There is festivity in the air, fragrance of flowers, everyone is with friends and family, and shops are enticing us with offers on electronics, clothes—you name it! It can only be Onam time in Kerala, South India. But not just Kerala, Malayalis around the world celebrate with great enthusiasm and nostalgia what is their biggest festival—Onam.
Legend has it that Mahabali was Kerala’s most popular king. During his time, people prospered and everybody had a good job, nice house and money to spare. But Mahabali had a huge ego. The Gods decided to bring him down a notch or two, and banished him to the dark worlds. His good deeds, however, got him one concession: that he’d be able to come back to Kerala every year to check on his beloved people. Mahabali’s homecoming is Onam.
Five things Keralite men do during Onam:
Pookkalam: A floral carpet—literally—similar to the Rangoli of North India. All homes are decorated with pookkalam. Designs are as intricate as anyone could devise. They are then filled with blossoms and petals of different flowers. Colourful and ornate, this is an artists’s delight.
Onam Sadhya: Sadhya or feast is a complete vegetarian meal. It’s also the most balanced of Indian foods. Sadhya is served on a banana or plantain leaf and consists of at least 26 dishes, both savoury and sweet. Delicious!
Boat Race: Vallamkali or Snake Boat race is synonymous with Onam. About 100 men row huge and graceful traditional boats through beautiful lakes that shimmer as the boats charge furiously to the finish. Malayalis in Singapore also organise a similar boat race during Onam on Jurong Lake.
Traditional clothes: No matter where in the world Malayali men are, it is customary to celebrate Onam in traditional clothes. They wear a mundu (similar to a sarong) with shirts, while women wear the Kerala sari. This is the most graceful of all attires—off-white simplicity blended with festive golden prints at the edges. Women also wear fragrant jasmine flowers in their hair and a lot of gold!
Watching Kathakali: Arundhati Roy once said that “the Kathakali man is the most beautiful of men. His body is his soul”. This art form is a must-watch during Onam. The cymbals and drums add to the festivities. The Malayali community in the UAE, Singapore and the USA organises elaborate Kathakali performances to mark Onam.
MODERN DAY RELEVANCE:
During King Mahabali’s time, everyone was equal; there was no theft or deceit. People were joyful and Kerala was a casteless place. In this context, Onam is as relevant today as it has ever been. Despite widespread commercialisation of this annual festival, it serves as a time for introspection into one’s own and our society’s core values, morals and aspirations. Onam is perhaps the most secular of all Indian festivals and ought to continue as a unifying celebration in an otherwise fractured and divided world.
In a society driven by consumerism, technology, and self-serving capitalistic goals, Onam is a reminder of the need to balance our lives with more selfless and altruistic acts. It’s also when we should find time for family and friends, in keeping with tradition. On a wider note, Onam is a time to reminisce and savour the nostalgia of simple and sincere memories of childhood and youth. It calls on us to dream of an equal world that once was and still could be.
Photo: Kerala Tourism