KOZHIKODE: After many days of anxiety and pain, 60-year old Chandran Panikker is rejoicing now. Like never before, he is all excited to metamorphize as the 'Onapottan', the demigod representing Mahabali who visits households during Onam on the auspicious day of Thiruvonam.
"I feared that COVID has derailed by the life which I have been living splendidly for the past 60 years. It is Onam and I can't sit home aloof. I have to visit households, see 'Pookkalam' and bless people. Umpteen people are waiting for me. Onapottan is not just an art form but has history and ritualistic belief aspects as well," the 'Onapottan' from Naduvathur off Koyilandy here, beams.
People from the Malaya community, a scheduled caste, deck up as Onapottan in rural parts of Kozhikode.
The reason for Panikker's fear was that the Artists' association who appear as Onapottan and Theyyam have decided not to deck up during this Onam owing to COVID-19. Hence, many septuagenarian Onapottan artists have decided not to don grease this time. But, Kerala Malayar-Panan Samudaya Kshema Samiti (KMPSKS)-in which Panikker was a member left it to their members to take a call.
Chandran Panikker had a discussion with local health staff and decided not to go far off places, which he usually does on Uthradam day but to confine to surroundings only, on Thiruvonam day. "Normally on Uthradam day, I would be visiting Keezhariyur areas, which is 8-10 km away. The first to visit was the Shiva Temple there. I didn't go this time. People must have waited for me..." he said emotionally. At the same time, he is elated over becoming Onapottan on Thiruvonam day.
According to KMPSKS Koyilandy Area Secretary Rajeesh Kannur, the organisation has not taken any decision regarding COVID-19. "We left it to our members. Some areas would have a large number of COVID cases hence better not to go. I am not going this time," he told TNIE.
Before becoming Onapottan, Panikker shall take a mandatory 10-day Vruta, recusing himself from mundane life and abiding by a minimal lifestyle. Non-veg food, chewing betel, etc should be stopped.
"After putting on the costume of Onapottan, I would go to Gulikan Thara (The epitome like a foundation where family/caste god was believed to exist) and the memorial tomb of my ancestors, which is lying adjacent on the backside of my house and offer prayers. Gulikan protects us from all evils and there would be no important function without seeking his consent," elaborates Panikker.
The colourful Onapottan costume consists of red headgear, long yellow beard hanging from the moustache down to the chest, and red cloth under the waist. An Olakkuda (Umbrella made out of palm leaves) and the traditional bell will be in his hands. As the name suggests, Onapottan is mute hence the bell to announce the arrival. When people hear the bell ring, a traditional lamp would be brought beside the Pookkalam to welcome the Mahabali or Maveli. The Maveli will round the Pookkalam three times, scatter rice all around as a part of the blessing and give Ixora flowers to the people. In turn, people will offer currencies and rice to him.
"I used to visit more than 60 houses a day during Onam. In some houses, there will be a grand welcome, like washing off Onapottan's feet and heralding him to the courtyard. Nowadays, there is a demand to click selfies along with Onapottan," Panikker smiles. There is a marked territory for each Onapottan and an Onapottan does not encroach upon another one's area. "I first decked up as Onapottan in my 20th year. My son Umesh started it in his 15th age and now we both appear as Onapottan," Panikker told.
Besides Onapottan, Chandran Panikker has many hats to wear in Naduvathur and surroundings. He is a Chenda percussion artist, Theyyam artiste, and the local healer.
"Onapottan doesn't ring the bells before the people. It starts to ring inside me once Onam approaches each year. Onam Pookkalam will be completed only after the blessings of Onapottan. There is no other Onapottan to come here. So, I have to go," he says frantically.