History & Culture

Crafting an Onam tradition

Craftsmen giving final touches to 'Onavillu', a ceremonial bow that is offered to the deity of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple as part of the annual rituals during Onam festival season in Thiruvananthapuram.

Craftsmen giving final touches to 'Onavillu', a ceremonial bow that is offered to the deity of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple as part of the annual rituals during Onam festival season in Thiruvananthapuram.   | Photo Credit: C.RATHEESH KUMAR

Consecrating hand-crafted Onavillu — ceremonial bows — at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram is an Onam tradition that dates back to time immemorial

Among the vast, magnificent collection at Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, is a unique item that is kept in storage. The ‘item,’ a wooden bow stave, painted and lacquered with pictures of the incarnations of Vishnu, was presented to the East India Company, in 1855, by the Maharaja of erstwhile Travancore. The painted wooden bow, transferred to the V&A collection from the India Museum in 1879, is undoubtedly a fine specimen of the Onavillu, a ceremonial artefact unique to Travancore.

The practice of consecrating Onavillu a.k.a. Pallivillu at Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in the Malayalam month of Chingam, corresponding with the festival of Onam, has been in vogue from time immemorial. An early record from 1502 A.D. mentions one Mathevan Kumaranaya Achari who made the Pallivillu for the temple. Some of the later records also mention various privileges enjoyed by the clan of craftsmen, who carried forward the tradition that is confined to close family circles. But apart from the temple records very little information is available, from other literary sources, about this ancient practice.

The legend behind the bow

The craftsmen conducting special poojas before taking the Onavillu to Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple

The craftsmen conducting special poojas before taking the Onavillu to Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple   | Photo Credit: Sharat Sunder Rajeev

The tradition of consecrating the Onavillu in Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, according to the traditional craftsmen, has a colourful legend behind it, linking it to Mahabali, the legendary Asura king, and the Onam festival. Legend has it that when Vamana, the dwarf incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was about to push Mahabali down into the depths of patala (the subterranean realms of the universe), the king implored Vishnu for a vision of all his divine incarnations. Vishnu granted him the boon but Mahabali would see his incarnations only in a painted form.

Lord Viswakarma, the supremo of arts and crafts and the legendary ancestor of all the craftsmen, was tasked with painting all the 10 incarnations of Vishnu on a ceremonial bow. This bow was put up every year during Onam when Mahabali returned from patala to meet his subjects.

The work on the Onavillu commences with a special pooja by the craftsmen who observe strict vrata (fasting) for 41 days. Wood from kadambu, mahogany, jackfruit, aanjili and maruthu trees, abundantly available in Kerala, are used to fashion the bows. The bow-shaped wooden panels are made in three sizes and the flat face of the wooden bow is made smooth to paint the figures of the Gods.

Types of Onavillu

Dasavatharam Villu (detail), showing the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu, from the V&A Collection.

Dasavatharam Villu (detail), showing the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu, from the V&A Collection.   | Photo Credit: Sharat Sunder Rajeev

Ananthasayanam, Dasavatharam and Sree Krishna Leela were the three bows that were traditionally consecrated in the temple. In 1994, a new bow depicting Sree Rama Pattabhishekam was also dedicated in the shrine of Lord Rama and the tradition continues till date. Further, in 2010, two new bows for Lord Sastha and Lord Ganesha were added to the lot. “The main idol in Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple shows the Lord reclining on the coils of Anantha, the divine serpent, with his eyes half closed in Yoganidra or the yogic trance. In contrast, on the Onavillu, Sree Padmanabhaswamy is portrayed in Veerashayana, with his eyes open and face turned towards the onlooker,” says Binkumar, the head of the Vaniyanmoola Vilayil family associated with the making of the Onavillu.

The red kunchalam (tassels) tied on both sides of the bow is made by convicts housed in the Poojappura Central Jail, a tradition that dates back to the late nineteenth century.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 2:14:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/onavillu-and-its-historical-significance/article19545264.ece

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