Onam traditions give way

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, AUG. 30. For Malayalis, wherever they are, `Thiruvonam', which falls on August 31 this year, is an occasion to commemorate a mythical past of plenty and prosperity.

However, even in Kerala, `God's Own Country', traditions and customs associated with Onam for centuries are changing because of consumerism. Villages and towns, no doubt, have been in the grip of the Onam fever since the Atham day (August 22).

But more than the traditional aura, what stands out now is the spectacle of the State being transformed into an extended market place, where people throng looking for goods on sale at `special festival prices'.

`Athapookkalam', perhaps, is the lone reminder of the past glory. It is the laying out of flowers in attractive designs at the door steps of homes. But children, as in the past, no longer need to run from field to homesteads to collect fresh flowers. Pookkalams are made of flowers bought from the market.

The change in tradition is glaring when plastic flowers are used.

`Onasadya', feast for Onam, still remains a major attraction. Delicacies made of banana chips to `ada pradhaman' are laid out on freshly cut plantain leaves, making it appealing to the eye as well as the palate. Onam used to be an occasion when even male members of a family lend a helping hand to the women folk in preparing sumptuous feasts.

Legend has it that on the `Thiruvonam' day in the Malayalam month of Chingam, King Mahabali returns to Kerala from the nether world where he was banished by Lord Vishnu.

The reign of Mahabali -- endearingly called `Maveli' by Malayalis -- was marked by plenty, prosperity and equality. The Devas, jealous of the Asura king, prevailed on Vishnu to get him banished to `Pathalam' (nether world). Before undergoing the ordeal, Mahabali wrested a concession from Vishnu that he would return to his kingdom on the Onam day every year to visit his *subjects.

For the children of the present age, Mahabali is a character in the skits played in streets, or, a comic guy who shows up on the small screen on the Onam day.

In the past, Onam used to be an occasion for both men and women to display their talents.

For men, Onam was the time of martial arts competitions and a variety of rural sports. For the women, it offered a chance to briefly come out of the confines of homes to sing and perform the `kaikottikkali', a traditional group dance form.

``In my days, Onam used to be a great occasion. Examinations would be over. All play and no work. Home was filled with the fragrance of freshly-fried banana chips. We used to get new clothes or onappudava,'' said Mr. V.G.R. Nair, a retired school teacher.

``Look at my grand children. They are settled down with their T.V. game. No Onam songs or sports,'' Mr. Nair said. After a moment's pause, he added, ``I have no grouse. One has to change with time and tide. I too am going to spend Onam watching a movie or a comedy show on the television.''