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.