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Onam

- Mrs. Gauri Menon tells a story...
… of a prosperous and honest people ruled by a just king...
… of conspiracy, deception and intrigue that brought down the ruler...
…of the everlasting devotion of his erstwhile subjects to welcome him once a year.
A story in which gods resort to desperate tactics to protect their power and privileges!

Sravanotsavam or Onam celebrations coincide with the harvest season of the Malayalees.  There is a plentiful supply of paddy and bananas in abundance in every home or at least they should have.  The saying goes "Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam" - it is the best time of rejoicing for the young and the old alike.  Why? For the simple reason that everyone is looking forward to the arrival of their great benevolent ruler King Mahabali.  The weather is pleasantly sunny.  Songs are sung in praise of the deported monarch, recollecting how during his reign there was happiness everywhere, agriculture flourished, none had any sickness, vices such as dishonesty and unfaithfulness were unheard of.  In short, it was real Utopia on earth!  The ruler most sympathetic and sacrificial in his nature - living just for the prosperity and welfare of his people.  Anyone in need could approach him and never returned empty handed.  Then how come such a great king was so mercilessly sent down to the Pathala Loka, literally kicked down and that too by none other than the great protecting god - Vishnu himself?  At this point it would be interesting to trace the roots further down... whether you call it history or myth.

Suras and Asuras are two sets of beings constantly at war.  Interestingly they are cousins!  The Devas or Suras being the sons of Adhithi, and hence known as Adhithiyas.  While the Asuras were born to Dithi, the sister of Adhithi, came to be known as Daithas - the children of Dithi.  There were times when they all were minding their own affairs and did not fight.  As a matter of fact, in times of need Suras would approach Asuras, their cousins, for help as in the case of churning of the Milk Ocean... that is another story.  During one such fight, the Devas were utterly defeated by the Asuras.  Headed by their defeated king Devendra, the Suras fled from Swarga Loka.  Mahabali the great Asura king became the mighty ruler of the three worlds - Bhoomi, Swarga and Pathala.  The frustrated Devas had to do something.  They couldn't remain in recluse forever, being beaten was not the end of the world.  They approached the most benevolent god Siva.  But to Siva, Asuras are as dear as Devas and besides, how could Siva ever dream of hurting that great devotee of his - the illustrious and incomparable Mahabali?  Devendra knew better.  He headed towards Vaikundha, the abode of Vishnu and he consented to help the Devas.  Did Vishnu have a softer corner for Devas?  Here one has to remember the part played by the Devamatha Adhithi.  As a mother she was deeply upset at Devendra and his followers.  Following the advice of her husband Kasyapa Prajapathi began doing penance to Vishnu, the God of protection and he finally appeared before her.  Adhithi had two wishes.  Firstly she longed to have Vishnu born as her son and secondly to restore the lost kingdom to Devendra and Devas by vanquishing the mighty Asura king Mahabali.

It was the auspicious day in the first month of the year, Chingam, when the star was Sravana (Thiruvonam) and the thithi, Pournami (Full moon) when Vishnu took his fifth avathar of Vamana or Indranuja (being the younger brother of Devendra) as the son of Adhithi.  Hymns were sung by Rishis and Devas.  Adhithi was fortunate to have a glimpse of the most radiant Vishnu-roopa.  Quickly the figure of Vishnu transformed and there stood a young hermit Vamana, also known as Vadu- a real Brahmachari.

Brihaspathi, the Deva guru presented him with Brahma Sutra, the sacred thread, while his father Kasyapa gave Vamana his deer skin.  Bhoomi Devi gave him Koupeena (a sort of tight underwear!), Brahma gave a kamandalu (bowl for carrying holy water) and Vanaspathi, a Chatra (an umbrella made of palm leaves).

