Thursday, 26 September 2013

Hridayam niranja onashamsakal

Amidst sharing my honeymoon travel experience, I’d like to come back to Melbourne and share a little bit about my experience in town.

Friday the 13th of September (oops, didn’t mean to scare you there!), Sid and I planned to catch up with our friend, Ajay, who just came back from his hometown Calicut the previous week. Ajay always tells us stories of how beautiful Kerala is. I have also heard a lot about Kerala and would definitely love to go there one day. So, as we were eating away in a cafe that had a 6-week Kerala dinner special on the menu, along with few small gifts from India including a pretty little clutch purse, Ajay also brought us a handful of stories from back home. And I just found myself whining about how the clutch would go so well with an Indian outfit. Ajay was clearly missing home despite having been back for merely a week. Ah well, home is home that will always be missed no matter where you go. He was also regretting the fact that he left at the same time an annual festival was about to start, the festival of Onam. This conversation ended on a full stomach and we decided to head back home. The next morning, Sid and I got a message in our group chat with Ajay. He had sent us a photo about an Onam celebration in Melbourne and only wrote, “An excuse to wear your Indian outfit!” Of course, neither Sid nor I knew much about this festival. I was reading more about it online and it seemed very interesting. With that, we decided to join Ajay for the Onam Festival which was to be held on the 15th of September.

Sunday morning was a beautiful and bright morning. Looking pretty wearing Indian for the first time in Melbourne, I hopped onto the car with a lot of excitement. Sid drove for about forty minutes till we reached our destination. The Melbourne Malayalee Federation had organised an Onam celebration in Springvale Town Hall. We reached at 12 noon and the place was still quiet. There was a beautiful flower arrangement at the entrance of the hall. 

I could see a stage and unoccupied seats in the hall. Most of the women wore beautiful traditional sarees and many men in their kurtas and dhotis. Slowly, the hall was filling up. The committee was preparing for the Sadya, the vegetarian feast served on a banana leaf. Everyone was happily waiting in line for this feast. We were probably in the first round of people to be seated in this long rectangular dining table. Glad we got into the line when it was initially formed as it got longer and longer each minute. The moment I was seated, an artificial banana leaf was already on the table. Half a banana, some chips, a few types of chutneys and small assorted vegetables and pappadam were served at the beginning. Soon, the committee members started walking around serving rice, sambhar with lots of veggies, ghee and yoghurt curry. It was amazing. My palates were pleased. The food was delicious and it kept coming. Truly a feast!!

Once we were done hogging, the next round of diners was ready to take their seats. We were anxiously waiting for the programme to start. When it did start, we were entertained by some singers that took the stage. I was waiting for something more extravagant. Then, I saw some lovely little girls all dressed up in their sarees carrying flowers standing by the entrance. There was about to be a procession. Cameras started rolling as the procession started. Men in animal costumes proceeded into the hall escorted by a group of drummers. This particular item is called Pulikkali. They were welcoming a King, his name was King Mahabali. Apparently, I found out that this was a play depicting the story behind the whole purpose of the Onam Festival. A king that was banished yet had the chance of visiting his subjects once a year to see how happy they were. Interesting!!!

This procession continued till they reached the stage and continued to play on. Next up was a beautiful classical Kerala dance performed by some teenage girls. I don’t really know which dance it was. A few common dances performed at Onam festivals include Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal etc.

This festival was so enticing for me. I love learning the culture of different people. I myself am a Sindhi and am not familiar with many Indian festivals. I decided then and there that I would write a blog about this festival. I went through a few resources online to help me understand this wonderful festival. I was eager to learn more about this and share this precious experience on my blog. I owe a big thanks to Wikipedia and for providing great explanations regarding Onam. I also owe an apology to the people of Kerala if I have depicted any of the following facts wrongly. Ok, so here goes.........................

Onam, is a harvest festival celebrated by the people of Kerala, India. It has been celebrated for a very long time. It usually falls somewhere between August and September. This auspicious festival lasts for 10 days and includes a variety of rituals. Why do they celebrate Onam?

Well, to cut a long story short, Onam is a festive time which commemorates the annual visit of King Mahabali, a generous leader of Kerala depicted in the Hindu scriptures. It was said that he reigned pretty well, and was highly respected by his subjects. He loved them and would make sure every one of them was HAPPY! Amazing, isn’t it? It was Kerala’s golden era where everyone lived together in peace and harmony. Equal rights were given to each and every one. There was no sort of discrimination at all. They were all seriously happy. As a king, Mahabali knew that it was his duty to make sure his subjects got whatever they needed.

