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Devayani Pradhan Medhekar

The offering of “Ona Villu” is a ritual that is observed with great sanctity at the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. The tradition of offering “Ona Villu” to the presiding deity of the temple, Sree Padmanabha Perumal, on Thiruvonam day in the month of Chingam continues to this day. While not much is known about the origin of the event, the temple records date it back to 1502 AD during the reign of the then ruler of Travancore, Veera Iravi Iravi Varma.

It is interesting to note that many of the rituals, traditions, and customs of the Sree Adi Kesava temple in Thiruvattar ( Kanyakumari district) and those in the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple are similar and this may be on account of the strong bond between the two temples. In the former temple too, the tradition of offering “Ona Villu” continues. 

The royal desire to offer an “Ona Villu” at the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple on Thiru Onam day was carried out by the senior Thiruvati of Thrippappoor by issuing instructions to the carpenter Putanangadi Kannalen Mathevan Kumaran Asari from Karamana whose descendants adhere to this age-old custom even today.

The ‘Ona Villu’ or the Bow as it is called, is not the normal bow, but flatter and broader version that is a piece of solid wood made out of the “Kadamba” wood. The Villus is made in four different sizes ranging from 3 ½ to 4 ½ ft in length and about 3/4th inch in thickness.

Five different colours, all made out of vegetable dyes are used for painting the images of the avatars of Lord Vishnu on the bow.

The eight oval-shaped ‘Ona Villus’ are made following Vastu traditions and are painted red on one side with illustrations of Lord Vishnu and his incarnations on the other.

The largest of the ‘Ona Villu’- “Anantashaynam” ie the reclining Vishnu is 4 ½ ft in length. With the “Anantashaynam” as the main theme, other deities too like Lord Shiva, Bhoomi Devi, Goddess Lakshmi, Markandaya, Bhrigu Maharishi, and the various saints in the main sanctum of the Padmanabha Swamy temple are also represented on the bows. The two bows are kept inside the sanctum of the main deity.

The next ona villu - “The Dasavataram Villu” is 4 ft in length and symbolizes all the avatars of Lord Vishnu – “ Matsya”, “ Kurma”, “Varaha”, “Narasimhan”, “Vamana”, “Parashurama”, “Shri Rama”, “ Balarama”, “ Sri Krishna” and “Kalki”. The two bows are kept inside the sanctum of the Narasimha Murthy.

The smallest of the “Villu”, 3 ½ ft in length is the “Shree Krishna Leela,” which is kept inside the sanctum of the Thiruvambadi Krishna temple.

The latest addition was a pair of bows (from 1994) with the Shri Rama Pattabhishekham ie the Coronation ceremony of Shri Rama as its main theme. These two bows are kept inside the sanctum of the Shri Ramaswamy temple.

“The submission of the Ona Villu is an elaborate ceremony conducted every year. On “Thiruvonam” day, these eight bows are brought by two members of the Achari family and placed on a cloth in the Natakasala  Mukhappu at the eastern entrance of the temple at about 5.30 am. The Kurup carries the bows inside and performs the rituals along with the executive officer and the temple staff.

Then accompanied by the “Panchavadya” and the sacred lamps, the bows are taken in procession around the temple. After the “pradakshina” (circumambulation), the bows are then placed on the “Abhisravana Mandapam”.

 The “Periya Nambi” (senior priest) performs the puja and decorates the bow with silk threads in red with tassels tied as bowstrings along with strands of cadjan followed with “Deeparadhana”.

The ritual complete, the respective Nambies take the bows to the respective sanctums and position them near the Moorthy. The bows are kept therefrom “Thiruvonam” till the “Ucha Puja” of Chatayam (fourth Onam) which comes two days hence, after which it is removed and sent to the Maharaja. 

The privilege of the first ‘darshan’ after the puja and the placement of the bows however is the prerogative of the Achari.  Binkumar Achari whose rights to make these Villus continue as a matter of tradition, says that his family, Karamana Melarannoor Vilayil Veedu has been making the Ona Villu for five generations and he is assisted by his brothers.

The Ona Villu’s are made only during Onam and the family members observe a 41 day fast before beginning work on the Villu.

 “It is a matter of great pride and significance that the descendants of our family continue to perform the sacred work”, concludes Binkumar.