What is Onam without its leitmotif — the Onathumbi or Picture Wing Dragonfly?
Malayalam folklore venerates the humble dragonfly. It is feted in poetry and prose, song and dance. Onam, the traditional harvest festival and the official festival of the state, sees Malayalis taking a prolonged holiday, a practice that comes to them quite effortlessly. Among the memories and images associated with Onam are the Ona-pookkalam (floral carpet), Ona-pattu (songs celebrating the joy of the season) and several words and motifs prefixed with Onam. Of them, one has always intrigued me — the word Onathumbi, literally Onam Dragonfly. Numerous Malayalam songs — of film and folk origin — have made mention of this dragonfly and I always imagined it was some damselfly that had inspired the bards.
When I ran an Internet search for a song beginning with Onathumbi I came across pictures of a dragonfly with a dark brown head, brown and golden-yellow patterns on the wings. It wasn’t unfamiliar: I remembered having seen it several times right from my childhood, and when it flew it would look more like a butterfly thanks to its broad wings and patterned coloration. This Onam, I thought I should dig deeper and understand this lovely dragonfly known to dragonfly enthusiasts as the Common Picture Wing (Rhyothemis variegata). And I was surprised to learn that I had only seen the female.
Although scientific journals mention that these dragonflies are found year-round near marshes, I have seen earlier than August. Most articles about the Ona-thumbi mention that it is seen August onwards. True enough, for Onam falls in August or September every year.
The male Picture Wing has a predominantly transparent golden-yellow wing with a few dark brown spots and prominent brown W-shaped hind-wing markings. The female has more elaborate patterns in golden-yellow and brown.
I have found this dragonfly mostly in and around water bodies and paddyfields. Its flight, I have observed, is short and abrupt.As wetlands are filled up and turned into landfills and garbage dumps, the fauna inhabiting these fragile and essential ecosystems faces an uncertain future.
Let this Onam sound a wake-up call to the authorities to save our vanishing wetlands. An Onam sans Onathumbi would be such a colossal shame!
Text by Sandeep Somasekharan
Photos by Sandeep Somasekharan, Abhilash Satyapalan, L Shyamal (Male Picture Wing, from Wikimedia Commons)