Onam, e-ONAM

via Dr, P. E. S. Kartha published on August 14, 2010


Onam, like other Indian religio-cultural festivals, is evolved through the passage of many centuries, and cannot be changed overnight to suit the ‘socio-political compulsions’ of the ruling polity and/or other vested interests. Such interventions may transmute it irrevocably and to the extent of irrelevance. In effect, these short-sighted acts of idiosyncrasy would, for all practical purposes, kill a beautiful traditional festival that is the heirloom of Malayalies spread all over the world.  

A frail old lady bowing from the rigours of regular fasting, wearing a wet loin cloth tucked between the thighs, chanting unerringly the lines from the Sacred Adhyatma Ramayana during the drenched evenings, is the poor old Grandma, the month of ‘Karkatakam’ ( the last month of ‘Kolla Varsha’, the Malayalam Era -M.E., falling between mid-July and mid-August) . She has only one prayer on her quivering lips – “Guruvayoorappa, let my next generation at least, enjoy the abundance and contentment”. Manifestation of that prayer-filled penance and selfless dream is the welcome arrival of the golden ‘Chingam’ ( the first month of M.E. ), bearing the blissful, idyllic days of Thiruvonam.  Even when the stallions of time galloping through the conduits of the human minds, making endless waves of changes, the beautiful dream of timeless quality that always enhances the enchanting grace of the intrinsic ‘Malayalitvam’ ( the inherent Malayali personality ) is the ‘desapushpa’ -decked-up Thiruvonam, the playful offspring of the Chingamasam ( dasapushpa = ten types of traditional flowers that are important in the ‘samskruthi’ of Kerala ; masam=month ).

Onam, being an exquisite and more importantly a unifying idea, does hold out a serene floral design in the inner sanctums of our mind even now, as it did in the olden times. In a way, Onam is not our collective nostalgia, but an important goal that has to be realised through our combined effort in the future. Equality, fraternity and abundance were always beyond our reach. That is exactly why, the concept of Onam has got that exceptional radiance which is not eroded by the flow of time.

Onam is not just a cultural icon but over and above that, it is indeed the brightest star in the cultural firmament of Keralam. In our day to day world of   turmoil, restlessness and depressing events, Onam comes out of the horizon once an year, emanating the fragrance of a fresh jasmine bloom and  carrying a gift packet of peace, happiness and brotherhood. There are enough presents in the gift collection of our adorable Onathappan ( King Mahabali, the legendary king of Keralam on whose memory, the Onam is being celebrated) for every one, for individuals and society, for men and women, and for young and old, to make them forget all worries and rejoice exuberantly. Athacchamayam, Onappoovidal, Vallamkali, Onathallu, Onappattu, Pulikali, Kummattikkali, Onakkodi, Onasaddhya, —goes on and on the list of happiness recipes authored by the affectionate Onathappan.

Somewhere above I had indicated that Onam is a dream of ageless ambience. Yes, it is absolutely true. But what about the celebrations?  Seeing the kind of ‘user-friendly changes’ that are being sneaking into the celebrations as Trojan horses, one gets an ominous feeling about the amount of time that the dream-setting of  our favourite festival may be able to hold on. Let us, nevertheless, set aside all the negative sentiments and look matter of factly at the changes that have affected the Onam celebrations.

I think it was in the early Sixties, prior to our enchanting Land became God’s own country, that the Government had decided to take over the ‘responsibility’ of conducting the Onam celebrations, under the tourism development plan. (I wonder why the government and the self proclaimed secular intelligentsia are not ‘progressive’ enough to take over the responsibilities of celebrating Xmas or Ramzan).  And that marked the beginning of a series of changes aimed at to ‘democratise’ Onam festival. Industrial exhibitions, trade fairs, apt and inapt cultural shows, urban-centric celebration plans and official Onam functions replacing the traditional ceremonies are some of the ‘modernisation’ brush-strokes proffered by the successive governments belonging to a rainbow variety of political hues. It needs not to be mentioned that all these officially sponsored functions are generously sprinkled with political ‘bhashans’ to enhance their flavour. The government sponsorship also comes handy for politicians to cancel the whole celebration upon a tragic event so as to express their ‘love’ for the people.

There occurred many core changes in the celebrations at the individual level too. From Athappoovidal to welcoming Onathappan, many facets have already changed drastically including the Onam feast and the traditional Onam games, and many more are under the scanner of the modernisation brigade. It should also be mentioned here that a major fraction of this brigade is the self-styled tourism developers. As this article is not intended to go deep into all the above aspects, we would only touch upon a limited number of affected areas in the following paragraphs.

