Aranmula, KERALA -- Every Onam, thousands of people flock to Aranmula, a temple town in Pathanamthitta district in central Kerala, to celebrate its famous vallamkali (boat race) festival and partake of the vallasadya (feast) served to the boatmen.
A two-and-a-half hour drive from the state capital of Trivandrum, Aranmula is home to the Parthasarathy temple that has drawn Alwar poet-saints and pilgrims to its shores for centuries. Hindus believe that the temple was built by Pandava warrior Arjuna to gain redemption for killing the unarmed Karna. The shrine is dedicated to Arjuna's charioteer and counsel, Krishna. Legend has it that while trying to carry his lord's image in the temple, a huge flood in the Pampa river stopped Arjuna's progress. A poor Dalit boatman helped him cross the river on a raft made of six bamboos, giving rise to the village's name (aru=six, mula=bamboo) and a tradition of the annual snake-boat regatta to celebrate boatsmen.
This year, the boatmen of Kerala are being celebrated more quietly—inside relief camps—for their incredible rescue of thousands of people left stranded by the floods that crippled the state this month. Instead of tourists and pilgrims, Thiruvonam on Saturday in Aranmula drew lawyers from Cochin wearing medical masks and knee-length gumboots with cans of bleach in their hands, as they attempted to clean up wells and homes.
Residents say flood waters reached up to the 15th step of the 18 leading up to the Parthasarathy temple's east entrance on the night of Independence Day. The Pampa was pushed into spate after shutters of the Kochupampa and Anathode-Kakki dams in the district were opened to reduce water levels. The river has retreated now, but threats to it and the communities around it remain.
Anyone looking around Aranmula now would find it difficult to believe that Pathanamthitta has been consistently ranked as one of India's most breathable places. The silt left by the river has dried in the sun and dust has infiltrated everything. Houses bear watermarks almost as high as their roofs.
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On the road leading to the temple, Saji Mathew, a tea shop owner, sweeps his porch, only to have a passing car kick up more dust, leaving a thin film on everything he owns that he has put out to dry in the sun—an induction stove and an iron lie alongside a barely legible bank passbook and his Aadhaar card.
"We know rain, but I've never seen anything like this in all my life," he says, pointing to a damp patch on the wall around his doorbell switch. Power is back on Saturday, but only on his street, thanks to the temple and the festival. Saji and his wife have just returned from the relief camp where they took refuge for a week. "We were told that everyone from the relief camp will get Rs 10,000 but we don't know how to claim this." For small businessmen like Saji, the next big hurdle will be trying to access the interest-free loans announced by the state government.
Almost all the camps in Aranmula have been closed as of Thiruvonam, and people are being asked to return home. In the government school along Saji's street, a few people are still camped on benches. Bags of unclaimed clothes spill out on the school corridors, as the old, infirm and sick wait for their families to return from trying to clean their homes and make them habitable.
Thangamma, who was taken in by the temple some years ago, is fighting back tears as she grips a steel rod for support. On Thiruvonam, the lack of both home and a family to return to has become too much to bear for her.
Rajan, a caterer who makes food for the temple's festivals, tries to consoles her. "We got onasadya (Onam feast) in the relief camp, didn't we?" he reminds her. While there was no grand community feast or vallasadya, there was thoran, avial "and pretty good payasam, too", the 48-year-old adds.
In the camp, clean water is now a luxury, as wells across flooded areas are likely to be contaminated and are filled with mud.
"Be happy that we escaped with our lives. The grace of Mahabali is that the sun has returned and today is dry," says Rajan.
Onam celebrates the return of the benevolent demon king Mahabali, banished to the netherworld by Vamana, to visit his people in Kerala. This year, for Malayalis who have lost their own homes, the festival has acquired even more poignancy.
The tiny camp in Aranmula, which housed nearly 300 people, was visited by Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on the eve of Thiruvonam. People in the camp have nothing but praise for how Vijayan and the state government have handled the crisis, but the possibility of the shelters being closed, given that not everyone is ready or able to return, is a growing concern.
"Everything that was inside is now outside—there's mud up to the roof and don't get me started on the stench!" said Prabha Ravindran, a primary school teacher and a ward member from Aranmula.
Despite being an elected representative, the 50-year-old says it was a 3 am phone call from a friend on 15 August that alerted her to the threat of heavy rainfall, not information from district authorities.
"We're used to the Pampa running over and to spending a couple of nights in this school until the ankle-deep water goes away. Even if they opened one or two dams, it would be okay but this was something else. Why couldn't they warn us?" she asks.
Prabha is wary of the rush to close the camps, given the risk of epidemics and the sheer scale of the clean-up warranted.
Schools—which form a bulk of the relief sites—have been closed to accommodate the displaced and administrators are keen to bring students back to class later this week.
"As long as people require a camp, we will retain the camp," said PB Nooh, Pathanamthitta's collector. "Schools (were) shut because there was a requirement, and if people need to still be there, they'll stay closed. If there are any such pressures, people can call me."
As per official count, said Nooh, the district now has 247 relief camps. More than 83,000 people have returned to their homes, leaving 49,000 people still in relief camps.
Osanna, 69, came to the camp with just the clothes on her back. "I would have got my house deeds if I had known earlier," she rues. She was rescued by fishermen who rowed through streets, screaming at every door to check if anybody was inside.
"They lifted me like I weighed nothing! I want to thank my rescuer for his bravery and for giving me this adventure," she chuckles.
There will be no grand Aranmula regatta this year, but to keep up the tradition, a few boats will be sanctified by the Pampa next week.
"It's because of the fishermen and the school manager that we are still blessed on an Onam like this," Rajan tells Thangamma. "Don't worry, even Mahabali is in the water with us."