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Major Festivals

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ONAM - The National Festival of Kerala

A legend of Onam is about the sweet memories of distant past when Mahabali, a celebrated emperor of the Asuras, was supposed to ruled over Kerala. His period is believed as the golden age in the history of the country. A popular folk song narrates the glories of that period. When Mahabali (Mavely) ruled, all men were equal, they were leading a life of happiness and nobody had any calamity-thus goes the song. There was neither dishonesty nor deception, nor was there any instance of false utterance, use of counterfeit measures or other kinds of unfair practice. Perfect harmony, communal and otherwise, prevailed. In short it was ideal welfare state, the legend tells us. But the Devas got annoyed with the rule of Mahabali as their popularity were deteriorating alarmingly. They complained to Lord Vishnu and he reincarnated as Vamana, the dwarf. He approached Mahabali and begged for three feet of land. Mahabali immediately granted Vamana’s wish. Suddenly, the dwarf sized Vamana grew into the skies and with one step covered the earth and with another step the heavens. With no place to keep the third step, Mahabali offered his head, which was pushed by Vamana into the netherworld or pathalam. But before sending Mahabali to the netherworld, Lord Vishnu gave Mahabali the boon that he can visit his subjects once in a year. The day Mahabali visits his subjects is celebrated as Onam. The time for his annual visit was in the first Malayalam month Chingom (August-September) and this occasion became one of Jubilation throughout the land, reminiscent of the prosperous times of Mahabali.

Whatever be the truth behind this legend, Onam has for last several centuries been a grand national harvest festival in which all sections of the people participate with extreme Jubilation. The festival is supposed to begin from the lunar asterism Atham which falls ten days before the asterism Thiruvonam. The preparations for the celebration begin on the Atham day. The Thiruvonam is the most important day of the festival. In the front yard of the house Athapoovu (floral decoration) is made for ten days from Atham to a Thiruvonam.  Presents are distributed to the younger members of the family. Then follows the onam feast of delicious food served on plantain leaves. Members of families, staying far away from native places make it a point to visit their ancestral homes to celebrate the festival in the company of their kith and kin. Keralites celebrate onam by organising community feast, cultural programmes, etc.

After the feast there will be sports and games, both indoor and outdoor, in which both men and women of all ages participate. Mack fight, ball games, card and chess play are the favorites of the menfolk whereas women find pleasure in `Oonjalattom, Thumbithullal, Thiruvathirakali, Kaikottikali, etc. Boat races (regatta) also form another item of onam festival which attract thousands of people including tourists from outside the state.

Of late, the state Government itself has taken the initiative to celebrate Onam season as tourist festival with the motive of attracting tourists. Various cultural forms, old and new, are presented in all important towns in the state during the Festival.

VISHU

Among the various Hindu festivals in Kerala, Vishu occupies a unique position in more than one respect. As symbol of the unostentatious Malayali, Vishu is free from the usual pomp and show and merry-making associated with other festivities. The first day for Medam is the unchangeable day of Vishu, whereas other festivals are determined according to the lunar asterisms on which they fall.

This day on which Vishu falls is the astronomical New Year day and it is celebrated as such. The Malayalis believe that the fortunes for the year depend upon the nature of the object one sees first in the morning of Vishu Day. In order to fulfill the desire to look at the auspicious articles, they prepare a 'Kani' (anomen) on the previous day for seeing in the next morning.The next item is giving of handsel (Kaineetom). The eldest member of the family takes some silver coins and gives them to a junior member with some raw rice and Konna flower. This is repeated in the case of other members also and they in turn give such handsel to their juniors, relatives, servants etc. After this the children begin to fire crackers.

NAVARATHRI

The Navarthri dedicated to Devi, the Divine Mother is celebrated all over India. In some places it is called Dussehra, in some other places `Kalipuja' or `Saraswathi Puja' and in still others, `Ayudha Puja'. During Navarathri days the Divine Mother is worshipped in one or the other of her different manifestations namely Durga, Saraswathi , Kali, etc. The Puja in connection with Navarathri is known as Bhuvaneswari puja which means, the worship of `Universal Mother'.

