This year's Onam was so special for Sasilekha Nair, who won two major beauty pageants - Mrs India Kerala, Mrs Asia International Most Charming - in 2018. For, this was the first time in 17 years that she celebrated the harvest festival in its true essence.
“Ever since I shifted out of Kerala for studies and building my career, I had to restrict my Onam sojourn for a day or two, just for the feast with my parents. Things did not change even after my marriage. Even my kids never had a taste of the Onam festivities. This time, because of the lockdown and social distancing in the wake of Covid-19, we had no choice but to stay at our ancestral home. This helped us explore the tradition in full,” said Sasilekha, who hails from Kattoor near Kozhencherry in Pathanamthitta district.
That is not all. For the first time, her children enjoyed the tree swing in the rustic environs, the palmleaf umbrella, the floral carpet, watched the 'Thiruvonathoni' and the rituals related to it during Onam.
Sasilekha waxes eloquent about 'Thiruvonathoni' as she is closely associated with the event.
A family affair
The customary voyage of 'Thiruvonathoni', a temple boat, begins from the Mahavishnu Temple on the ghats of the Pampa river at Kattoor in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala on the evening of Uthradom. It is a centuries-old custom in connection with Onam.
As per the tradition, the eldest member of the Mangattu Illam (Illam is a traditional Brahmin settlement) at Kumaranalloor, Kottayam district, leads the journey of 'Thiruvonathoni'. The boat carries provisions for the Onam sadhya (feast) at the Sree Parthasarathy temple on the banks of Pampa River at Aranmula. The provisions for the feast are offered by 18 Nair families in the village. And Sasilekha's family is one among them.
“I feel truly divine being a member among those 18 families who reserve the right to offer provisions for the feast at Aranmula Temple,” she said. Members of those families assist the eldest member of the Bhattathiri family in the 'Thiruvonathoni'.
Legend has it that the Bhattathiri of the Kattoor Madhom used to offer Onam sadhya to a Brahmin every Thiruvonam day. On a particular Thiruvonam day no Brahmin turned up for the feast and this left the Bhattathiri in utter dismay. He prayed in tears to Lord Parthasarathy and a Brahmin boy appeared before him. The Bhattathiri offered him a sumptuous feast and an Onakkodi (new dress for Onam). He was treated with high reverence but while bidding good bye, the boy asked him to take the feast to the Aranmula Temple from next year. The belief is that the boy was none other than Lord Parthasarathy.
“That is said to be the beginning of the custom. It has been in practice for centuries. The feast will be prepared at the temple kitchen and offered to the devotees in the temple's dining hall,” Sasilekha said.
Iravi Narayana Bhattathiri, who led the Thoni for 21 years had passed away in April 2020. This year it was led by Raveendra Babu Bhattathiri the eldest member of Mangattu Illam.
Sasilekha is a member of the Thalathazhe Peruntholil family among those 18 Nair families.
Snake boats began to accompany 'Thiruvonathoni' a few years ago when someone tried to attack and rob things from the 'Thoni'.
The Kedavilakku (lamp that never blows out) at Aranmula temple is also brought from Kattoor Mahavishnu temple, along with provisions. This lamp will remain lighted for a year till the another arrives from Kattoor temple the next year.
“I try to balance modern outlook and traditional values in every aspects of life, whether it is fashion, food or etiquettes. I urge youngsters not to discard values of traditions and culture no matter how close they are to novel and modern aspects of life,” she said.