Some things about the way Onam is celebrated has changed while certain other things remain the same

Onam has changed over the years. But the spirit of the season and colours of celebration remain the same. “Onam finds mention in the Malabar Manual written by British collector William Logen and in the ancient script Madhuraikanchi written by Mankudi Maruthanar in 200 A.D.,” says Malayinkeezh Gopalakrishnan, veteran journalist and historian. The season, as always, revives treasured memories of fun and festivities.

Malayalam novelist and academician George Onakkoor, born and brought up in Thrikkakara and Thripunithura, has been living in the city for the past 40 years. He remembers: “The city has always had the rustic charm and rich heritage that’s generally associated with temple towns. Back in those days, Onam meant self-sufficiency, with each and every household ready for the festivities with home-grown vegetables, pookkalams made of flowers sourced from their own garden and locally woven onappudavas. Now discount sales, shopping sprees, and traffic blocks mark Onam in the city, thanks to the effects of consumerism. Of late, though, the effort of the Department of Agriculture to promote vegetable cultivation in homes seems to be a positive step in recreating the Onams of the past.”

Archery contests

Gopalakrishnan, meanwhile, recalls an Onam festivity that used to be held in the city: “At Onapadanilam, situated at old Sreekandeswaram temple, opposite what is now SMV school, men took part in archery contests during Onam season. It always attracted huge crowds.”

The ‘niraputhari’ in temples, the offering of the bountiful harvest after the incessant rain, marks the beginning of the Malayalam month of Chingam.

Once upon a time, clear skies; ‘Ona nilavu’ – the refreshing nip in the air and the time when nature is washed green by the Monsoon; the common picture wing a.k.a. the Onathumpi, which appears in fields during the month of August; the Onapakshi – migratory yellow oriole – often seen during Onam, flowers in vibrant colours, bananas ripened yellow, fields lush with all sorts of vegetables, rope swings tied on sturdy trees… were all harbingers of Onam.

However, the signs of Onam have changed with time. It is pookkalams and Mavelis in commercial advertisements that now herald the arrival of Onam!

More than a celebration by individual households, Onam has now become a celebration of society as a whole. Once Chingam begins, the festive mood begins and it’s a time for Onam contests, Onasadyas, fun and gaiety. Often most people end up celebrating Onam more than once – with family and relatives and with friends and colleagues.

Even the pookkalam has undergone a change. Once upon a time these floral carpets used to be simple designs made of indigenous and traditional flowers such as Thumbapoo, Aripoo, Kakkappoo, Krishnakireedom, Kumbalam, Mukkutti, Mathan, Ixora, and Thulasi. Nowadays, flowers sourced from the neighbouring States by the truckload, are used to fill the pookkalams, which have now become complex works of floral art.

Like always, wearing and gifting Onakodi has also remained an integral part of the celebration. Along with this, ‘manjakodi’, a small yellow piece of hand-woven cloth, is also in demand during the season. Most of the manjakodi available are woven by traditional weavers residing in and around Balaramapuram. The traditional weaver families at Chaliartheruvu were associated with the royal family of erstwhile Travancore.

Traditional weavers

“The work on ‘manjakodi’ starts eight to 10 months prior to Onam,” says Prasannakumar, a handloom expert based in Balaramapuram.

“Interestingly, the system wherein weavers pledge manjakodi in lieu of gold in times of necessity, prevails. The traditional kasavu mundu (dhoti) woven in this area of the district is retailed in major shops in the city,” he adds.

Yet another symbol of Onam is the swing. In the olden days tough, strong vines of Plachi, Korandi, and Odal became swings during the Onam season. Later, it was replaced by swings tied between coconut and arecanut palms.

Nowadays, swings are be found on almost every college campus and park.

Keywords: Onam festivity