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Celebrating Onam in God’s own country

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					Celebrating Onam in God’s own country

Kerala – God’s Own Country. We Indians have come to associate the two together not because
we understand it from experience but because most of us have seen it advertised so often on
our television screens. But that does not mean that this title is inappropriate. On the contrary it
is the most befitting title that could have been bestowed upon this land. However, by
associating its Godliness with only its natural
beauty would only serve to keep us away from
the true source of its divinity. To
experience Kerala at its best there is no better
time than the 10-day festival of Onam.

Onam is an ancient festival and its importance is
both seasonal and religious. Seasonal, because it
celebrates the rice harvest season, and religious,
because its origins are deeply rooted in great
Indian mythology. Since this story is way too long, I’ll stick to mentioning just the occasion,
which is marked by this festival. It is believed that Keralasaw its golden period during the reign
of the mythical King Mahabali. He was very pious, generous and therefore loved dearly by all
his subjects. Due to certain circumstance, Lord Vishnu had to push King Mahabali into the great
oceanic underwater. However, since he had done no wrong he was granted lordship over the
oceanic underwater and was granted one wish. As a boon, King Mahabali asked Lord Vishnu to
grant him the opportunity to visit his subjects once every year. Onam came to be celebrated as
the time when King Mahabali’s departure preparations began in the underwaters and went on
till he had left and ascended to the heavens.

Irrespective of where you are in Kerala during these 10 days, you will not be able to escape the
celebrations, i.e. until unless you don’t decide to lock yourself up (and why would anyone want
to do that?). During the last 3 or 4 days of the festival even the schools and government offices
are officially shut down. Happy Holidays!! I chose to reside with a family in a 350-year-old
Portuguese guesthouse in Fort Cochi for the duration of the festival (Guess how cool was that!!)
The decision paid off really well. Firstly, it was wayyyyyyyyy cheaper and secondly, I got a first
hand experience (the guesthouse owners practically treated me like family. Very sweet of
them!).

Fort Cochi is not a part of mainland Cochi. It is a tourist destination a little away from the city
where all the Old Portuguese structures are located. It is a very small area in just 2 sq km that is
why I would suggest that if you choose to visit and stay there then hiring cycles would be your
best and cheapest option. That is what I did too; though I take no credit for it; the credit goes to
the guesthouse hosts whose in-depth knowledge of the vicinity helped make the entire trip a
very personal experience.




Now, to the festival. I should mention at the outset, that each of the 10 days has its own
significance and has its own rituals, each different from the rest of the days. Trying to mention
them all in detail would be like compiling a thesis, which I have not the mind to write, and you,
no strength to read J Therefore I’ll only mention the highlights and what were the major
attractions that were a part of my itinerary.

One of the first things I noticed at the beginning of the festival was the beautiful flower
decoration (more like northern Rangoli but only made with flowers) made by the host’s
daughters in the courtyard of the house. It is called a Pookalam and is initially made with
flowers of only one colour but as the festival progresses layers are added with different
coloured flowers. The artistry that goes into making and planning a Pookalam design is
astonishing. This you won’t be able to miss even if you wanted to. The other thing being, that
they installed two statues
of Vamana (Lord Vishnu’s incarnation in
KingMahabali’s time) and King Mahabali at
the entrance of the house. What follows for
the next 3 to 4 days is very similar to what is
done during Diwali in north India - cleaning
of the house, loads of shopping (mainly
clothes and jewellery) and Pookalam making
competitions. All this in addition to the
famous snake boat race. I couldn’t catch the
snake boat race, during this visit because it only takes place in areas situated in the famous
backwaters ofKerala. On the seventh day the local administration illuminates the entire city
with lights and fireworks. The famous Ona Sadya (Onam special buffet lunch) starts in several
places and temples along with Puli Kali (masked leopard dance) & other traditional dances on
this very day. It is on this day that the festivities reach a high. The statues of Vamana and
King Mahabali are cleaned and taken around the house in a procession and then placed in the
center of Pookalam on the eighth day. The ninth day is the eve of Onam and is also called the
First Onam. It is believed that this is the day when KingMahabali descends upon them. This is
the day when all the Keralites go on a shopping frenzy and the preparation for the
Grand Onam Buffet for the 10th and final day is also done on the evening of this day.
On the morning of the final day, I saw my hosts smearing the main entrance with rice-flour
batter. Upon asking I was told, that the 10th day is considered the day when King Mahabaliwas
pushed into the underwaters and also the day of his resurrection. Therefore, they do this as a
traditional welcome sign for him into their houses. On this day they bathe early in the morning,
dress up in new clothes and distribute alms to the needy. You would be surprised to know that
not only the temples but the mosques and the churches too organise prayers on this day for the
masses. Later on in the day, there is a feast like no other. Even an average household can, most
of the time, have over 30 dishes prepared for the banquet that is incredibly delicious! At night
there is a fabulous display of fireworks just like Diwali and various communities engage by
playing traditional Onam games. This is how the festival comes to an end. However, on the next
day everybody submerges their idol in nearby river or sea and the Pookalam is cleared.

What I got from the entire experience can be summed up in the next few lines. Travel
aficionado or not, if anyone can manage to stay for the entire festival then your senses will be
buzzing for so long and your travel appetite filled to such an extent that you wouldn’t want be
anywhere else but home. Home, in God’s own country.



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Description: Onam is an ancient festival and its importance is both seasonal and religious. Seasonal, because it celebrates the rice harvest season, and religious, because its origins are deeply rooted in great Indian mythology. Since this story is way too long, I’ll stick to mentioning just the occasion, which is marked by this festival. It is believed that Keralasaw its golden period during the reign of the mythical King Mahabali. He was very pious, generous and therefore loved dearly by all his subjects. Due to certain circumstance, Lord Vishnu had to push King Mahabali into the great oceanic underwater. However, since he had done no wrong he was granted lordship over the oceanic underwater and was granted one wish. As a boon, King Mahabali asked Lord Vishnu to grant him the opportunity to visit his subjects once every year. Onam came to be celebrated as the time when King Mahabali’s departure preparations began in the underwaters and went on till he had left and ascended to the heavens.