Onam is a festival celebrated in Kerala over a period of ten days. It is a joyous occasion filled with folklore and activities such as the kaikottikali, pulikali, athapookolam, boat races, traditional games and the tasty onam sadya. The attire worn during this festivity are based around white or cream with gold; the women wear kasavu sarees, young girls wear flair skirts and coloured blouses men wear mundus (dhotis). So what really is the background run with the traditional onam attire also reffered to as the onakkodi especially the kasavu.
Folklore, Legend and History of Kasavu
According to folklore it is said that when Mahabali reigned over the flourishing state of Kerala the locals encouraged weaving gold into cotton as a trademark of the people of the Bana kingdom. This way it was easy to recognise the outsiders and invaders from the locals of the land.
Legend has it that Balaramavarma the Maharaja of Travancore who reigned from 1798–1810 and his chief minister Ummini Thampi are responsible for encouraging a flourishing handloom industry in Kerala.
Historical evidences point that the Mundum-Neriyathum (Set-Mundu) is from the remains of the pre Hindu Buddhist Jain culture that once flourished in Kerala. The long saree with kasavu was adapted from the Graeco-Roman versions of a ‘Palmyrene’. This was a long unstitched cloth with a thin coloured border draped as a scarf around the upper body and the Keralite weavers added the golden boarder later.
A brief note on the weaving
When it comes to the weaving of the handloom kasavu, mundus and onakkodi the pit loom is used. As the name suggests the weaver is in a waist deep pit as he or she works the loom. There are two types of pit looms – throw shuttle pit looms and fly shuttle pit looms. The throw shuttle pit loom is a more primitive method of weaving and the fly shuttle pit loom has a higher productivity of 3-4 times of the latter loom. That being said the throw shuttle pit loom produces finer thread count and intricate designs while the fly shuttle pit loom is not capable of creating intricate extra weft figured patterns without the help of dobbies and jacquards. A dobby and jacquard are mechanical parts that are attached to the loom to permit specific weaving patterns.
A few interesting facts about the kasavu is that firstly to state the obvious real kasavu sarees are more expensive so the thicker the border the more expensive the saree. This is because kasavu is basically silk threads wrapped in silver and dipped in real gold. The difference between the real kasavu and synthetic threads is that over time the authentic kasavu gets a matte look while the synthetic kasavu retains its shine and looks new.
Support the artisans to preserve our culture
The main handloom cluster for these kasavu products is Balaramapuram, a small town in the Thiruvananthapuram district in Kerala. The completion of a single handloom saree takes 3-4 days. Handlooms are a piece of art and is no simple task. The power looms do produce some really good advanced end products which are both time and cost efficient but when it comes to buying a handloom product it would be really nice to think of the story behind each sari or mundu coming to life before putting the bargaining skills to play. The kasavu sari for instance can be from pit looms with the rhythmic clatter of the handloom weavers in little huts. As cheerful as these weavers maybe they need a fair price to support their livelihood. As a nation of rich culture it is always wise to preserve this culture through supporting our artisans rather than forcing them to abandon such artistic crafts in search of a better future.