The Onam festival season officially kicked off on Monday as Minister for Culture AK Balan inaugurated the 'Athachamayam' procession at Tripunithura in Ernakulam district. The festival is celebrated across the state, regardless of social, economic or religious backgrounds. The 'Athachamayam' procession, held on the day of 'Atham' according to the Malayalam calendar month of 'Chingam,' has been observed as the start of the Onam celebrations in Kerala since the formation of the state.
Though the importance of Athachamayam as the beginning of Onam festivities is known across the state, not many know that it began as a celebration during medieval times in Kerala. While there are multiple versions of the origin story of Athachamayam, it is widely accepted that it began as a celebration carried out by the King of Cochin.
Speaking to TNM, Anujan S and Rameshan Thampuran, two of the few existing members of the Cochin royal family, explain the beginnings of Athachamayam as a procession by the King of Cochin. And just like today's celebrations, it took place on the day of Atham in Tripunithura, the headquarters of Kingdom of Cochin back then.
âThe procession got the name âAthachamayamâ because of kingâs âchamayamâ or the way he decorated himself with traditional apparel and accessories. He would be carried on an ivory palanquin from the palace through the streets of Tripunithura. This would be one of the few chances for people to get a closer look at the king,â Rameshan says.
Though the exact date for the beginning of the procession is unknown, one popular version of the story is associated with a temple festival in Thrikkakara, about 12 kilometres away from Trippunithura.
âAfter Cheraman Perumal â the king who reigned over Kerala with Kodungallur as his capital â divided the kingdom, there were about 56 princely provinces in present day Kerala. It was only in rare occasions that the kings of all the princely provinces came together. One such event was the festival at Lord Vamana temple in Thrikkakara. Kings would dress in traditional finery for the event. And Athachamayam, the procession of the kings to the temple, was held in all these provinces. But only one survived the course of time and that is the Trippunithura Athachamayam,â Rameshan says.
Anujan S notes that Athachamayam was localised to Thripunithura by the King of Cochin after some kings were unable to attend the gathering at the Thrikkakara temple one year. âAfter that incident, the King of Cochin decided to localise this procession in Thripunithura itself without going to Thrikkakara,â he says.
Another version of the origin story states that the procession was held to celebrate a battle victory of the kingdom, but this claim has been rejected by experts. âFirst of all, Cochin was a kingdom that stayed away from battles and conflicts. It was a rare kingdom that didn't even have its own military. So the notion that Athachamayam was a battle triumph cannot be believed,â Anujan says.
Unlike the present-day Athachamayam, which is accompanied by various forms of traditional art of the state, the medieval-era procession did not have those events. âThe procession was led by the palanquin of the king. It will be followed by other members of the royal family, who would carry swords. They would be further accompanied by musicians, elephants and others. But there were no art forms or tableaus,â said Anujan, recalling memories shared by his ancestors.
The last Athachamayan held directly under the kings was in 1948 while Ramavarma Pareeshith Thampuram was the King of Cochin. âLater, the princely state merged into part of independent India. The next Athachamayam, as we see it today, was started in 1951 by the government,â he says.