Onam: The Festival Of Flower Carpets Or Pookalam

Onam is celebrated by Malayalis of all faiths. Tell your child some fascinating facts about this 10-day harvest festival from Kerala in which food and flowers are integral to the festivities.

By Divya Sreedharan

Onam: The Festival Of Flower Carpets Or Pookalam

As a small child growing up in Kerala, Onam was a magical time — filled with creativity, exploration and togetherness. Every morning, my older sister and I would accompany children from our residential colony, to pick flowers for our pookalam (flower carpet). The small white thumbapoo (or Ceylon slitwort) which grew in the neighbourhood, was a favourite. We always included other native flowers like the chembarathi (hibiscus) that now comes in red, maroon, pale pink and yellow varieties; the flaming red chethi (ixora) and the jamanthi (yellow and white chrysanthemum).

But gathering the flowers was just the beginning. We also used to carefully collect leaves in different shades, ranging from brownish purple and magenta, to light and dark green. Then, all of us children would sit together and arrange the flowers in simple and often, concentric designs (with help from the adults, of course). The leaves, cut into various sizes, would add balance and richness to our pookalam.

A festival of flower carpets

Onam: The Festival Of Flower Carpets Or Pookalam

This year, Onam is being celebrated from August 15 to 24. And flower carpets are still integral to the festival. For each of the 10 days, beginning with the first day or athom to the 10th day or thiruvonam, Malayalis across the world, will create pookalams in their homes. “But in Kerala today, no one goes out to pluck flowers from the neighbourhood, instead you use what is grown in your garden, or buy packets of fresh-cut flowers from local markets. And sadly, the white thumbapoo is hardly seen these days,” says KN Jayam, a retired Malayalam college professor in Kozhikode.

Other indigenous varieties of flowers that used to be a part of pookalams include the orange-red or pinkish-yellow aripoo (common lantana), blue-hued kakkapoo (lobelia), the sunshine yellow mukkutti (biophytum) and other native flowers. These are increasingly rare today. The reason, flowers are brought in truckloads from the neighbouring states, during the festival.

Onam: The Festival Of Flower Carpets Or Pookalam

But why is the pookalam such an essential component of the festival? “The most popular legend connected with Onam is that it is a welcome for the mythical King Mahabali — this is when he comes from pathalom (or the netherworld) to see his people. And how else will the people of Kerala welcome their king? With flowers, of course,” explains the professor. To mark the festival, there are pookalam competitions held across the state, in colleges and schools, and at onachandas or fairs, held during this time.

Celebrating the victor and the vanquished 

What’s more, in certain parts of Kerala, there is a custom of keeping Thrikkakara Appan, a pyramid-like structure made of clay. Thrikkakara Appan is said to represent Vamana (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu), the one who sent King Mahabali into the netherworld. Another view is that the structure represents both King Mahabali and Vamana. “Today, we get readymade clay structures during Onam, but traditionally, these used to be made at home,” says Jayam.

A unique aspect is that both the victor (Vamana) and the vanquished (King Mahabali) are honoured equally and side by side. That Onam is cherished by people of all faiths and religions in Kerala, is another beautiful feature of the festival.

Onam as a harvest festival

Traditionally, the festival falls in the Malayalam month of chingam and is a celebration of the end-of-harvest season. An agrarian society, Kerala used to be a land of paddy fields and farmers. Onam is when the people of the state would rejoice in the period between a good harvest and the beginning of the next sowing season.

Onam: The Festival Of Flower Carpets Or Pookalam

The 10 days of Onam

While Onam is synonymous with the onasadya for many people, each day of this 10-day festival has a special significance. Read on to know more: 

Atham: The first day. The first flower carpet is laid out. It will be small in size and called athapoo and traditionally, only yellow flowers are used.

Chithira: The second day, the size of the pookalam increases and designs become more complex

Chodi: The third day, several layers of different flowers are added. Families go shopping for onakkodi (new clothes) and often, jewellery. 

Vishakam: The fourth day, considered the most auspicious day of Onam. Preparations for the onasadya or feast, begins.

Anizham: Day five. Traditionally the day of the famous snake boat races or vallamkali. This year, because of floods and the unprecedented loss of life and property in Kerala, the famous Nehru Boat Race has been cancelled by the Kerala Government.

Thriketa: The sixth day of Onam.

Moolam: The seventh day traditionally sees smaller versions of the onasadya being served in homes. Traditional festivities include puli kali (leopard dance), and performances of kaikotti kali (a graceful dance by women wearing the traditional white-and-gold Kerala sari)

Pooradam: The eighth day of Onam. On this day, in some houses, small statues of Mahabali and Vamana are taken around the house and placed in the centre of the pookalam. The belief is that this is the day the King is invited to visit the houses of his people.

Uthradam: The ninth day. Considered the most auspicious day to buy fresh vegetables, fruits and other provisions for thiruvonam.

Thiruvonam: The 10th day of Onam. The usual custom is to bathe early and wear the onakkodi for the day. And at lunchtime, people enjoy the onasadya, or festive lunch, comprising a mouth-watering array of 26 to 28 dishes.

For most people, the festival is about the sumptuous onasadya. While food is certainly a highlight of the festival, do you know why the various dishes are served in a particular order, why the plantain leaf is laid out just so and, why the meal is considered nutritionally balanced? There is more to the onasadya than meets the eye. 

Happy Onam!

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