Being fully equipped as a young hermit Vamana appeared as a young hermit Vamana appeared by the side of the Yaga Sala of the great Mahabali.  Hearing about the most radiant Brahmachari, Mahabali rushed out to welcome him carrying Arghya and Padya (water for purifying face and feet). With folded hands Mahabali spoke to his honoured guest “O, Holy one, now I know that my Yaga is satisfactorily fulfilled, I am happy.  The prosperity of my subjects is assured.”  He requested the holy visitor to tell him all about himself and in particular the purpose of his visit.  “It is my honoured duty and joy to fulfil it, O, blessed sir, just tell me what you wish.”  With a serene smile Vamana bowed to Mahabali and said, “I am a lone hermit as you can see, wandering in search of a small plot of land where I could live and meditate.  Hearing about your generosity and greatness I have come to you.  Every where one hears only your praise, O, mighty king,” said Vamana.

Replied Mahabali, who was a grandson of Asura ruler Prahlada, one of greatest devotees of Vishnu, “O, noble sir, all that I am eager to hear is in what way could I help you.  Please don't hesitate, is it wealth, or precious gems and gold or a royal residence?  For that matter I would be the happiest man if you would reside in my palace, eternally or again could it be you need a vast area, a portion of my kingdom?"  Again the serene smile giving added radiance to his handsome face.

“My King,” he began, “your generosity is, as I have heard, incomparable.  But my requirement is trifle.  Can I have a space measuring three steps?  A plot I could measure with my foot.  I just want to do meditation in a secluded spot.”

The great ruler could not help smiling, being amused.  “Sir, forget it.  What would you do in such a tiny spot?  Do accept a vast area in any part of my kingdom.  This is a promise?  But Vamana was adamant.  “I told you, O, King, that is just the space I need.”

Hearing the final word of his esteemed guest, Mahabali had no choice other than ordering his Bringarakam to be brought - the bowl with a spout containing holy water or theertha.  Once the theertha is poured into the folded palms of the needy, it is understood that his or her wish stands fulfilled.  Sukracharya, the Kula Guru (guru of the clan) of the Asuras, who had all along been a silent witness to this drama, could no longer remain passive.  The saint had known from the very start the identity of the Vadu.

“O, my unsuspecting King, Sukracharya whispered in the king's ear, "this is no ordinary Brahmachari!  Do you not see the radiance of his face and form?  He is Vishnu who has come in disguise to protect the Devas.  Please, please don't make any promise.  He is here to destroy you and your kingdom.”

The words of the guru fell on deaf ears.  Had not the great King already given his word?  How could truth be defied?  Never.  To him truth was above everything.  Un-perturbed Mahabali declared, “If that is His will, I bow to it.”

With these words the noble king proceeded with his duty.  Sukracharya could not bear to see his beloved king ending up a recluse.  In a desperate attempt to save his king, the Guru changed himself into a small hard object and stationed himself in the spout of the Bringarakam, intending to block the flow of theertha into the folded hands of Vamana.  Quickly Vamana thrust the sharp end of darbha grass into the spout and lo!  Poor Sukracharya lost one of his eyes and in pain he moved out!  The great ruler had just one thought, fulfilling his word to Vamana and retaining one's honesty.  The hard object was no longer in the path, holy water flowed easily into Vamana's hands.  The next moment a gigantic form stood in the place of the youthful hermit.  With one foot, the earth was measured, with the other, the swarga loka.  Where was the space to place his foot for a third measuring?  Seeing Vamana's raised foot the great Mahabali said, "O, Lord, I understand everything.  All that is left as mine is just this body.  Place your foot on my head and bless me, so that I am able to keep my word."  Removing his crown, the incomparable monarch folded his hands in prayer and bowed his head.  In a flash then appeared king Prahlada on the scene to reassure his grandson Mahabali.  Vamana blessed both Mahabali and his grandfather Prahlada as they slowly disappeared into Pathala.  Prahlada thus witnessed one more Avathar of Vishnu!

