The abiding lore and spirit of Onam

Mohamed Nazeer
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Festivals often conjure up lore that we think did enliven the pristine agrarian societies of the bygone ages. Whether or not the past was as splendid as we imagine it was, Onam is an occasion for people to rekindle their sense of an Arcadian past, no matter the contemporary spirit of festivity is sustained by factors that have to do with our modern tastes.

A festival of prosperity and plenitude that follows the month of Karkitakam, traditionally treated as a month of penury and disease, Onam still triggers heady days of revelry and festivity, however shopping-oriented and government-sponsored that may be. As the years pass by, the customs and rituals that once thrilled the rural folk are bound to either assume different meanings or even go extinct.

Parts of Kannur and Kasaragod districts, traditionally known as Kolathunadu, have their own assortment of distinctive festivals and rituals whose origins are traced to agriculture activities of the past. Many of these rituals, performed to propitiate local deities to bring fertility and prosperity, have lost their significance as vast expanses of paddy fields and men and women who once reaped the harvest have either long disappeared or fast disappearing.

Vannan community

A Theyyam form that was once popular in parts of the two districts is ‘Onathar,' believed to have originated from the myths related to the Onam festival. Onathar is played by children from the Vannan community as a folk version of the Onathappan (Mahabali). The Theyyam is taken out to the accompaniment of song and dance and it visits households in villages on Uthradam and Thiruvonam days as a replay of the myth of Mahabali visiting houses to see if his subjects are prosperous. With a small headgear and lighter costumes and facial make-up, Onathar carries a bell in his right hand and a small bow in the left. The accompanying song states that Onathar comes not merely to see things in far-off places and to accept bounties but also to ward off evil spirits.

“This Theyyam is almost extinct as its ritual performance is seen in one or two places in the region during the Onam season,” says V. Jayaraj, director of Folkland, a Thrikkarippur-based initiative for promoting folk culture. School-going children from the Vannan community are nowadays least interested in volunteering to perform the ritual, he adds. Dr. Jayaraj says that some variations of Onathar are found in neighbouring areas. They are known by names Oneswaran or Onapottan, with headgear and facial make-up not very dissimilar.

“This Theyyam like other Theyyams such as Aadi and Vedan, performed during the Karkitakam month invariably by children, were once seen as performances that gave children opportunities for being initiated into the art of Teyyan ritual,” Dr. Jayaraj points out.

Onam season in the region is often associated with creativity as weavers and potters go for excess production to cater to increased demands for their products during the season. Handloom fairs these days are an integral part of the spirit of Onam festivities in the region where weaving is a deep-rooted tradition. It can be seen as something that resonates the ‘Ona neithu' practised by the Chaliya community, a traditional weaver caste in the region. The practice refers to hectic weaving activity among the Chaliyas for weaving cloth to meet increased demand. Whatever the significance of the ritualistic festivals, customs and practices, they all draw on the basic human urge for prosperity and fertility and general well-being, whether or not they continue to have relevance.

Mohamed Nazeer

The region traditionally known as Kolathunadu, has distinctive festivals and rituals connected to agriculture.

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