Pookkalam: the Flower decoration on Onam

After shifting our base to south, I have indulged myself wholeheartedly in the festivals of South India. When Onam, the biggest festival of Kerala was around the corner, I waited impatiently for it to be celebrated in our residential complex.

Festivals are the occasions for religious celebrations,exuberance, dancing and singing, and most importantly being together. India is the land of festivals, so much so that every day is a minor festival of sorts. Some of the festivals are celebrated across India while others are specific to the states. Kerala, the hot spot tourism destination, the land of green and blue color has some extraordinary festivals, and Onam is the biggest festival celebrated by Malyalis, the people of Kerala.

Pookkalams of Onam

The story behind the Onam Festival:
Onam is celebrated in the first Malayali month of Chingam which corresponds with August-September in English calendar. There are two legends associated with Onam, the legend of Lord Vishnu’s Vaman Avtar and king Mahabali who was the great-grandson of demonic Hiranykashyap (Bhakt Prahlad’s father) and another is the legend of Parasurama who is considered to have created the land of Kerala by his axe. However the first legend is quite popular and visible in the Onam celebrations, when Mahabli is said to be visiting the land of Kerala and its people once very year at the time of Onam.

Onam, like all other Indian festivals though being religious in nature, also coincide with rice harvesting. It is a ten-day long festival which is also considered a cultural festival of people of Kerala. Women wear their traditional Kasavu sari, also known as Kerala Sari and men wear Mundu.

Kerala sari

Kerala men wearing Mundu on Onam

Just like the Ganesh Chaturadshi where people bring and install Ganesh murtis, during Onam people install an statues of Thrikkakara Appan or Onatthappan which is Vishnu in the form of Vamana in their home.

Besides many religiuos ceremonies and poojas, festival of Onam is enjoyed with many traditional dances like ThiruvathiraKali, Pulikali and Kathkali, the snake boat races, Onathallu (martial arts), Onam sadya which is a special and elaborate feast, and decorating their homes with intricate Rangoli like Pookkalams using only flower petals.

What is pookkallam?
Pookalam’ consists of two words, ‘poov’ meaning flower and ‘kalam’ means colour sketches on the ground. It is considered auspicious to prepare Pookalam, also known as ‘Aththa-Poo’ during the festival of Onam. Pookkalams are one of the many rituals of Onam where mainly women delicately decorate their houses with flower rangolis.
Pookkalams are only to be made using flower petals and no tea powder, color powders, pulses, grains, papers or any other thing is used. The scale and arrangement of colors and the artistic and delicate expressions of Pookkalams make it the most beautiful event of Onam. It is a cousin of Rangoli and Mandana in North India and Kolam in Tamil Nadu.

Today, I take you to visit various Pookkalams made during Onam.

Traditionally, the making of the Pookalam begins on the Atham day, ten days before Thiruonam. On the Atham day, only a single ring of flowers is made. The next day which is Chithira, there are two rings and finally on the Thiruonam day there are 10 rings. On the first day only a single colour flower is used, second day two colours and on the final day 10 different colors of flower is used.

Nowadays many Pookkalam competitions are held across Kerala, just as various Jhanki competitions are held on the occasion of Janmashtami in north India.

Different flowers used to make Pookkalams are:

Thumba (Ceylon Slitwort): the small white flower is used extensively for its white color.

Jamanthi ( Marigold, Chrysanthemum):  Jamanthi plays a crucial role in Pookkalams as they are availble in variety of colors and with many dark and light shades.

Chethi (Flame Of The Woods): Chethi, with its red colour, makes the Pookkalam appear vibrant and stunning.

Chemparathy (hibiscus): Like Chethi, Chemparathy is used to get the dark red colour in designs.

Shankupushpam (Butterfly Pea): Shankupushpam is one of the most prominent flowers that is used for Onam Pookkalams. It is of blue color.

Hanuman Kereedam (Red Pagoda Flower): It has red-orange flowers.

Mukkuthi (little tree plant): One of the most common flowers for Onam Pookkalam is Mukkuthi. Its dark yellow colour makes the design look more vibrant.

People also use many other flowers like rose, jasmine etc. to bring alive the design.

Themes and designs range from religious and mythological scenes, Keralan life, boat race, patriotic expressions to simple geometric designs.

Kilos and kilos of flowers are ordered. Petals are hand plucked and pinched. Petals are pinched to give intricacy to the design, some of these are soaked overnight in water to darken the color to get shading effects. Different colors and hues are kept separate.

First the floor is cleaned and then the design is made on the floor with a chalk. Then starts the filling of design with different colored flowers. Filling starts with center and then spreads outwards but it depends upon the design. It may also start at the top and then graduating to bottom. It takes ten to twelve hours of work by a team of 8-10 people to make a Pookkalam of 10 ft diameter. Lamps are placed in the center and/or around the Pookkalam. Statues of Maaveli(Mahabali) and Lord Vaman are also placed sometimes.

Making of Pookkalam is a joyous, colorful and fragrant event. It is animating to watch Pookkalams taking shape gradually. People sing and laugh and make the intricate and back-breaking job as light as the petals of the flowers.

As I earlier said, traditionally Pookkalams are made on the first day of the Onam and then added on with more flowers increasing in size and furthering the designs. However for Pookkalam competitions, these are done overnight.

Designs are evaluated on the basis of difficulty of design, neatness in presentation and concepts and ideas.

And the prize goes to this Pookkalam displaying Kalia Mardan- Krishna dancing on the head of Kalia Naag.

Krishna’s face is all flower petals and yet so playful!

Look at the Kaliya naag. It is all flower petals and yet so fearsome.

The shading effects on Krishna’s garments, merely by using flower petals as if they have used colors on canvas!

The shading effect on the swirling river, again all with flower petals.

And the scent that spreads in every corner! I wish I could send it to you dear readers.

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