Once the Malayalam month of Chingam begins, the countdown to Onam, the grand harvest festival of Kerala, begins in right earnest. Ushering in the festival air are numerous pookkalams (floral carpets) that bloom in many households, offices and public spaces. Flower markets in the city and its suburbs are flooded with myriad colours for the next 10 days. Thiruvonam dawns on the tenth day after households start weaving floral carpets to welcome Mahabali into their homes. The arrival of flowers in trucks from neighbouring states is now the curtain raiser for Onam in the city.
Many decades ago, the flowering of pumpkin climbers was a harbinger of Onam, as depicted in a Malayalam saying ‘Matha poothaal Onam vannu (when the pumpkin blooms, Onam is here). Scholars point out that Onam was more of a fertility ritual that took cognizance of the dreams of an egalitarian society, and created myths, songs, performing arts and other rituals associated with it.
Onapookkalam is one such symbol of a strong bond between man and nature. More than an exhibition of floral masterpieces and designer creativity, pookkalams of yore were symbols of social living, togetherness and strong relationship with nature.
Flowers that blossomed in household gardens and fields during the season were used to make the pookkalams. The ‘Thumba’ or Leucas aspera is the flower of the season because legend has it that it is the favourite flower of Mahabali. The sanctity and purity of the fragile, pristine white petals of these flowers reflect the message of Onam.
Leaves of Thulasi, blooms of the pagoda plant or krishnakireedom ( Clerodendron paniculatum ) and Lantana provided the red in a floral carpet.
These flowers bloom profusely during the Onam season in fences and back yards. Bladderwort (kakkappoo) spread a greenish blue blanket over moist rock surface on a vast stretch. Minute flowers of Mukkutti added a dash of yellow. Apart from this, flowers such Kolambippoo (Allamanda cathartica), Kumbalam (Benincasa hispida), pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata), shoeflower (Hibiscus rosa sinensis), Ixora (Ixora coccinea), Touch me not (Mimosa Pudica), ‘nanthyarvattom’ (Tabernaemontana divoricata) and jasmine were also used.
The type of flowers varied but each and every floral masterpiece used to be a miniature replica of the magnificent floral wealth around. The colour, number of flowers and arrangement also vary from place to place.
Nowadays most of these flowers have become a part of nostalgia. The local flowers are found only in some gardens where the gardener would have taken an earnest effort to conserve the flowers.
In short, if the pookalams of olden days showcased the floral wealth of Kerala, the modern ones showcase the floral wealth of neighbouring states.
Traditional flowers have been replaced by tube rose, marigold, nerium (Arali), jasmine, kanakambaram, gomphrena (Vadamulla), chrysanthemum, cockscomb, rose, and so on.
The major share of the flowers comes from Thovalai, near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. In Thovalai, these flowers are cultivated on a large scale. The floral creations that take shape in many houses today might be made with flowers bought from one of these markets but what has remained constant is the enthusiasm to celebrate the festival in all its many hues.
The arrival of flowers in trucks is now the curtain raiser for Onam in the city