Thrikkakara in Ernakulam district has an intrinsic link to the significant legend associated with the harvest festival onam, which is grandly celebrated every year by Keralites all over the world.
The place attributes the majority of its unique traditions and customs associated with the festival to the famed Thrikkakara temple where the deity of Vaman is worshipped.
Here is a historical journey through the legends, customs and rituals associated with Onam in Thrikkakara.
Only shrine for Vamanan
The Thrikkakara temple is the only shrine in Kerala that is dedicated to the deity of Vaman, the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. As per the traditions of the temple, Mahabali, the benevolent demon king is grandly welcomed to his favourite land, by performing special rituals on the day of 'Thiru Onam.'
The exquisite engravings on the walls of the sanctum sanctorum throw light on the traditional Onam celebrations, which date back to more than 2,500 years ago, at the Thrikkakara temple. The residents of Thrikkakara begin their annual Onam celebrations on the day of ‘uthradam’ by lighting a special lamp in their front yard and conducting a ritual where paddy grains are placed in a bowl to symbolise the harvest season.
Janardhanan Nair is a retired teacher and well-known local historian who has specialises in the historical significance of the Thrikkakara temple. He has done extensive research about the various legends associated with Vaman and also about the special onam rituals at the temple, based on the 17 ancient inscriptions in the 'vattezhuthu' script in Tamil language.
The annual festival at the temple that begins on the day of 'Atham' and culminates on the tenth day of 'Thiru Onam' with special puja and a grand Onam feast is a renowned event. In fact, the place is known for its special Onasadya which is served in the vast courtyard of the temple.
Mahabali or Onathappan appears first at Thrikkakara, where he was stepped down into the nether world by Vaman. So the grand feast offered here is in honour of Mahabali and his exemplary sacrifice.
At the feast here, papad is first served on the banana leaf followed by chips made with raw plantain, yam, long beans, egg plant and bitter gourd. Pazham nurukku, various vegetables preserved in salt, erissery, ghee, dal curry, sambar kaalan, olan, pachadi, kichadi, mango and lime pickles, inji curry (ginger curry) and inji thairu are some of traditional dishes and curries that are served for the onam feast here.
The desert comprises a sweet palada pradhaman which is garnished generously with dried fruits and cashews. The onasadya ends by drinking a spoonful of spicy rasam from your palm, to aid digestion.
At the houses around Thrikkakara, the preparation for the elaborate Onam feast begins early in the morning after lighting the traditional onavilakku (lamp). It is usually the patriarch of the family who serves the feast on 'thooshanila' (the part of the banana leaf which includes its tip).
One should face the east direction while seating himself to eat, and the tip of the leaf should be towards the left of the person. Ghee and boiled dal are served on the lower right of the banana leaf while the piping hot rice is served at the centre. All the crispy fried chips are placed on the upper left of the leaf, and then water is sprinkled thrice around the leaf from a bronze 'kindi'.
Papad is placed on the lower left, meanwhile, a pinch of sugar, sarkkara upperi (raw plantain chips in jaggery), kaalan, olan, erissery are served on the lower right of the banana leaf. Sambar is poured on the hot rice.
The Onam feast at Thrikkakara truly is a gastronomic marvel and has its own share of traditions and legends associated with it. There are also a few local sayings in Malayalam that truly captures the 'flavour' of the feast and the celebrations at Thrikkakara. In fact sadya (feast) is served at the temple on the 'Thiru Onam' day of all the Malayalam months throughout the year. Sambar, inji thairu, kaalan, erissery, yam and long beans fries, paal payasam (milk dessert) are the dishes served along with brown rice. Every month, up to 150 devotees turn up for the sadya which is served here.
Tribute to Mahabali
There was a time when the Brahmins and the Buddhists were struggling for survival in the area. When the Buddhists lost control over 'valia palli,' their major religious centre, they built a temporary 'palli' (place of worship) at the place which later came to be known as 'Edappally.' Thrikkakara was part of the erstwhile Edappally province. There is evidences in the ancient manuscripts that a Chera king named Aadukottupadu Cheralathan has donated some land which included a pond called the 'Kapilatheertham.'
The Vaman temple at Thrikkakara is situated near the 'Kapilatheertham.' The pond got its name from a devotee of Lord Vishnu named Kapilan who is believed to have dug the pond, which is on the west side of the temple. Beautiful lotus and blue lotus flowers are grown abundantly in the pond which draws lots of devotees to enjoy its enchanting charm. Another prominent ‘Kapilatheertha’ pond in South India is at the famous Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh.
According to the legends, the 'danodaka poyka' (a small pool) from where Mahabali took water in his palm to symbolically make the offering to Vaman, is one of the prominent features at the temple. It is at the danodaka poyka that the annual 'aarattu' ritual, as part of the festival, is conducted.
As per the engravings on the temple walls, it is deemed that Onam was celebrated with pomp at Thrikkakara during the reign of the Chera kings. The zamorin (the local ruler) from Kozhikode used to attend these festivities which lasted for a month. The legends say that up to 64 tuskers would be lined up for the grand celebrations that took place in the temple, especially during the last 10 days of the Chingam month. At homes, mud forms of Mahabali would be placed alongside the elaborate floral carpets.
The special pookkalam
The decorative floral carpets are laid on a special mud platform made on the 'moolam' day of the month, and there are traditional ways in which it is to be designed.
One should pray to the sun lord while placing flowers on the east side of the platform, the god of death on the south, the goddess Ganga on the west, Vaishravanan on the north and the dikpalakas or the guardians of directions on all four corners.
A sprig of tulsi should be placed at the centre of the pookalam or floral carpet and women usually make a special noise (ululation or kurava) to indicate the beginning of it. As per the 'Vruthachoodamani', an ancient manuscript, the pookkalam should at least have 10 layers of various flowers in different hues.
The mud form of the 'Thrikkakarayappan' is placed on a banana leaf and slathered with rice flour batter. The replicas of household items like ammipilla (blender), ural–ulakka (grinder) and chirava (coconut scraper) too are made with mud. A special dish called the 'poovada' is the main offering during the 'Thiru Onam' day. The inhabitants of the household would dip their palms in rice flour batter and make hand prints on the window and door frames.
The 'Onakodi' or wearing new clothes on the day of 'Thiru Onam' is another unique feature of the celebration. After the grand feast, the temple premises will witness some thrilling local games which are conducted as part of the Onam celebration. Archery, aattakalam, onavillu, thalapantu kali, oonjalattom, kaikottikali, chebuzhukka kali, thumbi thullal, pennu chodyam, onathallu, onapottan, onathaar, thalayattom, kummatty and pulikali are some of the exciting games and contests that take place at the Thrikkakara temple on the day of 'Thiru Onam.'