Utopian lands, noble kings and hope for an equal future – celebrating Atham, the first day of Onam

Today is “Atham” – the day the “Hasta” star (the constellation that looks like the 5 points of a palm) rises in the zodiac sign Virgo. This is the day that marks the start of the Onam season in Kerala (and across the world, by now). Ten days from Atham is the actual Onam day, but the countdown and build up is as fun as the day itself.

Image: Hand in the sky – Atham Nakshatra / Corvus constellation (Source: Till Credner)

I spent most of my childhood in Kerala, which means that this season has a special place in my heart. When I think of Onam, memories pour in and my senses come alive. Taste is first – the rich, creamy, sweet payasam (kheer) and of course the sadya (feast) that comes before, fully vegetarian and organic, eaten on freshly cut banana-leaves, sitting cross legged on the floor. A feast fit for a king – and it is indeed a feast for a king, as with Onam, we celebrate the visit from a long-exiled King Mahabali.

Mahabali was the king of Kerala – they say a demon king, with a noble heart. So noble-hearted that when Vamana (the fifth incarnation of Vishnu in the form of a dwarf) came and asked him for three steps of land, he willingly said yes. Despite advice to the contrary from his advisors, he did not turn his back on a man (apparently) in need, and in return Vamana grows and grows until with 2 steps, he covers heaven and earth. With nowhere to place his third step, Vamana asks Mahabali how he will fulfil his promise, and Mahabali offers Vamana his own head to place that third step. With that, the king is banished to the underworld and the land which had till then enjoyed peace, prosperity and equality is left to suffer. Sad. (On a digressory note, perhaps Vamana sunk the whole of Kerala underwater with that third step, which is why in the next avatar as Parashurama, Vishnu had to come back and get it out of the water. Plausible, don’t you think? What an amazing set of mythologies we have!)

Image: Vamana approaching Mahabali
(Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Back to story – To offer some peace, Vishnu agrees to let him visit Kerala once every year, and that is Onam day. And we get to relive the memories of that utopian land. There is a song, “Maveli Nadu…” which every child in Kerala sings ad nauseum during Onam time, and the catchy tune is used as a jingle in almost all radio ads during Onam season. It’s hard for me to capture the essence of that song here, but it settles in as an ear-worm into my head every time around Atham and refuses to leave until Mahabali has come and gone, and is safely back in his underworld. Despite the obvious annoyance of an ear worm, I love that vivid sonic figment from my childhood, but as an adult I have also come to appreciate the lyrics and the very vivid description of utopia:

“All people had equality (whoever said equality was a modern concept!) Everyone lived in joy, and there was no danger. There was no illness (physical or emotional), there was no deceit. There were no lies, not even those the size of a sesame seed…”

…it goes on and on, and I am reminded of the world we should try and create in this day and age, around us, whatever the radius of influence each one of us has.

Atham, supposedly, is the day that Mahabali starts his journey from the underworld, towards Kerala. To welcome him, we put flowers in front of every house, every day for 10 days, and each day this “pookkalam” (the flower pattern) grows bigger and better until on the final day, it is a most mesmerizing sight. Nowadays, there are actual competitions that judge best pookkalams and some of them look like works of art, but the memories I cherish are about waking up and going to the garden each morning to gather up flowers, never quite sure what you will find and then making the best out of it. That spontaneity and improvisation was a big part of the fun. On Atham, tradition dictates that you use only Thumba (Ceylon Slitwort) – a tiny white flower – notoriously hard to pluck because of its size, but its day 1 and enthusiasm is an all-time high. (On another digressory note: why do you think it’s a “Ceylon” Slitwort – any chance the underworld that Mahabali was banished to was Ceylon (the Lanka of Ravana millenia later, the modern-day Sri Lanka,) and therefore we use Ceylon Slitworts to make him feel welcome. How does this one score on a plausibility spectrum?) As traditions morph, these days you see many kinds of white flowers and more often than not, a vibrance of colors even on the Atham day pookklam. That’s the beauty of traditions – they are quite capable of keeping up with the times, you just need to let them.

Image: Thumba flower (Ceylon Stilwort)

Happy Atham everyone!