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Iyer Festivals

The Kerala Iyers have preserved the traditional festivals as celebrated by them in Tamil Nadu and have added have added a few festivals from Kerala. But the hallmark of their celebration is its sober nature. Much of the fan fare associated with festivals in Tamil Nadu is absent in Kerala. Also due to some unknown reason some new traditions, which are absent both in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, have been added in the celebration. The most important festivals are:-

Onam : Celebrated in late August or early September. It is possibly the most important festival of Kerala and is celebrated irrespective of religious beliefs. As per the legend, King Mahabali (Maveli) who once upon a time ruled Kerala visits his citizens during this period. His regime was supposed to be a golden period for Kerala - prosperity, joy and equality everywhere. But, he was banished to Pathalam by Vamana. The 10-day festival starts on the day of Atham and culminates on the Thiruvonam day. During these 10 days, flower arrangements / designs called Ona-pookkalam are made using different coloured flowers in the courtyard of every house. On Thiruvonam day all people wear new clothes and worship God. A grand feast is arranged in every house. This must include the steam cooked Nendran Banana. The iyers do participate in the local community festivals. The famous Thrikkakkara temple, the only Vamana Pratishta in the world is a major pilgrimage destination during Onam, where it is celebrated with great religious fervor.

Nirai : Celebrated in August - September. This is a harvest festival of Kerala adopted by Iyers. After the major harvest of paddy, bunches of paddy are brought to the house and some are pasted on the main doors as well as the granary box called PaThayam. All members of the house shout Nira, Nirayo Nira, meaning full and let it be full.

PuThari : Celebrated in August - September. After the paddy harvest, rice is just formed and is brought to the house from the field and de-husked. A sweet dish called pal payasam (pudding made with rice & milk) is prepared using this new rice. This festival also is an adoption of Kerala practice.

Navarathri : Celebrated in August - September. It is a domestic and public festival for Iyers of Kerala. A doll exhibition called Kolu is arranged in every house. The women folk invite other women folk of the village to see the Kolu in their house. Normally the visitors come well dressed and sing before the Kolu. Sweet/savory dishes are prepared daily and distributed to the guests. It is also a custom to dress the children in mythical characters like Krishna, Radar and so on. On the eighth day, all the books in the house are arranged before the Kolu, covered by a silk cloth and worshipped. These are opened on the Vijaya Dasami day and all members of the house start by writing on rice and reading their favourite book. It is the day on which, kids are initiated into formal education also. In the temples, the community celebrates this festival in a gala manner. Elephant processions. Drums. Panchavadyams, burning of crackers and common feast are very usual. The lamps round the temple are lit on all days. In some villages the Prasadams are prepared in very large quantities and distributed to each and every Brahmin house.

Avani Avittam : Observed during the month of Avani, and normally it is in August. This is strictly not a festival but a religious observation. All iyers who have the sacred thread join together in common places in each village and the annual Prayachittam is performed. They request God to pardon all the sins committed by them during the year. Homams are held and Poonal, the sacred thread is changed on this day. Actually, changing of Poonal is only a minor part of Avani Avittam - starting this day, Vedas are learnt for the next six months ending on Pushy Pournami. This is the only festival exclusively for males. The day starts with a hair cut (Bachelors are supposed to have only one annual hair cut on that day in ancient times), bath followed by eating of idlis and sweet. After the religious part the ladies arrange a sumptuous feast. Sama Vedis celebrate this on the Ganesha chaturthi day. Young boys who have not had their sacred thread go round the village with a Palas stick and collect Kowpeenas (G-string) from different houses. In some houses even silk Kowpeenas are given in some rich houses money also is distributed. This practice of collecting Kowpeenas is a slowly vanishing practice. Raksha-bandhan of North India is also observed on this day.

Gokulashtami : Birthday of Lord SreeKrishna. Beaten rice cooked in Jaggery, Neyyappam, Cheedai , butter and Pal payasam are offered to Lord Krishna. The unmarried young girl children go round the villages collecting oil from different houses this collected oil is taken to the temple in the evening and used to light the lamp there. The girls sing a rhyme starting with "Sheesandi sambharam" This collecting of oil in Tamil Nadu is done only during Sivarathri and not on Gokulashtami day.

Vinayaga Chaturthi : Unlike in Tamil Nadu, this festival is not celebrated by pomp by Kerala Iyers. The practice of purchasing clay idols, decorating and worshipping as in Tamil Nadu is not followed inKerala. However the modakas (Kozhakattai -sweet as well as salty) are prepared and placed in front of Ganesha idols/photo in the houses. In most of the temples Ganapathi homam is performed in the early morning before sunrise. There is also a practice of giving some food and money in a bamboo plate to poor Brahmins.

Deepavali : Unlike Tamil Nadu, this festival is not celebrated in Kerala but the iyers do observe it under a low key. The ritual oil bath in hot water is a must in the morning. But except in a minority of houses in Palakkad villages, wearing of new clothes and bursting of crackers cannot be seen anywhere in Kerala. No special sweets are prepared but a sweet made of Tur dhal and Jaggery called Ukkarai is made. This is neither a Kerala sweet nor a Tamil Nadu sweet but a Kerala Iyer sweet. This state of affairs has changed considerably in recent times. The Kerala Iyers have started celebrating Deepavali like Tamil Nadu.

