Onam celebrates almost everything that is central to the elaborate Keralite culture – the harvest, and the advent of the Vamana Avatar of Lord Vishnu who in three mighty strides encompassed the heavens, earth and Pataal (the lower world), rendering the all-conquering King Mahabali Empire-less. But most of all, Onam celebrates the annual visit of Kerala’s beloved King Mahabali, recognised as an equivalent – and a replacement in the next ‘Yuga’ – to Indra. The festival transcends all barriers of caste and religion and is celebrated with much gaiety by all communities.
SCMS-Cochin for its part left no stone unturned to accord a red-carpet welcome to King Mahabali over these 10 days, especially on the 1st of September 2012. In true SCMS-Cochin spirit, students from across various Indian and international cultural dimensions, and staff, were seen dressed in traditional attire during the celebrations. This, of course, was cause for great humour and joviality as quite a few were seen struggling with the traditional get-up; the situation was finally salvaged by the students and faculty from Kerala. The joy and excitement in the air was special. It was a day-long celebration with a mix of music, dance and outdoor games. The Chairman of SCMS-Cochin, Dr. G.P.C Nayar, welcomed the gathering and Mr. K. Padmakumar, IPS, Inspector General of Police, Kochi Range, enjoyed the occasion as the Chief Guest with the youngsters from SCMS-Cochin.
The morning of the 1st of September, which was the main day of Thiruonam, started early at SCMS-Cochin, with the preparation of the traditional floral carpet (Athapookalam). Elaborate, colourful designs took shape as petals of white, purple, orange, pink, yellow and green quickly filled the chalk-drawn templates on the floor. Students and staff of SCMS-Cochin and its sister institutions came together as one family in the celebrations. The students were organised into ten groups and various competitions were held. The faculty and staff chipped in with grand foot-tapping numbers and the whole atmosphere was abuzz with the joy and cheer natural to Onam celebrations. The Onam song competitions created the perfect ambience to capture the festive mood. The folk dances of India that followed were a colourful portrayal of the rich and vibrant cultural traditions of the country. With the arrival of King Mahabali and the pulikali (masked leopard dance) team, the atmosphere reached fever pitch. Students were on their feet, dancing and jiving in gay abandon.
The grand feast of Onasadya – a nine-course meal consisting of 11 to 13 essential dishes served on the traditional plantain leaf – was another unique experience for us non-Keralites. The slow bike race and the uriyadi (breaking the pot and taking the eatables inside it) competitions that followed added to the thrill and excitement in the post-lunch session.
Not even in their wildest dreams had first year students anticipated that the austere, no-nonsense atmosphere of SCMS-Cochin would erupt into such an explosion of unbridled joy and energy. It was an amazing, unforgettable experience. I enjoyed every bit of the festival and had such a great opportunity to explore the culture and heritage of this beautiful land. It also made me realise that the annual return of King Mahabali – the rightful replacement of Indra in the Yugas to come – is the primary reason why Kerala is called ‘God’s own Country’.