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  1. 1. Celebrating Onam in God’s own countryKerala – God’s Own Country. We Indians have come to associate the two together not becausewe understand it from experience but because most of us have seen it advertised so often onour television screens. But that does not mean that this title is inappropriate. On the contrary itis the most befitting title that could have been bestowed upon this land. However, byassociating its Godliness with only its naturalbeauty would only serve to keep us away fromthe true source of its divinity. Toexperience Kerala at its best there is no bettertime than the 10-day festival of Onam.Onam is an ancient festival and its importance isboth seasonal and religious. Seasonal, because itcelebrates the rice harvest season, and religious,because its origins are deeply rooted in greatIndian mythology. Since this story is way too long, I’ll stick to mentioning just the occasion,which is marked by this festival. It is believed that Keralasaw its golden period during the reignof the mythical King Mahabali. He was very pious, generous and therefore loved dearly by allhis subjects. Due to certain circumstance, Lord Vishnu had to push King Mahabali into the greatoceanic underwater. However, since he had done no wrong he was granted lordship over theoceanic underwater and was granted one wish. As a boon, King Mahabali asked Lord Vishnu togrant him the opportunity to visit his subjects once every year. Onam came to be celebrated asthe time when King Mahabali’s departure preparations began in the underwaters and went ontill he had left and ascended to the heavens.Irrespective of where you are in Kerala during these 10 days, you will not be able to escape thecelebrations, i.e. until unless you don’t decide to lock yourself up (and why would anyone wantto do that?). During the last 3 or 4 days of the festival even the schools and government officesare officially shut down. Happy Holidays!! I chose to reside with a family in a 350-year-oldPortuguese guesthouse in Fort Cochi for the duration of the festival (Guess how cool was that!!)The decision paid off really well. Firstly, it was wayyyyyyyyy cheaper and secondly, I got a firsthand experience (the guesthouse owners practically treated me like family. Very sweet ofthem!).Fort Cochi is not a part of mainland Cochi. It is a tourist destination a little away from the citywhere all the Old Portuguese structures are located. It is a very small area in just 2 sq km that iswhy I would suggest that if you choose to visit and stay there then hiring cycles would be your
  2. 2. best and cheapest option. That is what I did too; though I take no credit for it; the credit goes tothe guesthouse hosts whose in-depth knowledge of the vicinity helped make the entire trip avery personal experience.Now, to the festival. I should mention at the outset, that each of the 10 days has its ownsignificance and has its own rituals, each different from the rest of the days. Trying to mentionthem all in detail would be like compiling a thesis, which I have not the mind to write, and you,no strength to read J Therefore I’ll only mention the highlights and what were the majorattractions that were a part of my itinerary.One of the first things I noticed at the beginning of the festival was the beautiful flowerdecoration (more like northern Rangoli but only made with flowers) made by the host’sdaughters in the courtyard of the house. It is called a Pookalam and is initially made withflowers of only one colour but as the festival progresses layers are added with differentcoloured flowers. The artistry that goes into making and planning a Pookalam design isastonishing. This you won’t be able to miss even if you wanted to. The other thing being, thatthey installed two statuesof Vamana (Lord Vishnu’s incarnation inKingMahabali’s time) and King Mahabali atthe entrance of the house. What follows forthe next 3 to 4 days is very similar to what isdone during Diwali in north India - cleaningof the house, loads of shopping (mainlyclothes and jewellery) and Pookalam makingcompetitions. All this in addition to thefamous snake boat race. I couldn’t catch thesnake boat race, during this visit because it only takes place in areas situated in the famousbackwaters ofKerala. On the seventh day the local administration illuminates the entire citywith lights and fireworks. The famous Ona Sadya (Onam special buffet lunch) starts in severalplaces and temples along with Puli Kali (masked leopard dance) & other traditional dances onthis very day. It is on this day that the festivities reach a high. The statues of Vamana andKing Mahabali are cleaned and taken around the house in a procession and then placed in thecenter of Pookalam on the eighth day. The ninth day is the eve of Onam and is also called theFirst Onam. It is believed that this is the day when KingMahabali descends upon them. This isthe day when all the Keralites go on a shopping frenzy and the preparation for theGrand Onam Buffet for the 10th and final day is also done on the evening of this day.
  3. 3. On the morning of the final day, I saw my hosts smearing the main entrance with rice-flourbatter. Upon asking I was told, that the 10th day is considered the day when King Mahabaliwaspushed into the underwaters and also the day of his resurrection. Therefore, they do this as atraditional welcome sign for him into their houses. On this day they bathe early in the morning,dress up in new clothes and distribute alms to the needy. You would be surprised to know thatnot only the temples but the mosques and the churches too organise prayers on this day for themasses. Later on in the day, there is a feast like no other. Even an average household can, mostof the time, have over 30 dishes prepared for the banquet that is incredibly delicious! At nightthere is a fabulous display of fireworks just like Diwali and various communities engage byplaying traditional Onam games. This is how the festival comes to an end. However, on the nextday everybody submerges their idol in nearby river or sea and the Pookalam is cleared.What I got from the entire experience can be summed up in the next few lines. Travelaficionado or not, if anyone can manage to stay for the entire festival then your senses will bebuzzing for so long and your travel appetite filled to such an extent that you wouldn’t want beanywhere else but home. Home, in God’s own country.Connect with on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well.