When Onam comes twice

Posted on 8/28/2017

There is a mood of festivity and mirth in the air. Malayalees gear up to celebrate Onam with family and friends, plucking or buying flowers, making a pookkalam (flower bed), a scrumptious lunch, the memories of a bygone agrarian days and more. Even when the people of Kasaragod join hands in celebrating the harvesting festival every Chingam with pomp and show, they have another onam to wait for.

Well known as ‘poliyandram, it falls in the Malayalam month of Thulam (September-October). Amidst the kannada or tulu speaking folks it is called ‘Baliyandram’ (Mahabali is also known as Bali and Maveli). The myth of both the festivals are same, but the time of welcoming Bali, the erstwhile ruler of Kerala is different.
Vamana was born to tackle Mahabali, the Asura(demon) King, from ruling over Indra’s kingdom after his ‘aswamedha yagna’. As Vishnu’s 4rd incarnation, the Narasimha promised Bali’s forefather Prahlada, his hard core devotee, that he would not kill any of his successors, Mahabali was let down to the netherworld. The dwarf god requested the rajah three alms. The Brahmin boy grew and grew to a giant (entitled Thrivikrama) and with his two steps he measured heaven and the pathaala, and with his third step on Maveli’s head, he pushed him down to the netherworld. He is worshipped in the gigantic cosmic form at the most prominent Vamana temples in Kanchipuram and Thirukoyiliyur.

Mahabali was granted a day, the thiruvonam, to visit his empire once in a year. And in Tulu-Nadu that stretches from Kuntapura, in Udupi district of Dakshina Karnataka to Trikaripur in Kasaragod district, Poliyandram, they believe is the actual day Mahabali visit them. ‘Mahabali Pooja’ is performed at houses, temples and kavus. It is the ‘Amawasi’ day (new moon day), Diwali, of Thulam.

Actually the thiruvonam of chingam is the merriment of the Vamana’s victory over Mahabali. It is also celebrated as ‘Vamana jayanti’. The Keraletes may feel it obscure, but including some temples in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, it is celebrated in most parts of India. In some houses in Andhra Pradesh are also the fête of the birth of Vamana. In puranas, Vamana, the 5th incarnation of the lord Vishnu was born in Shravana or Chingam. It may be the reason why Thrikkakarappan is being glorified on the Thiruvonam day. The deity in the Thrikkakara temple is the Vamana avatar of Lord Mahavishnu. In the southern districts of Kerala, there is a tradition of keeping Thrikarappan in the midst of the ‘pookkalam’ (flower bed).

Even when the revelries signify the homecoming of Mahabali, according to the Tulu-Nadan myth, it is on the Diwali day he visits his subjects. In Kitab Tarakh Al-Hind, Al-Baruni, a 11th century traveller describes ‘Bali-pooja’ as a festival celebrated across India. It was called ‘Deep Bali’. Varaha Mihra’s Brihat Samhita, the Skanda Purana and the Vamana purana have references about the legend too. Thanks to the research done by the famous writer, Dr Ambikasuthan Mangad.

To the people of the northern most district of Kerala, Mahabali who is welcomed on ‘poliyandram’ is similar to God. Three days starting from Deepavali is the festival.
The folk ritual is still alive in Dakshina Kannada and Kasaragod district. Men must take bath in the morning, fast and get ‘palamaram’ (Alstonia scholaris (commonly called blackboard tree, devil tree, ditabark, milkwood-pine, white cheesewood) is an evergreen tropical tree in the family Apocynaceae.) cut, and carry on their shoulder without using coir, barefooted. The tree is believed to have enormous power.

A pole made out of the ‘palamaram’ is erected at the courtyard with 21 shafts fixed to it. After sunset, oil is poured into 21 coconut shells, kept on the shafts and wicks put into it are lit. It is a festival of light. The family members throw rice from a saucer or a plate they carry, chant ‘‘poliyentra ariyo ari..’’(‘ari’ means rice) and welcome Bali. It is ‘’Baliyentra..’’ among the Kannada or Tulu speaking community. They also request Mahabali to ‘’muppatte kaalathu nerathe vaa’’(come early next year.). In tulu they invite ‘’mundia varshattu bekka balla’’ and in kannada ‘’mundina varsha bega baa’’. Lamps are lit near the well, courtyard, cow shed and other important spaces in the house. It is also celebrated extensively at Dharamasastha temples. Flower beds are also seen at some houses and temples.

While Onam in the month of chingam is a celebration of Vamana’s triumph, Poliyandram are days of a defeated man. It is success of a person belonging to a top hierarchy over an underdog. It is celebrating a person let-down, who has miserably failed. It is all about welcoming Mahabali coming back to his kingdom like a forefather.

At Tulu-Nadu, Mahabali is not a pot-bellied clown with a big moustache carrying a palmyra umbrella, but a monarch who ruled his kingdom to utmost prosperity and happiness.

Reshmi Naveen Gopal,
Reshmi Naveen Gopal is a freelance writer. She is a post graduate in Communication and Journalism. She has worked with main stream print media and online journals. She has been a faculty in communication and journalism at a couple of colleges.
Reshmi Naveen

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