The Return of The King

One of the main festivals of Kerala, Onam celebrates an ancient legend with a grand display of tradition, culture and cuisine, says Sudipto De

The tiger looks at me ferociously! Its ears are flared, its eyes blood-shot and its jaws menacingly open with the sharp canines bared in all their glory. Then, it jiggles, breaking into an impromptu dance. Around me several such tigers are dancing – people wearing tiger masks and their bodies brightly painted to resemble the big cat. The air is filled with rhythmic beats of traditional drums, also known as chenda, announcements being made in Malayalam and the chatter of excited onlookers. It’s atham, the first day of the 10-day Onam festival (this year the festival tentatively begins from September 10), the time of the year when every home in Kerala celebrates the glorious homecoming of the mythical king Mahabali or Maveli; when every home is decorated with flowers and traditional meals are shared with friends and family. Though primarily a harvest festival, today, Onam is a celebration of the state’s rich folk forms, culture and traditions.

The folk arts

On the street, the dancers continue with pulikali (performance of people dressed as tigers), as elaborate and vibrant tableaux follow. From dancers decked up as Lord Shiva to Goddess Lakshmi sitting on an open lotus – imagery is drawn from mythology and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.

I am in Tripunithura, a small town about an hour away from tourist hotspot Kumarakom, to witness athachamayam, the extravaganza that marks the beginning of Onam. Legends say the king of Kochi used to walk from Tripunithura to the Vamanamoorthy temple in Thrikkakara (around 10 km away), which is where the Onam celebrations originated. Athachamayam retraces the king’s footsteps.

After the floats, a group of masked dancers donning sprigs of leaves and grass, and matching steps to the tunes of the onavillu (an indigenous folk bow instrument) arrives. It is kummattikkali, a masked dance popularly performed in the northern districts of Kerala. What sets this particular indigenous art form apart is its unique colourful costume. As the group of eight dancers inches closer, I notice a character donning the mask of an old woman, leading the troupe. This character is called the thalla or witch.

Children, laughing and excited, stand in front of homes, clapping as the performers pass by. The courtyard of every home is decorated with pookkalam (flower arrangements on the ground) – some small but most, strikingly elaborate. In some backyards, swings have been put up, on which children play, as the elderly prepare sadya, a vegetarian meal savoured during Onam.

As the procession moves ahead, led by a person dressed as the king, weaving its way through neighbourhoods, people in all their finery join in. I realise the extravaganza offers a glimpse of all the folk art forms of the state.

The legend

Folklore says Kerala was once ruled by the benevolent and righteous asura (demon) king Maveli. Under him, the kingdom flourished so much that even the gods were envious of him. Seeing this, Lord Vishnu came to Maveli as Vamana, and requested the king for three feet of land. When the time came to measure the area of land, Vamana expanded to such a size that he covered the entire world in two steps. Maveli, seeing that Vamana had no land left to place his third step, offered his head. Vamana placed his foot on the king’s head, pushing him to patal (nether world). But pleased with the king’s generosity, Lord Vishnu revealed himself and granted Maveli a chance to visit his beloved kingdom and subjects one day every year. This day is observed as Onam.

The feast

As the drum beats of the procession fade away, I take the road back to Kumarakom. At a heritage homestay where I am lodging, I am invited to join the family for the traditional meal of sadya. As I sit cross-legged on the floor, the green banana leaf in front of me gets completely covered with portions of food – steadily and in sequence. First come the pickles, then the papad or poppadoms, followed by flavourful curries made with seasonal vegetables including yam, cucumber, ash gourd and others, and a ladle-full of parboiled Kerala matta (an indigenous variety of rice grown in the Palakkad district of the state) with a dollop of ghee. Then arrive sambar and rasam (soup-style traditional dishes), along with banana chips and sharkkaravaratti (fried pieces of raw plantain coated with jaggery). This feast, or onasadya, is a vegetarian meal comprising over 20 dishes. I end my meal with ripe bananas and sweet payasam.

The importance of this feast during Onam is aptly captured in the Malayali proverb “kaanam vittum onam unnanam” which roughly translates to “one must have the Onam lunch even if he is forced to sell his property”. This feast traditionally consists of nine courses, dominated by vegetables that are part of the new harvest. But in many places, it can be a complex 15 to 20-course affair, especially in Travancore, where it can extend to nearly 30 dishes.

The races

The entire state celebrates Onam, but the highlight of this festival are the boat races held in the famed backwaters. There are many boat races or vallamkali that are organised around this time – with the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, held in Punnamada lake in Alappuzha, being the most famous. The others are Uthradam Thirunal Pamba boat race (this year on September 10) in Neerattupuram, Alappuzha; Payippad boat race (this year on September 13) at the Payippad backwaters, Alappuzha; and Aranmula boat race (this year on September 15) in Aranmula, Pathanamthitta.

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