When the monsoon has washed the land clean, when the
harvest has been gathered, Onam blooms in Kerala. With one-third of
the area low lying and covered with canals, lakes and backwaters, the
people take to their boats and country crafts to celebrate.
After three months of
heavy rains, the sky becomes a clear blue and the forests a deep
green. The brooks and streams come alive, spitting forth a gentle
white foam. The lakes and rivers overflow and lotuses and lilies are
in full bloom. It is time to reap the harvest, to celebrate and
The harvest festival of
Onam corresponds with the Malayalam New Year, Chingam. Depending on
the position of the stars and the moon, the festival is held at the
end of August or beginning of September.
At Aranmulla, where there
is a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna, thousands of people
gather on the banks of the River Pamba to witness the exciting Snake
Boat races. Nearly 30 chundan vallams or snake boats
participate in the festival. Owned by villages bordering the river
from the hills to the low lying plains a stretch of about 40
kilometres these boats are steered by oarsmen dressed in white
dhotis (sarong-like lower garment) and turbans. Singing
traditional boat songs the oarsmen splash their oars into the water
in rhythm. The golden lace at the head of the boat, the flag and the
ornamental umbrella at the centre make it a spectacular show. Though
a competitive event, the festival is more of a visual extravaganza.
There are stories woven
around this festival which is over 5000 years old. Once, many years
ago a boat floated down the river laden with food. All of a sudden,
at a turning in the river, it stopped. The Nambudiri
(landlord and spiritual leader), thinking it was a bad omen, climbed
up the river bank. He saw a hut where a dim light was glowing. When
he walked towards it he saw a poor widow weeping and a few children
sleeping on the floor. She told him there was no food and her
children were hungry. The Nambudiri brought out food from the boat
and offered to her. This practise of feeding the poor has continued
over the years. Since then it has become a tradition among the
Nambudiris to feed one poor person before the festival.
Once, about 10 kilometres
up the River Pamba from Aranmulla, the Headman of Katoormana offered
prayers and waited to feed a poor man. It was a long and
disappointing wait. He began to pray to Lord Krishna. When he
opened his eyes there stood before him a boy almost naked. The
Namudiri took him to the river, gave him a bath, a set of new clothes
and a splendid meal. Soon after the meal the boy suddenly
disappeared. The search for the boy lead the Namudiri to the
Aranmulla temple. After a brief encounter the boy again disappeared.
Thereafter the Nambudiri brought food every year during Onam to the
To protect the food form
river pirates, the snake boats used to accompany the entourage. As
the ritual developed into an annual celebration, the number of snake
boats increased. The boats float down from Katoormana to the
accompaniment of blowing conch shells, music and drum beats and
torches are lit.
The colourful boat
festival is held on the fifth day after Thiru Onam. Each snake boat
belongs to a village along the banks of the river Pamba and is
worshipped like a deity. Only men are allowed on board or to even
touch a boat and that too barefooted. Every year the boat is oiled
with fish oil, coconut shell and carbon mixed with eggs. The black
mixture keeps the wood strong and the boat slippery in the water.
Annual repairs are carried out lovingly by village carpenters and the
people take pride in their boat which represents their village and is
named after them. Tradition demands that the Nambudiri be at the
main rudder oar which is about 12 feet long. There are four main
oarsmen who control the movement of the boat. In minutes the boat
can turn by just the twist of the hand by the chief oarsman.
Everyone the carpenter, the barber, the goldsmith, the
blacksmith as well as agricultural labourers have a place on
the boat. In close harmony and magnificent synchronization they pull
at the oars.
I remember my childhood
days when I used to go to the riverside to watch my village boat
compete with the others. When I was considered of age, I was invited
to join the oarsmen on board the boat. Bursting with pride at the
great honour, I dressed in my dhoti, ate a heavy meal and reached the
riverside by noon. I was ushered to my seat and then an elderly man
began to sing and we al pulled t our oars in rhythm. We sang a
prayer to Lord Padmanabha and then moved on to other songs in praise
of Lord Krishna. Among the repertoire were also love songs in
Malayalam sung especially during Onam and the boat races.
It was thrilling to be on
the boat but after one hour my body began to ache and I began to feel
hungry and thirsty. But it was a easy to overlook the discomforts in
the feverish struggle to win the race.
Onam is celebrated
throughout Kerala. Singing and merrymaking is its hallmark. Onam
depicts the story of Mahabali, the king who ruled the country during
a period of great prosperity. The women dress up and decorate the
entrance to their homes to welcome Mahabali who, it is said, still
visits Kerala annually to bless the people. The State comes alive
with festivity and activity. It is the time for prayers and
ceremonies, celebration and rejoicing, fun and sports
. Time for
the snake boat festival.