Being a Keralite, I have always felt privileged that I was born into a culture that celebrates all its festivals with good food. I hardly know of a festival or event that involves fasting – or at least such ‘fasts’ too propagate special food for those events. Amongst the most celebrated festivals of Kerala, Onam surely heads the list and is a hands-down winner when it comes to festivities associated with it. It is the harvest festival of Kerala and spans 10 days of sheer magnanimity, fun and awesome activities.
Kerala is a place to visit during Onam times which is celebrated in the Malayalam month of Chingam which falls around the Aug-Sep period. Though it spans for a good 10 days with different activities spread over this period, it is the ‘Thiruvonam’ day that the festivities reach its pinnacle. Over these days, you would find some artistic flower carpets in front of houses, dances forms like Kaikotti Kali, Thumbi Thullal, Kummatti Kali and Pulikali being performed along with street processions marking the festivities of Onam. The ever famous Vallamkali – the snake boat race through the backwaters of Alappuzha is a crowd puller and it is the world’s biggest team sporting event where you get to see around 150 men on each boat called Chundan Vallams in a rhythmic, emphatic movements, rowing a stretch of 40 kms as fast as they can, singing their way to lift up the Nehru Trophy.
The atmosphere in Kerala during Onam is rife with activity and the whiff of delicious cooking wafting through the air is captivating, to say the least. There are elaborate lunches called Sadya that range between 13-14 dishes – all vegetarian and scrumptious, served up on banana leaves. The typical dishes in the culinary odyssey called the Onasadya include include Parippu (lentils), Aviyal (vegetables cooked in coconut mix), Sambar (mix vegetables and lentil curry), Thoran (dry mix vegetables with coconut), Kichaddi (a side-dish usually made from okra /cucumber/bitter gourd), Pachadi (Curd and pineapple/mango/red pumpkin/cucumber curry), Kaalan (plantains in thick curd gravy), Kuttucurry (potato and black gram curry), Olan (a mild curry with black-eyed beans and pumpkin in coconut milk) , Rasam (spicy tomato and lentils – resembling a clear soup) along with pickle verities of ginger, mango and lime called Injicurry, Mangacurry and Narangyacurry respectively and also small bananas, Pappadams (lentil crackers), banana chips both sweet and savoury types which accompany rice – typically the red rice. The serving of these dishes also follows an order as to where a particular dish would occupy its place on the leaf! The feast is rounded up with desserts like Ada Pradhaman, Paalada payasam,(both pudding varieties of finely shredded rice flour pancakes – pradhaman being cooked with jaggery in thick coconut milk and the payasam being a white milk pudding) Paal Payasam (rice pudding) and so on. It is a growing trend where people now boast of Sadya that encompasses at least 3-4 varieties of dessert itself. To have all these items in a single meal is exciting enough to fall in love with the celebrations. Probably this is another great example of similarity of Indian cultures where a Sadya can be compared to the elaborate feast- wazwan of the Kashmir region, thus uniting the entire length of the country through food.
Can you imagine the vibes in the kitchen during the preparation of all these dishes? It is surely a memory which many Keralites cherish from their growing up days. The women of the family wake up early morning and get busy in the kitchen to get all these items prepared by lunch time. But before heading into the kitchen to cook up a storm, they begin the day with decorating the front courtyard of the house with flower carpets. Some people also erect small clay conical figures that represent ‘Trikkakara Appan‘. I remember the time when we as children, wearing our new clothes (the typical Kerala handloom dresses in the cream colour with golden borders that we love to wear for this special occasion) were mostly excited about decorating the flower carpets and dashed into the kitchen to try and sample the items as they were being made, being careful to avoid the strict vigilance from senior family members. The wait for food was unbearable especially with the aroma of coconut oil cooked dishes filled the air… We used to love the scene where everyone in the family – relatives and friends – would gather around and feast on the delicious spread. The meals were followed by cultural events like dance performances and games.
The key essence of the festival is joy and merriment for all the people – just like it was during the reign of King Mahabali and Onam celebrates his annual visit to check on the happiness of his subjects. The legend behind Onam is that there once ruled a king named Mahabali who according to mythology was a demon yet a very just and charitable ruler and his rule was known as a golden era where there was prosperity and happiness all around. The Gods felt threatened by his soaring popularity and sought Lord Vishnu’s intervention to curb his rule. Vishnu came in the Vamana avatar, guised as a dwarf Brahmin seeking alms from Mahabali and asked for three steps of land. When his wish was granted and Vamana started measuring the three steps, he grew immensely in his stature and in the first two steps his strides covered the entire heaven and the earth so for the third step Mahabali offered his head to keep his word. But before being banished into ‘paathal’ with the third step of Vamana, Mahabali asked to be allowed to come visit his subjects every year and see for himself their happiness and prosperity.
That is the reason why even today everyone – rich or poor, irrespective of cast and religious barriers celebrate Onam in keeping to the traditions of the land. So to experience Kerala beyond the backwaters and the regular ‘idli-dosa-sambar’ fare, next time schedule your visit during Onam and you are sure to return with memories and happiness that you could cherish for a lifetime.