Onam is the festive highlight of the first month of the Malayalam calendar. Chingam(August-September) is the time of harvest in Kerala. After the rain drenched Karkidakam with its privations, Chingam is a welcome month of plenty. This is celebrated with traditional malayalee fervour with family get-togethers and gifting each other clothes, called Ona-kkodi. The traditional ona-kkodi is yellow in color. According to some Oanm authorities this is a sign of Buddhist influence in Kerala.
The Ona-sadya, or Onam feast as it may be inadequately translated, is matter of much rice and grams and vegetables eaten with the hand on a plantain leaf. (The leaf is not eaten). An old saying goes "Kaanam vittum onam unnanam". This refers to two things. One is kaanam, which one presumes was the staple diet during the bad month of Karkidakam. The other is an exhortion to spend even your last resource to be merry during Onam. Attitude!!
Onam is about nostalgia. All malayalees are well endowed with the talent to go nostalgic at the drop of a hat. Nostalgia about one's own childhood, and the pristine Onam of those days. Nostalgia about one's family and the jolly reunions when all the fellows were within travelling distance. Nostalgia about Kerala, about the benign if foolish 'emporer' Maha Bali. So why is Kerala in such bad straits now? 'Cause our good old king Bali was over generous. And very gullible.
Onam has been around for a long time. Apparently it used to be celebrated during the early Sangam period in the first few centuries C.E. During this period it was celebrated in parts of Pandya kingdom as well). Onam festivities have been recorded during the time Kulasekhara Perumals (800 C.E.). In those days Onam used to be a full month long.
Onam is founded on many stories and legends. The one most commonly associated with onam is that of Maha Bali (The great Bali).
The legend of Mahabali and Vamana lends a macabre backdrop to the festival.
Bali was a king of Kerala. Did I hear someone say , there was no Kerala during those days, that Kerala was formed only in 1956? Hush!! No questions, please. Let us get back to the story. Bali carried the virtue of giving gifts to staggering extremes. He was a good ruler, so the story goes. The land was plentiful and the people happy.
This irked some of those superior beings who go under the applelation of Devas. Persuaded by them, Lord Vishnu took the diminutive form of Vamana, a brahmin kid. Vamana approached Bali and asked for three steps of land Bali granted his request against the explicit advice of his technical advisor, guru, a tradition the goverments in Kerala have followed without fail ever since. Vamana covered the heavens and the earth and all known land with two steps. ((Don't ask me how this may be reconciled with cosmology). Having run out of places to put his foot down, Vamana placed his last step on the head of Bali and pushed him somewhere into the nether world.
Vamana was not entirely merciless. As a parting gift Maha Bali was granted permission to vist his old kingdom once a year. The subjetcs of the Great Bali celebrate his anuual visit as Onam.
This poignant story has been interpreted in many ways. Some believe it symblolizes the Aryan conquest of Kerala. It also has a pathetic touch of nostalgia of a people who know nothing but hardship and oppression in daily life, have nothing much to hope about in the future and console themselves that things cannot have been so bad all the time.
In case this story is not gory enough, in north Kerala, Onam is associated with the bloodsport called Mamankam. But more about that some other time.
The festival is now officially a week long, a far cry from its gloriuos 28-day past. From the time Onam was recognized as a national festival in 1961, governments in Kerala have celebrated Onam with great pomp. More pomp than the State can afford, at times.
But the Onam, like tradition, is not what it used to be. Thala-pandu-Kali, and Kuttiyum-Kolum are now nearly extinct as forms of sport. Kayyam-kali, which means fisticuffs, of course remains, and not just on Onam days. The entertainments now associated with Onam, like Puli-kali apparently are not even indigenous to Kerala. The blare of amplifiesr with 1000s of watts of musical power, are distinctly not part of traditional onam.
This calendar system was begun on Chingam 1, 825 A.D. which happened to be 15-th of August (some do not agree with this date). Many stories surround the commencement of kolla-varsham. I like this one best.
Udaya Marthanda Varma was king of Kerala around the year 825 A.D. I said "around the year 800 A.D." because nothing is known about his majesty other than the fact that he founded a new Era. The time was 3926 years into the Kali Yug. The afore-mentioned monarch called a council of his elders in Kollam and after much deliberation it was resolved to adopt 15-August-825 A.D. as the first day of the new Kollam Era. Five years later Udaya Marthanda Varma died.
Nothing is known about who succeeded him to the throne just as nothing is known about who preceded him. That is the staggering part of the story. Here is a person who probably never existed, but founded a new Era all the same. Thank you very much.
The kollam era has also been associated with the story of Cheraman Perumal and his embarkation for Mecca. It must be pointed out that the existance of Cheraman Perumal as a real person outside of legends has been questioned, along with the whole idea of the Perumals
Others claim that Kollam era was founded in memory of Sankaracharya. It has also been claimed as comemmorating the founding of a christian community at Kollam.
This stuff is free(written during the onam of 2000). You may copy any or all the ideas contained herein. If you are generous enough, please mention the source as keralainfoService
Refer Travancore State Manual, Ch:XIII,pages 49-50, by Sadasyathilaka Sri.T.K.Velu Pillai, born 28-Feb-1882, died 20-Sep-1950
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