Karthigai : This is possibly the only light festival in Kerala Iyer houses. The village temple arranges for a bonfire of useless materials and every household takes a burning torch made of palm leaves (called Chootu) from this fire to the house. Oil lights are lit in houses and is an awesome sight to watch. In the house all ladies individually light a lamp and pray for the welfare of their brothers. Pori (puffed rice) both Avil and Nel are put in molten jaggery and made in to balls. Then the special jaggery sweet called Neyyappam is made. Also a special Adai in which whole black gram is used instead of black gram dhal is prepared. In most of the houses Pal Payasam also is prepared .These are offered to the God. The brothers send cash gift to their sisters however old they are and however far they are. It is interesting to note that though this festival is celebrated in Tamil Nadu it is not a festival of brothers and sisters there. Neyyappam, which is essentially a Kerala sweet, is not prepared there.

Thiruvadirai : The celebration of this festival by Kerala Iyers is a mixture of the practice of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Early morning after the bath everybody tries to visit a Shiva temple. Afterwards 'Kali' a sweet made of Jaggery and fried rice powder is prepared. As a side dish (Kari) a very special preparation made out of Kavittu (Dioscorea yam), pumpkin and Averaikai (lab lab beans) is made. This is the only occasion when a salty side dish is prepared for a sweet. In Kerala homes Kali is made out of Arrowroot powder and Jaggery. In Tamil Iyer homes the side dish is similar to the usual Sambhar with large number of vegetables. They insist that a few of these vegetables must be tubers and a few born on tendrils. They call this preparation Thalagam. The chanting of Thiruvembavai common in Tamil Nadu is not observed in Kerala. In the afternoons swings made of split bamboo are hung in trees and all the children enjoy the swift swing. This practice is absent in Tamil Nadu.

Sankranthi or Pongal : This festival is observed in a gala scale in Tamil Nadu as it coincides with the major harvest there. In Kerala though paddy is harvested it is a minor harvest. The practice of making pongal with the new grain and milk is absent in Kerala Iyer homes. However Sakkarai Pongal is prepared. The entire courtyard is decorated with Kolam (designs made of white stone powder). The next day to Pongal is Kanu or Mattu Pongal. The practice of preparing different types of mixed rice and offering it to crows early in the morning before bath by the women is observed as in Tamil Nadu. But in Tamil Nadu this is suppose to be done for the welfare of brothers and in return the brothers give cash presents to their sisters. But in Kerala Iyer houses this is observed for the happiness of ancestors of the family and the brothers give no cash presents. It is also celebrated as the festival of the cattle and they are decorated and fed well.

Sivarathri : This is not a festival in right sense of the term but a ritual. No adult used to take food made of rice and wake up through out the night. Young girls go round the village collecting oil for the temple in some villages. But it is more common during Gokulashtami. Sivarathri is celebrated is a major festival in Aluva, in Ernakulam district, where traditionally an exhibition is put up in the banks of Periyar near the Siva temple. Thus, Aluva Sivarathri Manalppuram is very famous.

Karadayan Nolumbu : This is a religious practice observed by women in memory of Savithri who saved her husband Satyavan from the clutches of God of death-Yama. A special Adai made of ground rice powder and jaggery is prepared during the occasion and all ladies tie a thread dipped in turmeric.

Ramanavami : This is a festival to celebrate the birthday of Rama and is observed by distributing Paanagam (Jaggery water) and Sambharam (water mixed with butter milk)

Vishu : After Onam this is the most important festival for the Kerala Iyer. It also the Malayalam New Year day. This festival is only a religious observation in a Tamil Iyer home in Tamil Nadu. During the previous night vegetables which must include red cucumber fruit and snake gourd and fruits which must include jack fruit and mango and flowers which must include Kani Konnai along with rice, dhal, gold coin, silver coin etc are arranged before a big mirror. This is called Vishu Kani. The mother of the house wakes up early morning and then sees the Kani first in the morning. Then one by one other families are woken up and taken before the Kani. The elders give cash presents to all the youngsters (called Vishu Kani Nettam) and all the people in the house wear new clothes and burst crackers. After this there is a grand Kerala type feast.

Chitra Pournami : This is again a religious ritual, People believe that there is a stock taking of sins and good deeds committed by every individual in heaven by the accountant of hell called Chitra Gupthan. His stories are sung and people pray to him to pardon their sins.

Pathinettam Perukku : This is supposed to be Pathinettu Aaru Perukuthal in Tamil that later got reduced to Pathinettam Perukku - Celebrations on the eve of overflowing (Perukku or perukuthal) of the eighteen (Pathinettu) rivers (Aaru). This festival comes on 18th of Karkatakam or Aadi maasam which is rainy reason in July-August. The date is supposed to be peak of Rain fall in the year. There are sayings "Aadiyil mazhai Adichukkottum" or "Karkatakathil durghadam".
During this period, the rivers in the country (are supposed to) overflow. On this day, the religious orthodox believers will perform Pooja at the River-side (or on the sea-shore) and offer prayers to Gangai. Those not willing to venture out will perform similar pooja and offerings to the Gangaa Jalam in the Chombu (Ganga chombu) at home.
The highlight of the day is that a variety of dishes. A variety of Saathams (Coconut, Sarkara, Limbu, Puli, Ellu, Thayir saathams) called Chithrannam is offered. Pooja is performed to Gangai with Vettilai, Paakku, Pazham, Thengai and finally with Karpoora Deeparadhana.

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