Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A. V. Koshy writes

An Epic on Childhood - 19 - Onam

in trivandrum they must be whooping it up
as when we were young
my sister and i, the very first time the huge onam festival was held
mom was also there, still
went walking happily through the decorated and lighted streets, 

       crowded and jostling with people
no traffic on the main road on the last big day, of the float
from east fort to peroorkada, happy holiday
blowing cheap whistles insanely
people thought we were crazy
we were young and wild and free
and enjoyed life to the hilt
i thought life would be kind to me
i did not know then
it would make me mahabali
and be to me vishnu stamping me down to pathalam
oh god, let my people go free
in trivandrum, the float was beautiful
but later one felt tired and sleepy
it was also peaceful
peace gone from me
happy onam, rest of the world
may you not know about sacrifice
but only of the good days
when maveli ruled kerala
days where all were equal
till the new came and washed it all away
once and for ever



  1. Onam is a 10-day Hindu harvest festival celebrated in Kerala, during the Malayalam month of Chingam (Aug - Sep), the first month of the year, and is also a 4-day holiday in the state. It marks the anniversary of the founding of Kerala by Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, who recovered the land from the sea by throwing his battle axe, which traveled from Gokarnam in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. It also commemorates both Vamana (an avatar of Vishnu) and the annual homecoming of king Mahabali (“Great Sacrifice”), who was sent to Pathalam (the underworld) by Vamana. The festival begins in Thripunithara, a suburb of Mahabali’s capital, Kochi, with the Atthachamayam (Royal Parade on Atham, the first day of the festival, the day Mahabali begins his preparations for his journey), featuring more than 50 floats and 100 tableaux, elephant processions, and presentations of folk art, music, and dance. The Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara (“place of the holy foot”) temple in Kochi is the main center of the festival. Every day there, and elsewhere, traditional dances, songs and percussion music are performed, including thiruvathirakali (a women's dance performed in a circle around a lamp), kummattikali (a colorful mask dance), pulikali (kaduvakali) (featuring dancers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black), theyyam (a ritual worship dance), and kathakali (enacting mythological events). In Thrissur, festivities includes a procession consisting of caparisoned elephants surrounded by masked kummatikali dancers who go from house to house and perform. Many lamps are lit in temples, and palmyra trees, surrounded by wooden balustrades covered with dry palmyra leaves, are erected in front of temples; the trees are then lit with a torch and burned to ashes to signify that Mahabali had gone to Pathalam as a sacrifice. One of the most visible symbols of the festival is the floral carpet, pookkalam, made of blossoms of different colors pinched up into little pieces and arranged in a large floral display. Traditionally, the pookalam that were made on Atham included the “dasapushpam” (the 10 flowers that were sacred to the Keralites), but now all varieties of flowers are used. The floral carpets are relatively small and simple on the first day, and are confined to yellow flowers, but each day they become progressively larger, more elaborate, and more colorful. The pookalam and floral-decorated earthen mounds representing Mahabali and Vamana are placed in courtyards in front of homes.

  2. On the 2nd day, Chithira, yhe pookkalam design consists of a second layer of flowers with 2 different colors (usually orange and creamy yellow), and people start cleaning their homes to prepare to welcome Mahabali. On Chodhi, the 3rd day, new layers and designs are added, with at least 4 or 5 different flowers; it is also devoted to shopping, especially for clothing and jewelry, many of which will be gifted. Their new clothes (vastra, “heart”) symbolize making the heart new by removing all bad thoughts. On the 4th day, Vishakam, traditionally the day markets opened their harvest sales, pookkalam and other competitions are held, including ox races and eating contests. Anizham, day five, at Aranmula, a vallamkali (snake boat race) dress rehearsal is held, but the actual race, featuring a hundred or so oarsmen rowing huge, graceful vessels, is after Onam is over. Beginning on Thriketa, the 6th day, most schools and public offices are closed, and people prepare to travel to their home towns. The official government celebration begins on Moolam, the 7th day, ending with fireworks displays, and smaller versions of the traditional Ona Sadya (Onam lunch feast) begin in many places; most temples start to offer special sadyas. Pooradam, the 8th day, begins with the washing of small statues of Mahabali and Vamana, which are then taken around one’s house in a procession; later they are put in the center of the pookkalam smeared with a rice-flour batter by small children. The penultimate day, Uthradom, (“First Onam”) marks the day when Mahabali comes back to Kerala, which he will inspect over the next four days. Women cut the first set of vegetables for the celebrations of the next day, and a frenzy of last-minute shopping occurs. The most important day of the festival is the last day, Thiruvonam, the birthday of Sri Padmanabhan, Thiruvananthapuram’s presiding deity ever since 1750 when maharaja Anizham Thirunal surrendered the kingdom to the deity at the Padmanabhaswamy temple, by far the wealthiest place of worship in history, with an estimated $22 billion worth of gold and jewels stored in underground vaults. Many literary works have poetically claimed that the walls of the temple, and the city, were made of gold. Other temple deities also celebrate their birthdays on this day. Special elaborate meals are an important part of the celebration; in hotels and temples, the number of curries and dishes may go up to 30. The Onam Sadya feast at Thrikkakara temple feeds more than 20,000 people. “Kaanam vittum Onam unnanam" (One must have the Onam lunch even one is forced to sell his property). It marks the day Mahabali was sent to the netherworld by Vamana, who at the same time allowed him to return to his kingdom every year to meet and bless his subjects. Activities begin early in the morning, as people clean their homes, apply rice flour batter on the main entrance as a sign of welcome, take an early bath, wear their new clothes, and distribute alms to the needy. The eldest female member of each family presents clothes to the rest of the family. Special prayers are organized in temples, churches, and mosques. Although Onam ends on Thiruvonam, “Third Onam” (Avvittom) marks the preparations for Mahabali's departure; the statues which were put in the pookkalam immersed in a river or the sea. The official government holiday ends on Chatayam (“Fourth Onam”), with a mega dance festival in the capital.

