Once upon a time, there was a great king called Mahabali in Kerala. He was just, generous, righteous and so admired that even Gods were jealous. So they sent Lord Vishnu to put Mahabali in his place. Lord Vishnu came to earth in the form of Vamana-a dwarf Brahman, asking for alms at the King’s door. Mahabali promised to grant him his wish and Vamana said that he just wants a piece of land that he will cover in three steps. The King was amused. Vamana then revealed his enormous form and covered the earth and heaven in two steps. He then asked Mahabali where to place his third step. The King humbly offered his own head. Vamana stepped on him and sent him to the underworld. But even Lord Vishnu was so pleased with his generosity that he allowed the king to come and visit his people once a year. His yearly visit is celebrated by Keralites all over the world as Onam festival even today.
Monsoons are almost over and earth is all clean and green. Flowers of hundred hues are blooming and rice fields are turning golden. Nature is overflowing with abundant generosity. Now is the time to celebrate the first day of the Chingam month (in August/ September). Some also say it is the harvest celebrations. Whatever the significance, the whole of Kerala is busy shopping, socializing and cooking. It is a time of family gatherings and gifts galore. Onam is also time for sharing warmth and compassion.
It is typically a ten-day celebration, packed with cultural activities. Sports and games, elephant processions, snake boat races, music, and dance. Not to forget great vegetarian food. Every house is bedecked with Pookalam- decorative flower arrangement on the floor to welcome King Mahabali.
The season is blessed with a bounty of myriad greens and flowers. Pookalam brings that beauty at the doorstep. Colorful flowers and green leaves are used to create mesmerizing designs.
On the first day of the Onam celebrations, the Pookalam begins with just small white flowers of Thumba (Ceylon Slitwort). Every day, a new color is added and the design expanded. By the tenth day, the pookalam is complete in its complex design and color combinations.
A large variety of flowers is used- Hibiscus, Marigold, Chrysanthemum, Jasmine, Flame of the Forest, Lantana, Rose, Lotus, Red Pagoda flowers. Each flower brings its unique hue and texture to Pookalam. Holy Basil is an integral part of the Pookalam along with other green leaves. The colors are mainly white, bright yellow, orange, red and green. Blue, pink and purple are less common. The use of flowers gives Pookalam a three-dimensional effect and a definite texture.
The overall patterns are typically circular. Within these circles are star shapes, or more circles, squares or octagons. A central figure of Ganesha or any God is common too. There is a competition of sorts to create complex, precise patterns and fill it with dazzling colors as women folk show off their creativity and skill. A Pookalam is judged by the complexity of its pattern along with the variety of flowers and their combinations used. A simple tricolor Pookalam is a poor cousin of the complex multicolored one.
The design requires great patience and precision along with a steady hand as the designs are symmetrical and geometrical. It is typically a family effort- there could be one main designer but all women in the household will contribute to collect the flowers and fill in the Pookalam while chatting and gossiping in good humor. It is a very good bonding time.
During Onam, you can walk the streets of Kerala mesmerized by the designs and beauty at each doorstep.