Saturday, September 10, 2011

Onam Sadhya: The Most Colorful Feast of Kerala

Onam is a festival celebrated throughout Kerala during the month of Chingam (August-September). It is also the harvest festival that pays tribute to the return of the mythical king Mahabali, who is said to have returned to Kerala during the Onam. The impressive feast of Onasadya is also served during the festival. It is a 9-course meal served on banana leaves, with a display of curries, rice and vegetable dishes.

The festival of Onam is the most important festival of Kerala, the beautiful coastal state of South India that lives mainly in agriculture and with it the harvest is celebrated. It is celebrated with enthusiasm by all the Keralites without differences of caste and religion.

Onam falls at the beginning of the month of Chingam, the first month of the Malayalam calendar. It corresponds to the months of August-September and lasts ten days. The most important days are the Atham, the first day of Onam when the preparations for the festival are held and the Thiruonam, the tenth day and later we explain why.

During all ten days of the festival, there are sporting events, such as rowing competitions in the backwaters, the beautiful lagoon areas. There is the tug of war, and water festivals organized along the sacred river Pamba. There are traditional games like the Onakalikal, the Talappanthukali (a game with the ball). There are Ambeyyal (archery), Kutu Kutu and fights like Kayyankaliand Attakalam.

The Vallamkali (the serpent race) is a famous tournament. The muscular rowers compete on decorated "snake" boats which people enjoy with fervor. There are also other famous events like the Nehru Boat Race which take place before and after the 10 days of the festival.

There are also many cultural events and traditional dances presented in this period. There is the Thiruvathirakali, also known as Kaikottikali. The women perform in a circle around a lamp, or the Thumbi Thullal and the Kummattikali. In Thrissur, in particular, there is a spectacular parade of beautifully adorned elephants. They are surrounded by dancers from Kummattikali who, when masked, go from house to house to perform the colorful dance. Even the traditional Kathakali dance is commonly performed during Oman.

The dancers stage mythological legends. In the Pulikali dance, then, known as the "dance of the tiger" or Kaduvakali, the artists paint their bodies like tigers in the colors of yellow, red and black. They dance to the rhythms of instruments like the Chenda and the Thakil. At the Thrikkakara temple, one of the most significant places of the festival, 20 km. from Cochin, every day of the Onam these and other performances are held with very good dancers and percussionists.

The Onam is as important as Christmas in the West. On the day of Thiruonam, people clean their houses. They apply, as a sign of welcome, the dough of rice flour at the entrance doors. They exchange gifts and give charity to the poor. The older woman in the family distributes new clothes (Vastra) to all members, according to a tradition called Onakodi, in order to renew their heart by eliminating all bad feelings.

Onam Sadya

The family gathers for the Onasadya, the traditional lunch served on banana leaves. It consists of 11 to 13 courses that everyone consumes, as is customary, with their hands and sitting on the ground. It ends with the payasam, an excellent dessert made with rice, boiled milk, and brown sugar. There is a saying, in this regard, "Kanam Vittum Onam Hunnam".

During Onam, the streets are festively decorated and perfumed with incense. Most cities in Kerala, such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi (Cochin) and Thrissur, are illuminated with lights and fireworks. On the streets of Trivandrum, mimosa trees are loaded with lots of lights. In the temples, churches, and mosques there are special prayers and this demonstrates the secular nature of the festival. In the Thrikkakara temple, attended by more than twenty thousand people, in the afternoon traditional games and dances take place.

The day of Thiruvonam is a special day. The children and women prepare in front of their houses the carpet of flower petals called Ona-Pookalam to welcome King Mahabali. History tells us that during the reign of this powerful king Kerala lived its golden age. Everyone was happy and prospering and so the king was much appreciated by his subjects. Next to the Pookkalam which resembles the rangoli made of color powder which is the custom of North India in the courtyards of the houses, pyramidal earth mounds represent Mahabali and Vamana.

The most important celebrations of the Onam end with Thiruvonam. The Onathappan statue that has been placed at the center of each pookkalam during the last 10 days is immersed in the river or in the sea. Then the Pookkalam is removed. Important is also the famous event of the Pulikali (tiger dance) that takes place in the city of Thrissur. In this, men dressed as lions, tigers, and leopards, parade through the city in large numbers. The Pulikali also marks the end of the traditional Onam celebrations.

The festival lasts 10 days, four of which are official holidays. Of these, the most important are the first, Atham, and the last, Thiruvonam. During the festival, the naturally vibrant landscapes of Kerala come to life with panache and offer everything from local dances to elephants to the famous Alleppey snake boat competition.


elengenesseajm said...

I loved reading about the festival and the elaborate meal prepared. The food looks amazing!

P.N. Subramanian said...

The sadhya was quite grand. You have shown other dishes like Idli, Vada, Dosa, Idiappam, Puttu etc. Brief particulars could have gone with them. Ela Ada is not there?

Kalyan Panja
Kalyan Panja is a photographer and a travel writer sharing stories and experiences through photographs and words