Ask anyone what their five best buys from Kerala are, and they’ll probably tell you spices, coconut fibre products, banana chips, big brass lamps and may be a Kasavu, the traditional weave. Ask them their favourite spots to visit and you’ll hear everything from Palakkad and Kovalam to the backwaters elsewhere.
But this Onam, let me take you to a rather less known destination. About a 116kms away from the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, in the Chennganur district, is the little town of Aranmula. The word comes from ‘aru’ meaning six and ‘mula’ meaning bamboo.
The earliest reference to Aranmula we have is from the poetry of the famous Alvar saints who lived between the 6th and the 9th century in the Tamil speaking regions of South India. Nammalvar (880-930 AD) in his poems mentions Aranmula as Thiruvaranvilai. Aranmula hosts an ancient temple of Lord Krishna where he is prayed to as Lord Parthasarathy, or the divine charioteer.
Nammalvar describes Parthasarathy as Thirukkurallappa Perumal and his consort as Padmasani Naachiyaar. Situated on the banks of the Pampa river, the Aranmula Parthasarathy temple is as important as the other popular temples in Kerala, like Guruvayur Krishna, Chottanikara Bhagawathi and Sabarimalai Ayyappa.
There are several fascinating stories from different versions of the Mahabharata on how Parthasarathy landed up here but we won’t get into those now. The place gets its name because the idol of Parthasarathy was supposed to have been shifted here from a forest, on a little boat made of six pieces of bamboo. Hence the name Aranmula stayed on.
The temple is also considered one of the 108 Divya Desams of the Shri Vaishnavas. The villages around this temple consider Parthasarathy as their family god. Every year around the period of Onam, the residents of the villages around the temple commemorate the instillation of this idol by taking part in ritual boat races. The long snake boats accompanied by much fanfare and local participation compete with each other in a high-energy recreation every year.
Three snake boats row in union to the accompaniment of songs and reach their destination. The oarsmen dressed in white dhotis and white turbans around their heads row the snake boats to the rhythmic tunes of traditional boat songs. Fifty-one snake boats from different provinces participate in this race. The boats are called ‘Palliyodam’ or ‘boat of the lord’. This is a community initiative and everyone participates in it with much merriment. You can see an earlier video recording of it here:
Story goes that a pious Bhattadri devotee who fed the poor a day before Onam was once waiting when no one showed up. A small boy appeared, received his hospitality and while leaving said from the following year he must bring food to the temple. That night the Bhattadri has a dream where it is revealed that it was Lord Parthasarathy who came in the guise of that small boy to partake food earlier. Ever since, year after year, the families continue to take food to the temple. Over a period of several centuries, this has become a large community ritual. Food is got on boats from the other side of the bank and offered at the temple.
The largest Onam feast is first offered to Lord Parthasarathy before thousands of devotees, especially the oarsmen who participated in the boat races are fed. In fact, it is easily the largest vegetarian feast offered in any temple across India. On manicured banana leaves, an array of foods is spread out to make an exhaustive Onam Sadya. This is also the end of the monsoon season and the freshest of crop is offered. If witnessing the boat races is a once in a lifetime experience, eating this Onam Sadya is likely to send you into a food coma! You can see a little video of the famous feast here:
But this is not the end of it. There is more to Aranmula than you can imagine.
One of the best things you can ever find for your home is made here in Aranmula. The famous Aranmula Kannadi – or a mirror. You’ll wonder what is the big deal about a mirror. The mirrors of Aaranmula are special for various reasons.
First, they are not made of the usual glass and silver nitrate combination. When they fall down, they don’t break. Yes, mirrors that don’t crack so easily!
Aranmula Kannadis are hand made from a metal-alloy. This is the brilliance of ancient Indian metallurgy. The history of Aranmula Kannadi is peppered with folklore and a hundred anecdotes. Each of these stories claim something different.
Aranmula mirror as an auspicious gift
Story goes that the crown of Lord Parthasarathy was once found cracked. The local ruler summoned the head goldsmith and ordered him to make a new crown within three days. The goldsmith was worried as he neither had sufficient materials for this task nor had sufficient time. He returned home distraught and told his wife. The wife was a great devotee of a goddess and prayed for help. That night she had a dream where the goddess revealed to her proportions for a bronze alloy that shone like a mirror. The condition was that all the ladies in their community must sell the gold they had, to collect enough tin and copper. The crown made out of the combination of copper and tin turned out to be a miracle of sorts. It looked silver in color, like a regular mirror, was brittle like glass and shone with great brilliance. It reflected like a proper mirror. This metallurgical wonder was transferred from generation to generation over time.
The exact recipe of this mirror is a closely guarded secret of the Vishwakarma community. It is considered one of the ‘Ashtamangalyams’ or eight auspicious things every family must own. It is supposed to bring good luck to the owner.
Making this mirror is a highly skilled and tedious process. A single mirror takes several weeks to make. It cannot be mass-produced in a factory. Each mirror is handmade. Only mud from the local paddy fields is used to make the mould.
For a long time, this art form was neglected. It is only in the recent past it has gained limelight. In 2004, the Aranmula Kannadi was patent protected and given the coveted geographical indicator (GI) tag. The government of Kerala now promotes it highly.
This Onam, if you are lucky enough to visit Kerala, head to Aranmula for the best experience. If you cannot go there, get one of your Malayali friends to gift you an Aranmula Kannadi. It is common to enjoy the Onam Sadya and dress up in the beautiful Kasavu weaves of Kerala. But get yourself one of these magic mirrors. Own a piece of ancient Indian science and bring that proverbial good luck into your homes.
A very happy and prosperous Onam to you!
Images courtesy : Jeevesh Menon, Anasuya Padath, Selva Kumar
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)