On the occasion of Onam festival, an important ritual of making pookalam designs is followed right from the first day of the ten-day long festival. A pookalam design is a floral design just like a rangoli, the only difference being that a rangoli is made with powdered colours whereas a pookalam is made with fresh flowers. Infact, one is not allowed to use powdered colours or plastic flowers in order to make a pookalam. The pookalam that is made during Onam is called as Onapookalam and it is made especially in order to welcome the legendary and beloved King Mahabali into one's home as the people of Kerala believe that the king makes visits his kingdom during the festival. People also believe that the king only visits those homes which have a beautiful and innovative pookalam design created at the entrance of their home. For this purpose, there is a competition between households during Onam to make the best and creative pookalam in front of the house. It is considered auspicious to make such floral designs in the house. Another name for the pookalam made on the first day (Atham) of Onam festival is Athapoovu. In Malayalam language, 'Poo' means flower and 'kalam' means a work of art. During Onam, one can see a pookalam design created in front of each and every household of Kerala. Since Onam is considered as a secular festival, people of all communities and religion follow the ritual.
The pookalam design is made early in the morning by the maidens of the house. On the first day of the ten-day period of Onam, only a small design of pookalam is made on the floor at the entrance of the house. Day by day, this design has to be made bigger and better until the tenth day which is the main day of the festival. Another factor of pookalam is that a particular designated flower has to be used on each day. Each and every flower that is used in a pookalam represents a particular deity from the Hindu mythology. Young children also take part in creating the designs by helping to pluck and collect the flowers that are needed to make the design from the gardens. Some people who are creatively very good at making such designs do it in very complicated ways which makes them look all the more attractive. Those who are very artistic and imaginative make pictures on the designs such as a peacock, mango, Lord Krishna, parrots etc. The face of Kathakali is also very common while creating the pookalam designs. They are able to make the designs with the sketch that is already drawn in their minds whereas those who are not so creative need to first draw the sketch on a paper (nowadays designs are made on computer) and then copy it onto the floor as a design made with the flowers.
How to make a pookalam design
Before making a pookalam on the floor, the entire floor has to be cleaned of dirt and dust. After the cleaning process is over, wet cow dung is spread on the floor on the part where the pookalam design is going to be made. This cow dung is evenly spread on the floor so that bumps do not arise anywhere in the design. The patterns for the pookalam are made on the cow dung using any pin like material. The pookalam is made very small on the first day of Onam and gradually the design becomes bigger and bigger through the ten days. On the tenth day, one can see a really big and intricate pookalam design on the floor. The flowers are put according to the pattern that has been made on the cow dung. The design is made in the form of ten rings, each ring representing a deity of Hindu mythology. The deities are represented in the following order (for the ten days)- Lord Ganapathi, Shiva and Shakthi, Shiva, Brahma, Pancha Boothangal, Shanmugham or Muruga, Guru, Ashta Digpalakar, Indra and Lord Vishnu. After the final pookalam is made on the tenth day, idols of King Mahabali and Vamana (avatar of Lord Vishnu) are placed in the centre of the pookalam.
There is no rule that the pookalam design has to extremely beautiful and intricate. It can also be a simple design made with a simple heart to welcome the king. The pookalam designs are always made in circular geometrical shapes with flowers of various types, shapes and colours. In earlier days, people used to wake up very early in the morning and take pains to walk around their garden to collect all the beautiful flowers that they can find in order to make the pookalam design. But nowadays, everything is easily available in the markets which sell Onam flowers in bulk and in many more attractive colours. Some of the flowers that are used for making a pookalam design includes thumba (lucas aspera), kakka poovu, thechipoovu, hanuman kireedom, chethi and chemparathy. Out of all these flowers, the most importance is given to the thumba poo as people believe that it is the most beloved flower of Lord Shiva and King Mahabali (who was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva). Thumba poo is considered the best also because they are small in size and shine beautifully under the golden rays of the sun.
Onam Pookalam competitions
Nowadays there are pookalam design competitions that take place all over Kerala at offices, colleges, schools etc during Onam. Numerous people come forward to take part in the competitions with immense enthusiasm and fighting spirit to come out with the best pookalam. A lot of hardwork is put in by the participants in order to beat everyone else. Usually only flowers are allowed to be used in a pookalam design but nowadays such competitions allow the participants to use the leaves of the flowers too. Some competitions also allow the use of powdered colours and shredded coconut though these are prohibited in the traditional manner of pookalam designing. The designs are made in teams that are made by dividing the number of participants in the competition. The one who is selected ultimately is rewarded with a grand prize.
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