Of course we’ve all heard the saying, “Nobody’s perfect! Not even Mahabali!” Right? Well, ok, I might have tweaked that a little. There was one shortcoming about this King. Like many other legendary emperors, he was eager to conquer the whole universe, the earth, the heavens and even the underworld. He became a threat to the Gods. The Gods decided to pull a trick on Mahabali. Lord Vishnu, in disguise of course, managed to trick Mahabali into defeat. He was to be banished but he requested for one thing and that was to be able to visit his people once a year to see to their welfare. His request was granted and ever since that time, the people of Kerala would welcome their King every year with a splendid harvest which finally became known as the Onam Festival.

Since the subjects of Mahabali loved him dearly, each year, his visit was welcomed by an array of joyous and vibrant celebrations. It indeed was a season to be jolly. A flower carpet called “Pookalam” was laid in front of every house to welcome their king and they would prepare grand feasts called the “Onam Sadhya” in his honour.

In present time, the people of Kerala still celebrate Onam auspiciously every year during harvest time where everything appears to be full of life. There are a lot of rituals that occur in ten days. Let me tell you in short what happens in these ten days.

Day one – Atham
This is one of the most important days of the Onam Festival. People take early bath and offer prayers in the local temple. There is also a set breakfast consisting of steamed bananas and fried pappadam (pappad). This breakfast remains the same till the tenth and the last day of Thiru Onam. A swing decked with flowers is also slung from a high branch and youngsters take great delight in swinging and singing Oonjal (swing) songs. This is also the day when they start making the beautiful flower arrangements of Pookalam which turns out more beautiful by the day. A grand procession called Athachamyam is also carried on the day of Atham to mark the beginning of the grand carnival of Onam. Elephant processions, folk art presentations, music and dancing make Athachamyam a spectacular event.

Day two – Chithira
The ladies continue their fervent work on the Pookalam to make it more and more beautiful by adding more flowers. A lot of preparation is done starting from this day onwards for the upcoming rituals.

Day 3 – Chodhi
You can start seeing the hype in the streets of Kerala where everyone starts to crowd the market places to do their shopping for gifts and other Onam accessories.

Day 4 – Visakam
As the women adorn themselves with beautiful traditional attire, they continue their intricate work of the Pookalam and start preparing for the big Sadya feast.

Day 5 – Anizham
The fifth day is quite interesting as a grand Boat Race is held. You will see hundreds of men in their dhotis and turbans competing to win this race.

Day 6 – Thriketa
Although there are no special rituals for this day, every one can be seen joyously gathering and attending cultural events as they prepare for the peak of the festival.

Day 7 – Moolam
Everything is becoming grander. You will see beautiful colours brightening up the houses, streets and market places. The spirit of happiness is clearly evident. In my opinion, within these days of preparing for the big tenth day, people do things that make them happy and thus the joy builds up and bursts on the last unforgettable day of the Onam Festival.

Day 8 – Pooradam
This day is a significant day as devotees create clay idols in the shape of small pyramids called a Ma. These figures are then decorated with flowers. Arrangements of the last day are ongoing and everyone starts cleaning their homes as well. Families and friends start visiting one another to bid warm Onam greetings.

Day 9 – Uthradam
On the day of Utradam tenants and dependents of Nayar Tarawads (traditional large joint families sharing a common kitchen) bring produce of their farms or the product of their toil to the Karanavar (eldest member of the Tarawad). These gifts from the tenants to the Karanavar are called Onakazhcha. Karanavar greets these people warmly and treats them with a sumptuous meal on Thiru Onam. Village artisans also bring their handicrafts to the Karanavar and are graciously rewarded.

Day 10 – Thiruvonam
Thiruvonam Aashamsakal ! The enchanting state of Kerala reverberates with the chants of Onaashmsakal, "To everyone, Onam Wishes" as people exchange warm greetings of the occasion on the tenth and the most important day of the carnival of Onam. People believe that it is on Thiru Onam that the spirit of legendary King Mahabali visits the state of Kerala.

Activities begin early in the morning. People clean their house, take early bath, wear new clothes and participate in special prayers organised in individual homes and then in local temples. Later a very special and the biggest of all days Pookalam is prepared to welcome Maveli. Clay mounds in the shape of pyramids representing Lord Vishnu and Mahabali are prepared and placed in front of the Pookalam.

In the noon the grand feast of Onam called Onasadya is prepared. The strictly vegetarian meal consists of 11 - 13 mandatory dishes and is served on a banana leaf. The eldest member of the family presents gifts and new clothes to the family members.

Various cultural events are organised all over the state to mark the day. Dances, games, shows and get together are the other highlights of the day. Patassu (fire crackers) are also burnt to celebrate the occasion.

There are some rituals also marked for the eleventh and twelfth day called Avittom and Chatayam or Chathayam respectively. But the major celebrations get over on the tenth and the most important day of Onam.

Well, that sums up my study and research of Onam in a very general outline. Hopefully I can partake in the celebrations in Kerala one day. A festival that teaches me that happiness can be very much elaborated as it is already within us. Happiness is a spirit!

Hridayam niranja onashamsakal (Happy Onam)

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