Onam is almost round the corner ! Karkidakam is not over yet, but it doesn't rain much. A bit too hot for the past couple of days, even as the whole of northern India is flooded !
Can't help getting nostalgic as Onam draws nearer. I am feeling nostalgic even for the articles I had written.... written ten years ago !!! Ten years ! Can't believe it's been such a long time.
This article was written for the Onam Supplement of The Hindu in 1996, the year I started freelancing for The Hindu. I am posting it here. It's a bit too longish. But I hope you might find it good reading. For writing this article, I had some real research work, using the library of Kerala History Association in Ernakulam.
Unfortunately, I can't provide you with the link as The Hindu archives from 1996 are not available online.
Article for Onam Supplement (Aug 23, 1996)
The mystique of Onam
'Once upon a time there was a king called Mahabali who ruled the country in such a good manner that all people prospered and all were equals in his kingdom,' so begins the popular legend on Onam.
Who was this Mahabali ? Who was the Vamana who ousted him from the throne ? And why is Vamana worshipped during the festival celebrating the return of a king treacherously ousted by him ? Numerous are the contradictions and ironies underlying the legend of Mahabali, Vamana and the myth of Onam.
If stones could talk, the flagstones of the Vishnu temple at Thrikkakkara, the abode of Onam could have answered these questions, even narrate the whole story of Onam down the centuries. Thrikkakkara temple, one of the oldest temples in Kerala and celebrated in the writings of ancient travellers and Tamil Sangam literature is the centre stage of legends surrounding Onam. More than 13 centuries old, it is the only temple in the country dedicated to Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Vishnu who sent Mahabali to Pathala.
History and myth lay inseparably intertwined at the Thrikkakkara Temple which has about 18 important stone inscriptions dating back to 10-13 A.D. The inscriptions which were published in the Travancore Archeological Series in 1916 by Mr. T.A. Gopinatha Rao (1916) and Mr. K.V. Subramania Iyer (1923) are in 'Vattezhuthu,' the prototype of Malayalam.
Considered one of 13 'divyadesams' of Malanadu, Thrikkakkara or Thirukalkarai, as it was known in the days of the Kulasekharas, was the capital of Kalkarainadu, a fiefdom under the Kulasekharas, it is believed. But there is no documentary evidence to prove it. Nammalvar, Vaishnava saint and the author of 'Thiruvaimizhi,' who lived around 9th Century, had sung praises of the temple and the beautiful countrysides surrounding it. It was a important pilgrimage centre for the Sri Vaishnavas, who were slowly gaining ground over Buddhists and Jains. The temple also finds mention in Sukasandesam, an ancient literary work in Malayalam.
Though consecrated to Vishnu in the incarnation of Vamana, Thrikkakkara temple has a shrine of Siva also nearby. It is interesting to note in this context that though Thrikkakkara Appan or Vamana is worshipped during Onam celebrations, Mathevar or Mahadevar is also worshipped with equal fervour and the reason remains unexplained.
The presence of a multitude of 'Upadevathas' (subordinate deities) is another special feature of Thrikkakkara temple which helps in its identification from ancient literary works and inscriptions. The main temple of Vamana also has Bhagavathi, Sastha and Gopalakrishnan and the nearby Siva temple, Thekkumkara Thevar temple has shrines of Parvathi, Durga, Bhagavathi, Subramanian and Ganapathy.
From the Thrikkakkara edicts emerges a picture of the Kulasekhara empire which existed till about 1102 A.D., as well as the socio-political and religious milieu of the times. It is believed that Kalakarainadu constituted the present Thrikkakkara, Edappally and surrounding areas. The names of a few chieftains appointed as naduvazhis of Kalkarainadu by the Kulasekhara kings who ruled from their capital Mahodayapuram are mentioned in the inscriptions most of which were written during the reign of the Kulasekhara kings Indukothai Varma (944 - 962) and Bhaskara Ravi Varman I (963 - 1019). One record also mentions the existence of Arunoottuvar or the 'Group of 600' who helped and controlled the naduvazhis.
During the reign of Kulasekharas who were great patrons (and followers) of Vaishnavism, Hindu temples flourished in Kerala and Thrikkakkara was a major beneficiary of this royal patronage as can be seen from the inscriptions which mention generous to the temple.
By the turn of this century, Thrikkakkara Temple was in utter ruins with only the Adhishtana remaining. All the standing structures were dilapidated and the image of the deity was also broken down. After repeated pleas from the Vaishnavaites and the report of the Archeology Department the Maharaja of Travancore reconstructed the temple in its present form. Remnants of the old temple wall described by Nammalvar as 'kodimathil' can still be traced beneath the new structure and the pathway surrounding the temple.
The Thrikkakkara Temple that dates back to ancient times has no mention whatsoever about the Namboodiris, the community that held sway over Kerala after the advent of Hinduism. Neither is Edappally Swaroopam, the erstwhile principality with a Namboodiri ruler that had adjoined Kochi and had played a major historical role in Kerala, mentioned in the records. The temple and inscriptions might be older than the emergence of Namboodiris as a force and the formation of Edappally Swaroopam. But later the ruler of Edappally became the official priest there and till recently held the right to nominate the priest.
The inscriptions describe the celebration of Onam as an occasion when all local chieftains assembled at Thrikkakkara to pay their respect to the Kulasekhara Chakravarthi (Emperor). The festivities started from the star of Thiruvonam in the Malayalam month of Karkatakam and lasted for 28 days till Thiruvonam in the month of Chingam. The last 10 days saw the peak of celebrations.
Later the festival was confined to these 10 days beginning from the Atham star in Chingam. The records describe the celebrations in detail and the roles assigned to each king. It is not clear whether the festival had any religious significance at that time.
The festival of Onam that first began to be celebrated at Thrikkakkara has spread from there, spanning caste and creed, penetrating the farthest corner of the world where Malayalees have reached, even as the cold inscriptions from a bygone era remain silent spectators for all the pomp and splendour of the celebrations raging around every year.