As he was leaving behind everything of his, the great Mahabali had one request to make to Vishnu.  “O, Lord, I love my people and they love me.  Enable me to see them all happy and contended once every year."  The wish was granted.  The day Mahabali makes his visit every year is Sravana or Thiruvonam and people celebrate the day singing the praise of their beloved ruler, "Long live Maveli, the bringer of peace and happiness.”

Sravanotsavam reflects the joy and contentment of the harvest season.  The fields glowing with golden paddy grains and fruits and flowers in abundance.  The month is Chingam, the first month of the year.  The weather is pleasantly warm.  Onam celebrations begin with the day when the star is Atham (Hastha) and continues with increasing enthusiasm and excitement to Thiruvonam (Sravana) day.  On this auspicious day, the most benevolent king of Kerala, Maveli comes from Pathala (underworld) to ensure that his subjects are as happy as they were during his reign.  It is a time for rejoicing for the young and old, for the rich and poor, for isn't the King visiting each house and isn't the whole land one big family just waiting eagerly to welcome him?

The rising sun witnesses a lovely floral decoration in the porch of every single house.  It is the sole right of the adolescent girls, the making of the Pookkalam in lovely designs with of course young boys helping them, mainly to gather flowers the previous evening.  The most significant flower is that of the tiny Thumba plant (Lucas Aspera) and the flowers are equally tiny though they glitter in the soft rays of the sun.  It is because “Thumba Poo” is a favourite flower of Siva, and coming to think of it wasn't the great Mahabali a pious devotee of Siva as well!

An early bath and visit to the temple is a must and receiving the holy theertham and fragrant sandalwood paste and Thulasi leaves as prasadam.  In a buoyant atmosphere they plan the day, while at breakfast from Atham onwards the food is mainly steamed bananas with fried pappadam.  Interestingly none feels enough is enough when the same food is served up to Thiruvonam.  A swing would be then hung for the younger ones, while the adolescent girls and women gather in the hall after lunch for the traditional folk dance of Kerala namely Kaikottikkali (as it involves a lot of clapping of the hands).  Men might watch it or they could have their ways of entertainment like Thalapanthu or less vigorous indoor games such as Chathurangam (Chess).  Things vary a little in Namboodiri homes where men are not allowed to watch the activities of ladies.  Either way it is a superb time of enjoyment for women and adolescent girls.  All participate - young and old, maid or mistress.  There would be a feeling of unity and co-operation, the leading lady guiding the others.

I particularly remember one visit to the neighbouring illam (House of Namboodri).  Most women gather there after lunch as the women of that illam were proficient in singing and dancing.  I can still visualise that dainty elderly Namboodiri lady leading the singing in a sweet voice.  She was describing the bewilderment and agony of the Gopikas not seeing their Krishna in their midst in Vrindavana - asking each flower and plant if any of them saw Krishna, “Mulla mallike nalla malathi malla lochane undo kandu?”  Invariably songs are sung in praise of the great ruler Mahabali as well.

The festival gains importance acquiring a holy aura as Thiruvonam approaches.  On the day prior to Thiruvonam - the Utradam (Uttarashada) a sanctified area, either at the entrance of the house or just within the house is decorated in traditional design with loose rice paste.  An earthen or wooden Thrikkakkara appan or Mathevar (short for Mahadeva, Siva) is installed on a peedham with his sons, the rice paste decorating those forms as well.  A senior male and a young boy assisting him wearing new clothes after his bath starts the pooja, lighting the bronze lamps to convince the arriving Maveli of the plentiful ness.  Then there is Nira para (the huge measuring vessel with paddy heaped in it) on one side with pookkula (the inflorescence of the coconut palm).  All members of the family including the servants remain watching the pooja and praying.  After the pooja is over each applies the sandalwood paste on the forehead and flowers go in the hair and they share the eatables - Ada, Avil,.bananas etc. as prasadam, a sort of starter for the sumptuous breakfast to follow.  The lunch is equally grand, food being served on banana leaves.  One banana leaf with food is kept near the lit bronze lamp for Maveli, for isn't all this preparations mainly to welcome him?

