having arrived, Aarti’s
grandfather the eldest member of the family, distributes presents which in the
earlier days was farm produce and today has sure modernized! Gearing up for the final day preprations are
under away and everyone pitch in and do their bit.
The final day called “Thiru Onam” is welcomed as the city
plunges into the colors, sights and sounds of the Onam. We wake up at the crack of dawn as early as 4
am, the sense of excitement, happiness and hustle bustle can be felt in every
corner of the household, as everyone young and old get dressed in their best
attire, women in their traditional golden border Mundu Neriyathum and men in
their Mundu. Once dressed the family get together for the elaborate prayer
ceremony which concludes in the grand feast of “Onasadya”. The feast begins
after Aarti’s grandfather lights the ceremonial brass lamp and makes an
offering to Lord Ganapathy. The feast gets underway and I have in front of me
sides and main dishes of 13 different colors and flavors to choose from!
As we end the meal with sweet dishes, the exhilaration
builds in the air and its time for some games collectively known as
“Onakalikal”. While the young men with strength and vitality go for a game of
combat, archery and Kutukutu(Kerala style Kabaddi) , the elderly go for the
more sober board games. The women enjoy “Kaikotti” which is a clap dance and
later swing and sing along on the high slung swing!
The cultural extravaganza and riot of colors stretch across
the state, people from all corners gather to be a part of the merriment; the
most important of which are the Vallamkali- Snake Boat Race, Kummatti Kali and
Pulukali along with the dazzle of the fire works that take over the night sky!
Awestruck by the precision and skill of the men and women at
the boat race and sparkle of colors in the night sky, I look around at the
excitement, joy and faith in the eyes of the people that the visit of their
king will bring their land prosperity.
With the dimming lights of the lamps and fire works in the
night sky, Aarti’s family concludes the festivities of Onam and call it a
night! The morning after the ten day cultural extravaganza, I thank Aarti and
her folks who embraced me as a part of their family, with a promise to come
back for more and bid goodbye to God’s Own Country.