Onam celebrates the homecoming of demon king Mahabali who once ruled Kerala. It is said that under his judicious rule, Kerala witnessed a golden era.
Celebrated for a glorious 10 days in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, with street parades, pookalam, pulikali dance, snake boat race, and much more, Onam transforms God’s Own Country into a festive riot of colours.
The Myth of Mahabali
Bali, in South Indian languages, is sacrifice or giving. Maha bali translates to ‘great sacrifice’.
The story goes that, like his grandfather Prahlada, Mahabali was a seeker of the benevolent grace of Lord Vishnu. Although he had conquered all of the vast lands and heavens, he was dissatisfied with his earthly life. He, therefore, decided to sacrifice all his possessions for the greater good and well-being of his people. It is at this fateful time that a brahmana called Vamana (dwarf) arrives holding an umbrella made of palm leaves over his head.
The kind and generous Mahabali welcomes Vamana, offering the Brahmin anything he wants. Vamana asks the king for all the land that he can cover in three strides. The wish is granted. But, at this instant, Vamana grows taller and bigger, covering the entire universe with his two feet. Seeing as there is nowhere to place his third feet, he asks the king’s head as the third feet, to which the king obliges willfully.
Mahabali makes the master sacrifice, surrendering his own sense of self beyond everything he owns. The great sacrifice happens on the day of Tiruvonam. Onam is therefore a festival of giving, offering, and listening, to the other.
Although he has transcended the realm of earth, Mahabali is granted his wish of returning once each year to meet his people.
The Onam Affair
Onam marks the yearly visit of king Mahabali to his beloved kingdom. There are folktales - Maaveli Naadu Vannidum Kaalam (When Maveli, our King, ruled the land) - that testify to the popularity of the demon king, even today.
Day one marks the preparation for King Bali’s visit. On this day, people decorate the entrances of their homes with colourful floral carpets or Pookalam, with as many as 10 concentric rings of flowers arranged in beautiful patterns and colours. Fascinatingly, more layers and rings are added on consecutive days. Day five unravels in an uproar of sport, with the famed and spectacular snake boat race. Up to 100 oarsmen row the long and elegantly carved snake boats in Aranmula and other regions of Kerala.
It is believed that Mahabali, having arrived in Kerala, visits the homes of his people, on Thiruvonam. Edging closer to Thiruvonam, people prepare and place clay pyramids that represent Mahabali and Vamana, in the center of the Pookalam. Homes are decorated and the grand Onam feast, Onam Sadya, is prepared to treat the visiting king.
Traditionally the sadhya is a delicious spread of a variety of dishes including upperi (banana chips), maranga curry and naranga curry (sour lemon pickles), erissery (a sweet-spicy vegetable preparation) , parripu curry (thick lentil gravy), inji curry (ginger pickle), sambhar (savoury lentil soup), moru kachiyathu (seasoned buttermilk), chenna mezhkkupuratti (fried yam), avial (mixed vegetable with coconut gravy), payasam (sweet rice pudding). Onam is a feast for both the senses and spirit!
The Sun God has turned his magnificent Ratha (chariot) drawn by seven horses towards the northern hemisphere. It is Ratha Saptami, anannual celebration that falls on the seventh day of the Tamil month of Maasi . Celebrated at homes and temples, on the occasion of this planetary event, this quaint festival marks the movement of the seasons into spring. Cue for Chennai to brace for the imminent summer.
While you enjoy this brief courting with spring, and herald the fierce Chennai Summer, here are some offbeat things to do with your friends and family this season, and fall in love with this sizzling city again.
Tucked away in a picturesque fishing hamlet in Ennore beach, 15 kms down the famed Marina, Thalankuppam pier is the perfect place to catch a quite sunrise. You can get there by a scenic drive along the Ennore High Road. The pristine beaches here are every photographer’s delight. A walk along the pier leads you right into the hem of a colorful montage of luminescent orange, turquoise blue, and ocean grey. You could also hitch a boat ride with the local fishermen and ride into this breathtaking view, as the waves wash you over with a spirit of love and peace.
The Leisure Yacht Company
A twilight cruise on the east coast, watching the sun go down leaving golden freckles on the sky, kissed by the cool sea breeze...wouldn’t that make for a great summer evening? This summer dream is what the Leisure Yacht Company has to offer. At TLYC, you can try your hand at fishing in the solemn sea waters and if you get lucky, there is an electric barbecue on the outdoor deck to help you cook your catch, and pack more fun filled action into your evening. You can also spot container ships, groove to happy tunes, and have your best selfie moments aboard their aptly named yacht ‘Moon Beam’.
Olive Ridley Turtle walks
Between January and April every year, migrating Olive Ridley turtles swim ashore and lay eggs on the coast of Bay of Bengal. To safely relocate these eggs into hatcheries until they hatch 45 days later, volunteers and conservationists organize turtle walks in the night along the beaches of Chennai.
Instated in 1972 by wildlife conservationist Romulus Whitaker, the Madras Olive Ridley turtle walks not only offer a glimpse into this beautiful natural phenomenon, but also raise awareness on ecological issues that confront the city. Take part in the walks along the Palavakkam beach, Elliot’s or Marina beach and feel your miniscule place in the larger fabric of nature.
Barefoot Scuba Dive
You can hop on a catamaran, sail past the vanilla foams into cobalt waters, guided by a seasoned coach. Take the plunge and dive underwater to discover the enthralling marine life of Covelong, with shimmering coral reefs and colourful schools of fish from the honeycomb morays to snappers, and bewildering octopuses. You can take a professional course or just do a fun dive at Barefoot Scuba.
There is more to summer in Chennai than the draining sun!
It is said that best way to get a taste of the kinks of a city, is to explore it by foot. And this is at most true for a city like Chennai, where you you receive more than you seek.
On these curated walks, you experience imprints of the city’s history, architecture, culture, and culinary heritage, with every step.
- Cultural heritage: Story Trails (www.storytrails.in)
- Architecture: Madras Inherited (www.facebook.com/MInherited)
- Food: Puliyogare Travels (puliyogaretravels.com)
- History: Past Forward (pastforward.in/website/index.html)
- A bit of this, and that: TOI Chance Ey Illa (chanceyilla.in/trails-register.php)Come to think of it, Chennai was originally named quite aptly. Madrasapattinam can literally be broken down to mean, the Land of Exciting Flavours (Mad-Ras-a-Pattinam*).
*In Tamil, ‘ras’ means flavour, and ‘pattinam’ means city.