Thursday, August 23, 2007

Olakkuda – Palmyra leaf umbrella

During Onam season Mallu minds would be full of thoughts of pookalams, sadya, and celebrations. The festival marks the annual visit of the mythical King Mahabali (Maveli) to Kerala, the land that he once ruled to perfection.

Olakkuda, an umbrella made of palmyra leaves, is an integral part of the depictions relating to Onam. Also, we have the story of Kuchelan in penury visiting the Lord, with a torn olakkuda and a packet of rice flakes soaked in his tears.

During which period did these legends start? According to Wikipedia, the Maveli episode was in the pre-Ramayana era. It would appear that Kuchelan lived during the time of Mahabharatha. I am curious because both stories mention olakkuda. Then we have Buddha’s instructions which permitted only eight earthly possessions for the monks. These included palmyra leaf fan, and umbrella. It is not clear that the umbrella was also made of the palm leaf, but in all likelihood it was.

According to many writings, umbrellas were being used in countries like China, Egypt, Assyria and Greece four thousand years ago. They were initially parasols to provide shade from the sun, and were status symbols as well. Then the Chinese invented a method to waterproof them using wax and modified them for protection from rain also. Did India have the all weather palmyra leaf version at that time? Quite possible.

The status symbol aspect appears to have been common to all countries. In Kerala, only Namputhiris (Kerala Brahmins) and Syrian Christians could have them. Some vestiges of using an umbrella as an instrument to demonstrate respect still exist in some remote villages. On coming across a peer, a man walking with an open umbrella would either fold or hold it to a side.

The ladies also used umbrellas to conceal their faces and bodies from the eyes of the opposite sex. The men normally did not carry olakkudas themselves; one of the servants would hold it for them.

In Malayalam, the present day umbrellas were known (not in usage now) as seemakuda (seema = Europe, more specifically Britain, + kuda = umbrella). The forerunners of the current version of umbrellas started gaining popularity in Europe during the 15c. The westerners brought them to India.

Today olakkuda is a rare sight. One finds them mostly in curio shops and tourist places. Hardly any one uses olakkuda now. If you get a chance, try it. Olakkuda is effective in both sunshine and in rain.

I'm the proud grandfather of this pretty young girl, Nonee (Annie).
(See: The tooth fairy came by...)

Can you suggest a caption, please?


Photos taken at Olavipe. Copyright: KO Isaac. Click on them for enlarged view.
Also see:

Photos: Vegetables for Onam

Kerala photos: Flowers for Onam

Kerala food: Aviyal, Bhima’s own dish, for Onam


Maddy said...

While at college, many of the young men used to use the ola - toppi kuda. It was very popular ('cool' as they say these days)and even ended up in the papers as an article - REC students use ola kuda...

You can see versions of the toppi kuda all over SE asia, only that India seems to have the biggest ones..I think the origins are Chinese.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you for the comment. What is called 'thoppikuda' in our area is a variation of 'olakkuda'. It does not have the stem, but is worn like a broad rimmed hat, usually by workmen so that their hands would be free.

PN Subramanian said...

Very interesting. I wish I could use the Olakuda held by sweet Nonee in my Hindi blog to let the Northerners know about in one of my future posts.