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Malayali Festivals

Family reunions, dances, music and large-scale feasts mark the celebrations in Kerala

Malayalis celebrate one festival irrespective of caste and creed: Onam. There are a few other festivals that are important like Thiruvathira, Vishu and Sabarimalai pilgrimage. There are also many local festivals and every temple and church has its own annual festival.


Onam

Thiruonam is celebrated when the August monsoon rains give way to the pleasant warmth of autumn. Onam is the celebration of the return of Mahabali, the once and future king. This king ruled "when all men were equal, when no one was poor, when there was neither theft nor dread of thieves.”


Every morning pujas are performed during the four days of Onam; parents give presents to children, who are specially dressed for the occasion. Large scale feasts are held at these family reunions, much as for Christmas.


Three foods are essential for the festival: split bananas, pappadam and payasam (rice pudding). After the gourmet midday dinner, all the family members dressed in fine clothes find a source of entertainment: adults and boys play hand-ball, chess, dice, cards-wrestling and display of swordsmanship are no longer common. Women and girls sing and dance. In the backwaters of Kerala, young men race the long snake-boats (chundan vallom).


In Kerala, Bali is not considered a demon, but rather a vanquished god and popular ally. Just as the English remember the legendary King Arthur who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century in Britain, as rex quondam atque futurus ("the once and future king"). It is believed that someday the defeated king and his Chera culture will rise in glory like the phoenix from its ashes!


Thiruvathira

This festival falls on the Thiruvathira day in Dhanu (December-January). It concerns the Nair women and is said to commemorate the death of Kama Deva, the Cupid of Indian mythology, who was destroyed by burning flames from the third eye of Lord Shiva, when Kama Deva tried to distract Shiva from his austerities by turning his affection to Uma Parvati. In the morning of Thiruvathira day, young women bathe in the ponds and sing thiruvathirapattu. These songs are accompanied by regular splashing of water, symbolical of breast-beating at the death of Kama Deva. After the bath, the women dress themselves in their best, worship in the temple, and make wishes for love and marriage. They return home to enjoy the uzhinjal or uunjal (a home-made swing of bamboo suspended on two ropes from a tree). The sumptuous family dinner is held at noon; fried bananas and sweets are passed around to complete the celebrations.


Vishu

Vishu falls on the first of Medam (March-April), which is the Malayali New Year’s Day. Since it is considered propitious to view good things on this day for year round good fortune, Vishu morning is an important time.

The heart of the festival is the preparation of the kani (the lucky sight or gift). The custom of preparing the kani has been followed for generations. The women take a large dish made of bell-metal (uruli), arrange in it a grantha (palm-leaf manuscript), a gold ornament, a new cloth, some flowers from the konna tree (Cassia fistula), some coins in a silver cup, a split coconut, a cucumber, some mangoes, and a jack-fruit. On either side of the dish are placed two burning lamps with a chair facing it. Family members are taken blindfolded, and then their blindfolds are removed and they view the vishu kani. As in other Indian festivals, a great feast at home is the high point of the day.


Theyyam It is the worship of the deity; on the other hand, the dancer is also the deity. Theyyam celebrates primarily the Mother Goddess. Animals, serpents, and trees also figure in worship.




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