Onam – Happy Times …

Often  times I start   my posts  here  with   a picture of  food,  after all  this is a  food blog.  But to me food  is  not  just  about  cooking,  or  what  we  eat. It  is about  memories ,  shared   times  and  a  reflection of  our  culture  and  times.   Today  I am  going  to  meander  through the  lanes  where  I spent  time   as a  child , where  some  of  these  fond  memories were  made.  If you  were  from  Kerala  you  would  recognize the  season  that  brings  this kind of  nostalgia.  It is  Onam – the  festival  celebrated   by everyone  in Kerala.   Onam is  dear to all Malayalis , as  we  like  to call ourselves; it is a celebration of  the glorious era when   there  was  no poverty, no inequalities, no  crime.

Long ago, people were  happy living  in  “Gods  own Country”,  the  gods  not  so much .  As  the  story  goes ,  the  demon king , Mahabali, or  Maveli as  we  refer to him,   used  to  rule  Kerala  during that  time . He  was  fair ,  just  and  revered  by all his  subjects.   As  one  can  imagine the  gods  in  Heaven  were  not   very happy   with this  turn of  events . Why  would  humans  seek  godly blessings  when  their  king provides  everything  they  can ask for?  They hatched a  plan  to  oust  Maveli,  and  succeeded.  But  in  the  end  humbled  by the  King’s integrity  they  allowed   him to  visit  his  subjects  once  every year.  Malayalis  prepare for this yearly visit  of their  King wherever they are.

Though  miles  away  from the “Land of Coconuts”, we  too try to recapture  something  of  those  celebratory  times.   My early  memories  include   going  around   with  friends  looking  for  Thumba flowers.  The  flower itself  is not   much to  write  about, but  the  leaves  have a  special fragrance which you get a whiff of when you pluck them. It  was a  mini adventure  for  all of us  little  kids.  These  were the  few  times  when   we  were   allowed  and  even  expected to go into  and  explore  other’s   land.

Another   one  was  the making  of  the Onathappan .   Fresh clay is  collected  and  shaped into these little pyramids with their tops cut off – one  larger than the rest.  With left over  clay  we used to   make  other  figurines   that  used to  be  displayed in the front   yard .   Tradition demanded  that  we  destroy it  after   every  festival and  make  way for  new ones  every year.  Kunjupennu Chechi,  my parent’s  neighbor used  to  bring  fresh  clay  for  us  every year  until  a  few  years  back ,  when  she  too  passed  on  to the  other  side  of  the veil of   time.   Now a  days  these clay figurines are  available  in the  market   during  the   season.  That  is   what you see  in the picture .


Celebrations start 10  days  before Onam ,   creating a  fresh flower  carpet in the  front  yard  to  welcome  Maveli . Day by day the  carpet  gets bigger .  On the   main festival day,  kolams or  designs  are  made   with   flowers  and  rice  powder  to  welcome  the   king  into the  homes .  The  path  from the street to  the  main door is lit  and  marked  with  designs   and a    floral  decorated  throne is  made  for  Maveli. A  special   steamed  bread –  valsan or  elada – is  also offered .  After a  quick  breakfast  of  valsan ,  we kids were  allowed  to   design  and   create  our  own  floral carpet .

As a   little  girl  I used  to  wake  up to  firecrackers  and   welcome  songs on this day.  Try as  hard as  I could ,  my neighbors  always  woke  up  earlier.  Rushing  down   we  used  to find  that  mom  and  dad  had  already  decorated  the  yard  and  has  the  steam  cakes   waiting   for  us .  Years  later  we  spent one Onam  in Kochi, now   a busy  city,   waking  up to  the  sounds of  the  neighboring   family  ushering in  Maveli .  The matriarch of  the  house  symbolically  ushering  in Maveli  while   the  kids  and  grand kids singing  traditional   welcome songs. The  lady   who led  the  rituals  is  gone a  few  years  now, but  that  one  morning  is  still  etched   vividly in  my memories .

Onam  was  not  just a  family festival  either. Villages   and   towns used  to   conduct  their  own   Onam gatherings   and competitions .   During  the  Onams  spent  in my  grandparents’  village , this  was  where  we spent our mornings once the excitement of making the flower  carpets  were over. The  child  in me  loved  the  idea  of  watching  and  maybe  even  participating  in the   festivities. The  sack race  and “Idly  eating” competitions  were  the  most  fun  to watch as  were  the  arrival of  “Puli” , or  people  dressed up in  tiger  costumes .  Looking  back I think it  was   an easy  way to keep us  kids out  of  the  kitchen while  the big  feast  was  being  prepared.

No celebration is   complete   without  the   feast .  How  can  Maveli leave  happy if  his  subjects  are  not  well  fed ? The  traditional  dishes  were  served  for  lunch .  Rice , vegetable  curries , pickles , yogurt  and   the  desert of   choice – pradhaman .  Newcomers  like  sambar  ,  and   dishes  like  theeyal and  masala  curry  were  not fancied on this  day.  Everything  was served on a  freshly cut  banana leaf .  The  highlight  for  us , kids,  were  the  payasams . Oh,  and  us  being  from southern Kerala  it  was  always a vegetarian   feast.  The  day after  you  could  indulge  in  non veg , but  not on Onam day. I am  not  sure  what  Maveli’s  take  is on that , but  I still   follow  that .

Nostalgia  kicking  in  , and  I am  on a   mission to create some  of these  memories  for  my   children as  well .  These  are  the  dishes  that  we  make   – PuliInji, Parippu, Kalan,Olan,Thoran,Avial , Ada Pradhaman,Parippu Payasam.     There are  many others  too –   but  every family has   something  that  they  considers  as a  must  have .  For  my FIL it  was  Parippu ,  and in my family it  was PuliInji.   We  make  both  every year once  at  least  this  time.

Once the festivities end and everyone went their separate ways, for us children it was about looking forward to the next Onam.  This  celebration of the demon King was more than merely an occasion to get together and have fun; what we realize is that by reliving his memory we are also acknowledging  that  the  world  is  not  black and  white, that good  and  evil  are not defined by one’s  pedigree, but purely  by one’s actions. And maybe this innate understanding is what makes all Malayalis regardless of caste and creed come together for Onam.

Happy Onam!

[recipe-grid cat=”recipe” posts=”12″ tag=”sadya” grid=”fourth” excerpt=”no”]Our OnaSadya recipes.Hope you enjoy these as much as we did.[/recipe-grid]


    4 thoughts on “Onam – Happy Times …

    1. Syama, enjoyed reading the article. So beautifully written. The journey taken back in time is impressive. Although we had our own version of Onam having been raised in Orissa, much of it stayed the same and we loved it!!!!

      Looking forward to many such from you as time goes by 🙂

      1. Thanks, Kalai. I have been hearing from friends about their own Onam Memories. Much of it has changed but the spirit of the celebration still remains. Love the effort you put into it as well 🙂 .

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