Until recently, the gathering of flowers, from the residence compounds (it was immaterial, whether it was your house compound or some body else’s, since it was a collective efforts of the children from many families), from hedges and creeper-grown fences, as well as from the banks of the water-filled paddy fields and canals and the embankments of lotus-lined ponds, for the 10-day long flower decoration culminating on the Thiruvonam asterism was the prerogative exclusively of the children.  The enjoyment of that trekking with your friends in the country side searching for the traditional flowers like Thumpappove, Mukkuttippoovu, Chethippoovu, Arippoovu, Chembarathippoovu etc. was something one can never forget. Apart from the fun the children had from these ‘approved’ outings, they also gained a lot of practical knowledge in natural sciences. Unfortunately, today’s children have lost out on such and other social aspects which were part and parcel of the Onam celebration. The pressure from the school curriculum, curtailed Onam vacation, the demise of the joint family system, the need for going out of Kerala for the livelihood, ignorance about our traditions even among the adults etc. may be some of the reasons for such a state of affairs. Other than this is that people tend to buy fashionable flowers from the shops for the purpose and the reduction of open spaces even in the country side, where the conventional flowers can grow. Whatever may be the reason, today, the Poovidal has just another ritual with no fun. It has also become a serious affair with many competitions, prizes and involvement of lot of money.

Onakkodi ( Traditionally the distribution of new clothes to family members by the head of the family is an important part of the Onam celebration) and Onam feast are two other items which were being caught in the turbulence of the river of time and they are almost retired (hurt?) from the scene. The erstwhile landlordism in Kerala may be blamed rightly or wrongly for many things, but Onam used to bring out one of its better faces. On the day of Thiruvonam, the tharavad karanavar (head of the family), based on his and his family’s status in the society, would not show any negligence in providing new clothes and elaborate traditional feast to all the family members, relatives, dependents of the family, tenants and servants. Tenants and the servants on their part, bring vegetable items like banana bunch, yam, cucumber, ash gourd etc. according to their capacity, to the tharavad on the previous days, i.e. on Pooradam or Uthradam asterisms. Everybody from the Karanavar to the servant used to consider that it was his right to provide his might to the success of the festival celebration. As it was, there was no question of any inferiority feeling due to unhealthy comparison of contributions etc. On account of such local solidarity grouping based on individual capacity, Onam got evolved into fairly democratic in character, centuries before our politicians started dividing people on the basis of ‘democracy’.

Coming back to the present day, the Onakkodi is restricted to within the nuclear family as the new economic reality may not allow going much beyond that limit. In case of Onam feast, more often than not, it would be hotel ‘saddhya’ for many resident Keralites and even for those who are of the traditional mould, it is limited to the inevitable Payasam (a sweet dish) and a couple of unavoidable traditional dishes. For the non resident Malayalees, feast is when their ‘Kerala Samajams’ are ready to spread the wares, sometimes it might be after some months later!

Many of the traditional games associated to Onam are either enjoying the status of ‘extinct’ or are genetically muted so much so that their new avatars are unrecognisable with the originals. Kaikottikkali and thalappanthukali are out of circulation. (What we see in the name of ‘kaikottikkali’ in some cultural circuses is in fact a sham or of some unknown species. Kummattikkali and pulikali have graduated from the pure forms of innocent fun and enjoyment to the level of serious money spinners. When we come to the topic of vallamkali ( boat race – note the change: from ‘kali’ meaning fun, pastime or amusement, it has reached the level of race meaning competition ), to know the difference between Champakkulam or Aranmula vallamkali and the present day trophy races, one should ask the people of Kuttanadu!!

One of the new arrivals to the Tourist-Onam bandwagon is ‘Gajamela’ (procession of many decorated elephants in one row).  Onam greetings industry of both e- (internet) and postal varieties has been growing well. Another Onam based innovation, though with an eye on profits is the idea of special supplements published by the periodicals during Onam season. In fact, this was a trend started during the late Fifties. They have been major contributors to our Onam Saddhya of literature over the years. This is natural justice as the gifts of Onam to Malayalam literature have been considerable in the areas of idioms, terms, proverbs, folk songs, poems, stories etc. from time immemorial. “Kanam Vittum Onamunnanam” (Sell property rights, if required, to arrange Onam feast), ‘Onathallu’ (a game based on martial art),  “thannonam ponnonam” (Own Onam celebration is the best of all), ‘Onathappan’, ‘Onakkodi’ and ‘Onam nira’  are just a few samples. Like that, how many more terms, how many more idioms have emerged from the treasure trove of Onathappan! We must pray to him to continue his blissful dance of joy in our hearts forever.

 Let us wish all a Very Very Happy Onam! 

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