Call it Ponnonam


We cannot visualise a Keralam without ONAM. The tiny speck of land located on the south west fringe sea shore of the Arabian Sea in Bharatha Varsha is a land of beguiling backwaters (some call this the Venice of India), placid lagoons, lush green valleys and massive mountains called the western Mountain Ranges and the warm blue waters of the Arabian Sea lapping on the coastal land. Originally Kerala was not there, it was under the water level. The legend about the origin of Kerala desam is explained in detail in ‘Keralolpathi’. The legend says that the fierce Brahmin warrior Parasurama, having destroyed the Kshathriya kings who ran a tyrannical rule, collected all their lands and assets, and gave them to the poor and needy. Having donated every bit of land, he wanted a tiny bit of land to make a hut to do his tapas. He went to Gokarna in the north end of the peninsula, climbed the Sahyadri mountains and standing atop he threw his dreaded ‘Parasu’ (axe) which came crashing at Kanyakumari, at the southern tip of the peninsula. The Samudra Raja appeared and made the sea recede and Kerala was born. Geo-scientists agree that this land mass was under the sea and due to volcanic or seismological factors might have caused the sea to recede exposing the land.
The land covered with ‘Kera’ trees made people call the place Kerala. The great Keralan, the first Perumal of the land (AD 216), was traditionally addressed as Cheran. Cheran land became Cheralam, which was later modified to Keralam. Being covered with muddy and fertile soil from the words ‘Cher’ (mud) and Alam (region) the name Keralam came into being. It is believed that Kerala was inhabited as early as 6,000 years ago.
As to why Kerala is called God’s own country: quite simply it is because the place is tidy, people are clean and keep their dwelling neat and clean. The literacy of Kerala is 100 per cent. They are highly educated and live in almost any country you can name, work hard and earn a high reward. Even those who work as labourers or farmers are so well informed on all matters you will be flabbergasted.
This backdrop is essential to describe the Kerala way of life of which Onam dominates as a yearly festival. The end of August and beginning of September herald the flowery month of Chingam. It is the time when the main harvest is gathered and everyone has something to eat. It is then that Onam, the principal festival of Kerala is celebrated. In a sense Onam is a harvest festival, a sort of fertility rite, a sort of thanking the good Gods for blessing with food, fruits, good climate and well-being. This is also an enactment of an old legend relating to an emperor who ruled Kerala in dignity, style, truth and honesty. He was Mahabali, an Asura King. In his time there was no caste, creed or religion, people were all equal, no one was poor; there was no theft and no need to dread thieves, overall and idealistic situation. An idealistic communal life prevailed in respect of production and distribution and consumption of food. Mahabali conceived an egalitarian society. Mahabali was a pious person who did great tapas and penances to gain magical powers from the powerful sage Sukra. He defeated the heavenly being and got control of the whole world. He insisted that everyone should worship him only. Devas got agitated and went to Vishnu to regain their lost glory. Vishnu in the guise of a small Brahmin Vamana, arrived in front of the Yaga performing Mahabali and begged for the gift of as much land as he can cover in three paces. The king readily agreed. Vamana began to grow into a giant, covered the heaven and earth in two paces and for the third pace he put his foot on the head of Mahabali and sent him to the infernal region. While parting he asked that on a single day in a year he be allowed to visit his subjects. That is Tiruonam. The truth of the matter is that his ruling aroused more jealousy than fear of Gods, and he lost his kingdom because he was too honest and charitable to fulfil his commitment.
For the arrival of the King, people put on new clothes, exchange gifts and give farm products and money gifts. People perform traditional folk dances (Kai Kotti kali etc). It is a time of jubilation and excitement. There will be sword fights and snake boat races with hundred of paddlers involved in the fierce competitions.
The belief is that in the golden era of Mahabali’s reign things were in plenty and it was a life full of prosperity in the palm fringed Kerala, leading a life with the conception of an ideal welfare state.
Happy Onam to all.
Published in The Indian Sun, Sydney

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