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Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Tragic Commercialisation of a Pious Festival!

It was after nearly 40 years that I happened to be in Kerala during Onam (on 16 September) this year. As far as I can recollect, it was in 1974 that I last celebrated Onam in Kerala. That was the last time I celebrated Onam with my parents. (Read here earlier posts on Onam – One, Two)

I visited Kerala during Onam this year to attend a cousin’s wedding. The function was fixed for 15 September, the ninth day of the 12-day Onam celebrations. The last four days (uthradam, thiruvonam, avittam and chathayam stars) are the most important. Onam, the most important day of all, falls on the tenth day.

After the marriage function, I went to my ancestral home where my paternal uncle and his family live. It is my practice to visit them whenever I am in Kerala, however short the visit may be. It is mainly to pay obeisance to our family deity. My cousin, the uncle’s son, does the pooja (worship) at the temple.

I also spent the last three days meeting several people in connection with a writing project that I have been planning since the past several months.

I do not know if I was happy or sad at being in Kerala during Onam this year. Though not deliberately, I was forced to compare the earlier ones, which I was part of (40 to 50 years ago, that is!). Onam, though not a religious festival, has religious connotations, being connected with gods and demons such as Vishnu and Mahabali. It used to be more of a family function. This is one occasion when all the members of the family are almost sure to get together. Those who study or work at reasonably distant places (so that Delhi can be excluded!) come home to be with their parents and other members of the family for the happy occasion. In Kerala schools and colleges are closed for ten days and offices and even shops are normally closed during the last four days.

This time, however, it was different for me. I was, kind of, alone. My parents are no more. Brother (at Indirapuram, UP) and sisters (at Palakkad and Kozhikode, in Kerala), with their families, were at far off places. My children were not with me. My wife, though in Kerala, was not with me either. We had temporarily parted our ways soon after the marriage ceremony, since I was going to be busy with the project work.

This year’s Onam had been completely washed away by the rains. The rains which started in the last days of May continued even after Onam on 16 September. This is very unusual. Usually the rains stop by middle- or latest by end-August. (It looked like there was an unusual pact between Lords Sun and Indra, the god of the rains, that Sun will not shine over Kerala for five months and Indra could have his stomach full of Keralites’ miseries (and curses!).)

The main cash crop of Kerala is rubber. Since the last few decades, most of the paddy fields have been converted to rubber estates. It is only in the Palakkad area (meaningfully called the granary of Kerala) that one can still see paddy fields. It has been more than five months since the rubber plants have been tapped because of the rains. Every day it rains at least for a few hours.

One thing that pained me is the lack of flower decorations in the front courtyard of each and every home during Onam. The circular flower decoration starts on the first of the 12-day celebrations on atham star. The decoration continues till the ninth day. Each day, the decoration gets bigger and bigger, having added one round more than the previous day. We used to have different flowers for each separate round. On the ninth day (uthradam star) we used to have the biggest and the most beautiful decoration of all. The flowers would all have been collected by us children wandering through bushes and tiny forests which were abundant forty years ago. Sadly, not any more! The exotic designer decorations that we can very commonly see these days were not very popular then.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The bushes, unruly grown plants, tiny forests, all of them have been destroyed to construct buildings and roads. In the nearly half a square kilometer area we had only a dozen or so houses then. The nearest motorable road was about half a kilometre away. (When one of my uncles got terribly burnt in our family temple during those days, he had to be carried on a cot to the road where a jeep was waiting to carry him to the hospital. He had slipped and fallen into boiling arunazhi payasam – an offering prepared in the temple using about two kg of rice with six kg of jaggery!) Now there are roughly a hundred houses in the same area with motorable roads to each of them. Each family owns at least a two-wheeler, and many of them, cars. Is this development? Maybe it is. Well, something has to be destroyed to build ‘new’ things. That is nature’s law.

Another tragic part is (I am sorry, I am only talking about tragedies related to Onam!) flowers for the decoration need to be purchased from market; flowers are brought from nearby Tamil Nadu state with very few choices. Whereas we used to collect several types, shapes, and colours of flowers, now the choice is limited to two or three. Wherever I went this year, the one prominent flower seen was marigold. In fact, that is the only one I saw! How tragic!

Another more disturbing fact is, Onam is being more and more commercialised. Well, what more to expect when education, religious devotion, culture, art, and music are all being commercialised! Dirty commercialisation at that! From a purely family get-together, Onam has since grown to a social and commercial celebration. In every village there are clubs which celebrate Onam. They conduct cultural programmes, competitions and such other events. Most of the expenses are sponsored by local establishments or rich individuals. And they also collect money from families and individuals by way of priced coupons. Every club looks forward to earning profits.

How time flies! How people change! The pure familial, simple, and enjoyable Onam has now become a highly technological, showy, social, and money minting festival! Well, if father and mother can be made commercial commodities (father’s day and mother’s day), why not Onam?


  1. Well said Ammavan.... year after year this is more and more commercialised...

  2. Hi Ettan, rightly said & well written !!! N'ways good to know that you could be in Kerala for Onam this time, while many NRKs like us couldn't make it..