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Kaikottikkali is on an elaborate scale, everyone is jubilant.  Dressed in the traditional gold-bordered mundu and Neriyathu with a lit bronze lamp in the centre of the circle.  Could there be a more jubilant day, full of joy and buoyancy!  With that sense of oneness with everyone and with Nature!  This is the supreme moment when that august, ever- benevolent king of ours is with us, at last!  And the song echoes everywhere:

“Maveli Nadu Vaneedum Kalam     Manusharellarum onnu pole…”

Coming back to the old story of august king Mahabali, whether myth or history, doubtless it adds a new zest in everyone's life, incites one to follow the good old ideals in life, developing broad-mindedness and being inspired by the dedication the great ruler showed.

Along with the poet, one could joyfully sing:

“Vaninnevam asuya  valarthi     Vazka maveli    mangalamoorthy..”

Long live Maveli, purveyor of peace and prosperity, inciting jealousy in the heavenly beings!

Did you know?

In a book titled Keralolpathi Kappana Krishna Menon narrates how the people of Kerala are in reality the descendants of a race that inhabited the mystery-shrouded Indus Valley.  When the area was escavated, researchers discovered that people who lived there were of Dravidian origin, had tolerably good living conditions, well constructed houses with proper drainage system and a language of their own.  How such a civilisation came to an abrupt end remains a mystery.  According to the author, their rulers were totally dedicated to the welfare of their subjects and that there was great prosperity until the last ruler was either slain or vanquished by the invading Aryans.  Leaving all their possessions, the people migrated southward and finally settled in the far end of the west coast.  With the High Ranges of the western ghats on one side and the formidable sea on the other, life must have appeared safe.  They loved their most benevolent ruler so much that they continued to cherish his memory, each taking a vow to lead a highly simple life, never wearing coloured clothes, bathing first thing in the morning, visiting temples with white wet clothes on and praying and praying for the return of their king sometime... in a rebirth?!  The habit continues to the day.  Is it that the vanquished ruler is identified as Mahabali?  Or could it be that both are one and the same being?  However that may be, the fact remains that we the Keralites are so very different from rest of Bharat in our ways of life.

In the first place, think of our Onam celebrations.  It is also the beginning of our New Year (Kolla varsham).  We celebrate the first month of the year, Chingam (August - September), when the sun is in Leo of the zodiac sign (Simha rasi), which happens to be the sun's house as well.  People of other states have their New Year at a time when the sun enters the zodiac sign Aries (Mesha rasi which is sun's house of exaltation (April - May), a few months earlier.  But don't we celebrate that day as well?  Yes we do, but In our own characteristic way.  With Vishukkani (the first object one sets eyes on waking up; usually a huge flat bronze vessel with gold or other coins, fruits, vegetables, a picture of Krishna, a small mirror, coconut leaves and plenty of golden Konna flowers on either side) and everyone wears brand new clothes and youngsters receive Vishu Kai Neettam, a gift, a silver coin generally.  Deepavali is a grand affair with hundreds of tiny lamps lit throughout India.  But in Kerala, though we know about its origin etc., the celebration part is left to others!  In earlier days, epics like Ramayana and Maha Bhagavatha would be read by a senior lady of the family and the story explained to the listening youngsters by a second lady.  Could it be the reason for the people of Kerala being the most educated among Indians?  Does that account for the words of none other than Swami Vivekananda, “I bow to you, women of Kerala”.  The occasion was in the fag end of the last century when Swami visited Calicut.  He was not only one of the greatest of our spiritual leaders but one who was highly interested in the education of women in particular.  He rightly claimed, “an educated mother means an educated family”.  Swami wanted to have a dialogue with a Kerala woman.  But them wasn't one woman who spoke English.  So Swami queried,  “Could there be one lady who could converse in Sanskrit?”  Indeed there were some and Swami desired to have a fifteen minute talk.  But the talk or dialogue continued lasting more than an hour and Vivekananda was impressed by their knowledge.

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