The festival is celebrated during the first nine days in the bright half of Aswina namely September-October. The last three days of the Navarathri are called Durgashtami, Mahanavami and Vijayadasami, and they are considered more sacred than the other days for Devi worship. It is believed that by offering prayers to Devi during these three days one can attain the full benefits of observing the Navaratiri rites for the whole period.

DEEPAVALI

Deepavali, the festival of lights, is held throughout India. In Kerala, this is celebrated only by HIndus. It falls on the preceding day of the New Moon in the Malayalam month Thulam (October-November). It is celebrated in commemoration of the destruction of the demon called Narakasura by Lord Krishna. As Lord Krishna killed Narakasura on the Chaturdasi day (the fourteenth lunar day) it is also known as Narakachaturdasi. Before sunrise, all in the house have their oil bath and put on new cloths. Sweets are then served followed by bursting of crackers.

The word 'Deepavali' means an array of lights. Light has always been the symbol of the highest ideals of man, and the festival of light, is celebrated all over the world in different forms.

MAHA SHIVARATHRI

The Mahasivarathri is essentially a religious festival unlike the Onam and Thiruvathira. The word means `the great night of Siva. According to the Sivapurana, it falls on the Krishna Chathurdasi day which is on the fourteenth day during the warning of the moon in the month of Megha, though in some years it may occur in Phalguna also. In Kerala the month of Kumbham is noted for the Sivarathri festival which falls in February -March.

There is no other place in Kerala where Sivarathiri is celebrated on such a grand scale as in Aluva. The celebration of Sivarathri in Aluva is as famous as the festivals like Ashtami at Vaikom, Pooram at Thrissur etc. The celebration of Sivarathri at the Siva temple at Aluva on the sand bank of River Periyar is attended with great eclat. In many respects the Sivarathri festival in Kerala can be considered a miniature Ardha Kumbha Mela held at Thriveni, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga-Yamuna, and the invisible Saraswathi.

CHRISTMAS

Christmas celebrated to honour the glory of the nativity of Jesus on 25th December is the most significant and spectacular of Christian festivals. No other celebration is so enriched with so many customs and ceremonies. There is an array of spectacles like Christmas Star, Christmas tree, the Crib, Christmas cake, Christmas presents and the Christmas Father.

The mood is set with the advent of the season by the twinkling of Christmas stars, the beautiful pointer to the Babe of Bethlehem. The crib is a miniature production of the staple where Jesus was born. It developed from the old practice of giving dramatic expression to the events and the surroundings of the birth of Christ. Carols and songs developed from earlier nativity plays have become one of the most cheerful spectacles of the festivities.Priests hold mass in churches three times starting with the first at mid-night. Just before the mid-night mass, an image of the Child is brought by the priest, preceded by rows of Children holding lighted candles that are placed in the crib. The hymn 'Gloria in exelcis Deo' is intoned admidst the explosion of crackers. A sumptous lunch with rare delicacies is a significant feature of the celebration. In Kerala, X'mas retains its homeliness and expresses itself in the cultural forms of the country without losing what is native to itself.

EASTER

Easter is the oldest Christian festival, as old as Christianity itself. The Central tenet of Christianity is not the birth of Jesus, but his resurrection. Easter derived from this paschal mystery and from the events of Good Friday.

On Holy Thursday the Lord's Supper is held in the evening. The washing of feet is a remarkable trait, emphasizing the love for one another. At home there will be the rite of the paschal bread. After supper, the 'cross cake' is brought out and cut into pieces. A piece is broken, dipped into sauce and handed over to each member of the family in due order. Good Friday is a day of grief when churches are empty and dark. Services are held in the afternoon. Holy Saturday is a day of mourning and wailing. A total silence reigns the church from morning to dusk. But by ten at night the church is full to observe the Easter Vigil. In the gloom which envelops the church, new fire is struck from flint and blessed. A big candle is then consecrated and from it is lighted to many candles, indicating the resurrection. Bells peal, music fills the air and light floods the hall. Hallelujah is the joyous word of Easter wish. Easter Sunday is a quiet day and the celebrations are spiritual and inward rather than social and showy.

