A Tradition kept Safe, Onavillu…

Malavika Krishna.K, IIK Young Reporter
Monday, August 28, 2017

This years’ summer vacation, I had gone to Thiruvananthapuram as part of get-together of a group, that focuses on enjoying and emphasizing the importance of our traditional culture and heritage. My parents have been proud members of this family-like group for the past five years and we gather every year at traditional homesteads like Manas or Illams at different places across Kerala.This year the meeting was at Thiruvananthapuram in such a homestead named ‘Thanchavoor Amma Veedu’. This was actually the residence of one of the wives of late Maharaja Swathi Thirunal. She was a dancer hailing from Thanchavoor. History also says that she was adopted and given the status of wife as per the rituals pertained in the Royal family, those days.

There I met an amazing personality, Sharath, who is again a living encyclopedia on our traditional facts. Sharath uncle gave us a good insight on many historical facts regarding the ‘Amma Veedu’ and the Royal family of Travancore. I was totally amazed at the depth of his knowledge and impressed at the way he described history as a ‘story’. Wish he could handle our history classes!

Inspired by him, I was eager to know more about our capital city. While visiting Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, we met a very aged person who was interested to explain the significance and history of many things at the temple. Along with many amazing stories, he mentioned something about ‘Onavillu’ as a reference to something else. Out of curiosity, I asked him what an Onavillu was. From the name, I guessed that it had something to do with Onam and I was right, you know. Onavillu, traditionally known as ‘Pallivillu’, is a flat and tapered wood piece, decorated with the images of Gods and special events. It is dedicated to the deities as a part of the annual Onam festivities at Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The sole right to make the Onavillu is vested with an artisan family, at a place called Karamana in Thiruvananthapuram. This family has been passing on the Onavillu tradition for generations, and he said that an Onavillu presented to the East India Company, is still in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The preparations for making the Onavillu starts 41 days ahead of Thiruvonam and the family takes ‘Vrutham’ on these days.

Legend says that when the Vamana avatar of Lord Mahavishnu was about to send King Mahabali to Paathaala (the netherworld), King Mahabali said that he should be allowed to see his subjects at least once a year and he also wanted to see Lord Mahavishnu’s avatars and related stories after Vamana. Lord Mahavishnu agreed to this with a condition that he could see the avatars through images only and asked Vishwakarma, world’s greatest architect, to make images of the ten avatars of the Lord and give it to King Mahabali. This is how Onavillu came into existence. In the later years, disciples of Vishwakarma took an oath to make Onavillu every year on the arrival of King Mahabali and present it in front of Sree Padmanabhaswamy.

The Onavillu today comes in different types. Each one made in unique way and themes are offered to the idols of different deities at Sree Padmanabhaswany Temple. The ‘Ananthashayanam’ villu shows Lord Mahavishnu sleeping on the snake Ananthan and this is the main Onavillu that is offered to the main idol. ‘Dashavataram’ villu shows all the ten avatars of Lord Mahavishnu and is offered to Lord Narasimha. ‘Srikrishna Leela’ that depicts the childhood of Srikrishna, is offered to the idol of Krishna. ‘Pattabhishekam’ villu portraying Lord Sreerama’s coronation is offered to Lord Rama. Moreover, there are Onavillu offered for Lord Sastha and Lord Ganesha.
The Onavillu is offered to the deities on the Thiruvonam day and is taken out and distributed to the devotees after three days. It is with much astonishment I got to know that the red tassels which are tied to the villu on the both tapering ends, as part of the ritual is prepared by the inmates of Poojappura Central Jail. Interestingly this right to make the tassel was given to them right from the period of Royal rule

There was more in store with that aged person, but we had to leave. After hearing all this, I was stunned. When we, Keralites are seen careless in losing most of our traditional customs, it was a happy moment for me to know that there is still an artisan family, passing on their customs to their next generation.

This year Onam is going to be the same. The four of us- my dad, mom, brother and I working together in the morning to prepare the sadhya, and then my brother and myself will be trying to make a pookalam. Even though in Kuwait, my parents always try their best to make each onam enjoyable and memorable.

I wish all of you a very Happy Onam!!!

Malavika Krishna
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