  3. Kashyapa and his wife Diti were the parents of the Asuras (demons), born to them as a result of their union at dusk, an inauspicious time for such a deed; he and his other wife Aditi were the parents of the Devas (gods). When Aditi mourned the rise of the Asuras at the expense of the Devas, especially due to the rise of Mahanbali, who had usurped Indra’s rule in the heavens as well as the rule over the other two realms, earth and the underworld. Nevertheless, though Mahabali was an Asura, like his grandfather Prahalada he worshiped Vishnu and gained a reputation for his generosity and piety.
    When Maveli ruled the land,
    All the people were equal.
    And people were joyful and merry;
    They were all free from harm.
    There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
    Deaths of children were unheard of,
    There were no lies,
    There was neither theft nor deceit,
    And no one was false in speech either.
    Measures and weights were right;
    No one cheated or wronged his neighbor.
    When Maveli ruled the land,
    All the people formed one casteless race.
    To assuage Aditi’s grief, Kashyapa taught her the Payovrata ritual and asked her to pray to Vishnu. Due to the piety with which she observed the ritual, Vishnu appeared before her and promised to help Indra, the king of the Devas. Eventually, Adita gave birth to a dwarfish Brahmin, Vamana, Vishnu’s first human avatar.

  4. Shukracharya (from The Sanskrit “Śukra,” light, brightness, clearness) married Indra's daughter Jayanti, and from Shiva he acquired the Sanjivani mantra, giving him the ability to resurrect people. Along with his companion Brihaspati, he taught political science and other skills to Bhishma, one of the heroes of the “Mahabharata.” But Vishnu killed his mother for sheltering some Asura he was pursuing. As a result, Shukracharya decided to become the guru to the Asura (even as his friend Brihaspati became the guru to the Devas). In that capacity, he served many of the Asura kings, including Aditi’s son Hiranyakashipu ("cushioned in gold"), whose younger brother was slain by Varaha, one of Vishnu’s many avatars. To avenge his brother, he underwent many years of austerity and penance in order to gain favor from Brahma, the chief among the Devas. Brahma rejected his request for immortality but gave him the following consolations: he would not meet death from thunderbolts, mountains, trees, any living entity created by Brahma, by any dry or wet weapon, by any human, any animal, any demigod, any demon, any great snake from the lower planets, or any entity, living or nonliving, that he would not die inside or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, on the ground or in the sky, and that he would have sole lordship over all living entities and presiding deities. In addition, Shiva gave him unrivalled combat prowess, exceeding skill in the use of the bow and other weapons, and the powers of all the gods, including Indra, Yama, Kubera, Sūrya, Agni, Vayu, Soma and Varuna. He become so mighty that he was able to shake the Himalayas down to their roots; Ravana once tried to lift his earrings, but they were too heavy. With these boons, he ruled for 107,280,000 years. During the course of his penance, Indra and the other Devas had attacked his home, but the divine sage Narada took his wife under his care and taught her unborn son Prahlada, who thus grew to be a devoted follower of Vishnu, his father’s mortal enemy. For that reason, the father repeatedly tried to kill his son. On one occasion, he sat him in the lap of his sister Holika, who was invulnerable to fire, and set them alight; but Prahalada chanted Vishnu’s name, and holika was tuned to ash while Prahalada was unharmed. When Hiranyakashipu pointed to a pillar and asked if Vishnu was in it, Prahlada answered, “He was, He is and He will be.” Hiranyakashipu smashed the pillar, but Vishnu appeared in his half-man/half-lion Narasimha form. It was twilight (neither night nor day), and they were on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither earth nor space). Using his nails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disemboweled the demon.

  5. On Shukracharya’s advice, Mahabali went to the Narmada river to perform the sacrificial rite of the Viswajith Yagam, which would allow him to secure new weapons against Indra and strengthen his hold over the three worlds. In his pride, he swore to give anyone whatever was requested during his Yagam. Disguised as an old man, the boy Vamana sought a boon: "I do not ask for anything great. All I need is land equivalent to three paces of my feet." Shukracharya recognized Vishnu and warned Mahabali that it was a trick, advising him not to promise anything, but Mahabali responded, "Life and honor are like the two eyes of a person. Even if life goes, honor should be protected. Knowing that the person that has come now is the Lord Himself, I should be the most fortunate one, as the Lord, who gives everything to mankind, is seeking something from me." In annoyance Shukracharya shrank himself and sat in the spout of a kamandalu (an oblong water pot made of a dry gourd or coconut shell, metal, wood, or clay, from which water has to be poured to seal a promise to a deity), but Vamana pierced his eye with a stick. When Mahabali asked Vamana to measure out the three paces, the avatar grew until he towered above the heavens. With his first step, he measured all of the earth. With his second, he claimed all of heaven. Mahabali, realizing he was unable to fulfill his promise, offered his head for the third step of land. So Vamana pressed him into the underworld. But, in honor of his devotion, he gave Mahabali immortality and the rule over the underworld, as well as permission to visit his kingdom every year.
    Brihaspati's son, Kacha, eventually became Shukracharya’s disciple. After studying under him fore a millennium, Shukracharya imparted the Sanjivani mantra to him in order to save their lives. Kacha taught it to the Devas, assuring their ultimate victory over the Asuras.


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