Aranmula Vallasadya; history and evolution of a sumptuous feast
Vallasadya at Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple is coming to a conclusion on October 6. Though the real Onam celebration of the temple starts on Uthradam, the day before Thiruvonam, now the celebration begins days or even a month before Onam, with Vallasadya.
It is a sumptuous feast with 62 traditional dishes served on a plantain leaf. The history of this feast starts with the story of Mangattu Bhattathiri. During Thiruvonam the Bhattathiri used to treat a Brahmin - wash his feet and give him a satisfying ‘sadya’ (extensive meal), considering him to be the God, before Bhattathiri’s own lunch.
One particular year, no Brahmins came there and Mangattu Bhattathiri started praying to God with a heavy heart. That’s when a Brahmin boy appeared and Bhattathiri followed the tradition and ritual. That night the God appeared in Bhattathiri’s dream and asked him not to worry about Brahmins coming to his house and that he can go to Aranmula temple from his place in Kattoor with all the items to prepare the feast and satisfy the God who is present there instead.
So from the next year onwards, Mangattu Bhattathiri started his journey with items needed for the treat for the God on Uthradam, through the Pamba river. He used a traditional small boat known as Thiruvonathoni, usually borrowed from a Christian family Parappuzha in Maramon. He reached the temple by early morning on Thiruvonam and carried carry out the rituals.
On one of such journey, Mangattu Bhattathiri was attacked by the Kovilakom thieves. The Airoor Thottavallil family of the ‘Kara’ (land on the river bank) came to his rescue. From the next year, Mangattu Bhattathiri’s journey was escorted by the people of the land in different boats. The land from which the escort was offered increased many folds with time and now as many as 52 Karas escort the Thiruvonathoni.
Later, the family had to shift to Kumaranalloor, a place in the present-day Kottayam district of Kerala. Even though they were now far away from Kattoor, from where the Thiruvonathoni used to start, the family still follows the ritual. The Bhattathiri from Kumaranalloor starts on Moolam, the 7th day of 10-day-long Onam festival. Travelling kilometres through the water, they reach Kattoor on Uthradam, the 9th day and the offerings still reach the Thiruvaranmula temple on the day of Thiruvonam.
As time progressed the shape of the boats which escort the Thiruvonathoni changed and the stern of the boat was made taller to spot thieves and enemies from a very long distance. “This shape is also identified with the posture of the God lying down (Ananthashayanam). These boats are now called ‘Palliyodam’ with great reverence,” says V. K. Chandran, Food Committee Convener.
The devotees believe the presence of God on all 52 Palliyodams of the Karas, from Edakkulam in the east to Chennithala in the west. As the God is believed to be present in these boats, there are special customs and rituals to be followed by those who enter the ‘Palliyodams’ and also the attire is similar to those men who enter the temple. The only difference is the cloth tied as the headgear.
Once offered by just one family, it became an offering of some of the affluent families and now the Vallasadya is offered by many. Sometimes over 600 bookings are made in a season. Hence the feast is now celebrated as Vallasadya and a devotee can now offer the sadya for pleasing the God on any day for almost two months during Onam, subject to prior booking.
Currently, there is Palliyoda Seva Sangham, a society which coordinates all vallasadyas. They also have souvenir published each year with articles relating to the festival, temple and the place in general.
“The dates for the sadya are decided on the basis of the level of water in the Pamba river. The water level should be comfortable and safe for the Palliyodams to reach the temple. The boats cannot reach the temple on days when the water level is high or low,” says S. Ajith Kumar, Administrative Officer, Aranmula Devaswom.
The changing climate during the season also affects the rituals taking place on time. In 2018, the flood which devastated Kerala affected the Vallasadya and the entire programme was cancelled for the season. This year also the sadya was cancelled on some days owing to the heavy rain and increased water level in the Pamba river.
The family which is conducting the sadya has to be there on the day. The women from the family with others go to the riverbank and receive the Palliyodam. They circumambulate the temple singing devotional songs in a particular rhythm (Vanjippattu – which is sung while rowing boats) and reach the front side. They keep the oars there and pray before having the sadya.
The way the people ask for dishes they want is also unique as they have to sing a song (in the rhythm of Vanjippattu) for each item they need. Classes are being conducted under Palliyoda Seva Sangham for children to learn these songs. Once asked, the lady of the family who is conducting the vallasadya has to serve the item to the person who asked for it.
In the end, the family and those who came in the palliyodam go to the front side of the temple and pray. While returning, the family goes to the riverbank accompanying those who came in the palliyodam as they return. Again, at the riverbank, the family performs some rituals to show their gratitude and reverence. In return, those who came in the Palliyodam sing a song which means the God is happy and satisfied with the offering. During days on which Vallasadya is conducted, the temple will be closed only after the return of all Palliyodams as one among the people who come in the Palliyodam is believed to be the God himself.
Though the Onam celebration of Aranmula is world-famous, some of the devotees and native residents believe that the true meaning of Vallasadya has been lost. They believe that the real devotion, unique customs and traditions have given way to commercialisation.
One such person is K P Sriranganathan, who put forward his views through his book ‘Aranmula the myth and the historical truth’ (Aranmula: Aithihyavum Charithrasathyangalum). In the book, with the help of strong pieces of evidence, Sriranganathan presents his views on the entire story of Aranmula and the celebrations in the temple. According to him, the celebration is a highly profitable business without even a trace of devotion or the true sense of the original rituals of the temple.
Sriranganathan says his research and writing is outside the framework of any conventional research methodologies and documents. Sriranganathan feels that what he did is to try and find the truth which sometimes contradicts the views of the majority.
There are so many stories in the air of Aranmula. History and myth is blended together in a such a way that it is impossible to separate one from the other. Whichever story or version of the story one chooses to believe, it is a fact that the fame of Aranmula, its Onam celebration along with the metal mirror work, which gained Geographical Indication tag, is increasing day by day. Similarly, the number of devotees who reach the temple with offerings is increasing each season.