MILADI SHERIF

Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, was born on the 20th April, 571 AD. Muslims all over the world celebrate the birth of the Prophet in various ways. In Kerala the practice of large scale celebration of the Prophet's birthday is of recent origin. Reading what is commonly known as the “Maulod” which is a short biography of the Prophet written both in verse and prose in the Arabic language has been the common ritual of the day. Of late in Kerala, there has developed another practice connected with the Miladi Sharif. Colorful processions are taken out through the towns reciting Thakbir. These processions finally converge on some central place where public meetings are held. Night lectures are organized during the first twelve days of the month when Muslim Ulemas through their discourses enlighten the people on various aspects of the life of the Prophet.

RAMADAN

Idul-Fitr, of late known by the misnomer `Ramadan' is one of the two festivals of Islam. Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar year. During this holy month the Muslims Observe fast, giving up all kinds of food and drinks during day time, and spend the major part of the night in devotion and prayer. Purification of the body and soul is the main aim of this observance.
When the crescent appears on the western horizon heralding the end of the month of fasting, it marks the beginning of the Idul-Fitr festival. Because this festival is connected with the month of Ramadan, it came to be known as `Ramadan'. The Idul-Fitr festival starts with the commencement of the first day of the month of `Shawwl'. The first item of the celebration is distribution of food materials to the poor and the deserving. Any person who holds food in excess of the day's need must necessarily make his contribution in accordance with the scales prescribed by Islam. Muslims all over the world celebrate this festival with great eclat and in gratitude to God.

BAKRID

Bakrid, to be rightly called Idul-Azha or the festival of sacrifice, is the second of the two festivals of Islam. This festival is observed by Muslims all over the world. It falls on the 10th of Dhul-Hagg, the last month of the lunar year. It is celebrated in commemoration of Abraham's willingness to offer his only son as a sacrifice at God's command. In Kerala as in other parts of the world, this day dawns with the resounding of Thakhbir (Allahu Akbar), the declaration that God is great. Every Muslim house wakes up with the spirit of sacrifice and festivity. Men, women and children, dressed themselves in their best attire and reciting the Thakbir, proceed to Id-Gah which is the wide open space set apart for public prayers. The whole atmosphere is filled with the resonance of "Allahu-Akbar". The Assembly then prepares for the congregational prayer led by the Imam. After the ceremonial Id prayer, the leader addresses the devotees, exhorting them to be conscious of their duties to God and follow the example of Abraham. The prayer and the sermon over, the gathering exchange greetings and as an expression of affectionate brotherhood, hug each other. The festivity at home commence after the ceremonial prayer with hearty feasts followed by social visits.

THIRUVATHIRA

The Thiruvathira festival falls on the asterism Thiruvathira in the Malayalam month of Dhanu (December-January). The Ardra Darshan celebrated in Tamil Nadu corresponds to Thiruvathira of Kerala. It is considered to be high auspicious to worship Siva and the devotees go to the temple before sunrise for 'darshan'. Tradition has it that Thiruvathira festival is celebrated in commemoration of the death of Kamadeva, the mythological God of love.
Even though the Thiruvathira is celebrated by most of the Hindu communities it is essentially a Nair women's get up at about 4 am and take bath on seven days commencing form the asterism Aswathi. While taking bath they sing certain songs mostly relating to the God of Love, accompanied by rhythmic sound produced by splashing water with their fists. In conclusion they stand in a circle in the water hand in hand singing songs. The first Thiruvathira coming after the marriage of a girl is known as Puthen Thiruvathira or Poothiruvathira and it is celebrated on a grand scale.