Once a harvest festival, Onam is now a family affair

  • People
  • Wednesday, 14 Sep 2016

Onam is celebrated worldwide by Malayalees. You can find beautiful Onam pookalam designs for 10 days in most houses. Photos: Suja Murali


The Malaysian Malayalees are a small ethnic group from Kerala, in the deep south of India, bordering Tamil Nadu. They number roughly 135,000 and embrace different faiths. Many of them can trace their roots in Malaysia back five generations.

In addition to other festivals commonly celebrated in Malaysia, the Malayalees also celebrate Onam which is the main festival of Kerala. In 1972, the All Malaysia Malayalee Association was set up and under its aegis, the Onam traditions have been kept alive.

In earlier times, Vishu was considered to be the Malayalee New Year. Vishu is the first day of the month of Medam (April-May) and in those days, it coincided with the Vernal Equinox but it no longer does so as the Equinox is in March.

Vishu has, therefore, become a beautiful tradition, still celebrated with fervour, before daybreak. The decoration of the altar with cassia fistula flowers, also known as golden shower, is characteristic of this celebration.

Today, Malayalees celebrate New Year over a 10-day period during the month of Chingam, the first month of the Malayalam calendar. Chingam coincides with August-September in the Gregorian calendar. Of the 10 days, the main day is known as Thiruvonam and this year, it falls on Sept 14.

The Thiruvathirakali is a dance originally done by young girls.
The Thiruvathirakali is a dance originally done by young girls.

The set mundu is the oldest form of the modern-day saree.
The set mundu is the oldest form of the modern-day saree.

Thiruvonam used to be of great significance to rice farmers in Kerala as it denoted the culmination of the harvest. The cultivation of rice has always occupied pride of place.

However, due to economic and other reasons, rice occupies the third position in the list of Kerala’s agricultural crops in terms of area under cultivation, far behind coconut and rubber. Therefore, Onam no longer has any specific rituals which mark it as a harvest festival. This is more so for the urban Malayalee and the diaspora who have little or no ties with the agrarian way of life of their forefathers.

The story goes that there used to be a good king, well loved by his subjects, whose name was Mahabali or Maveli. An ancient song in praise of him says, “Maveli, our king, ruled the land and all were equal, joyful and merry....”

Ancient mythology has it that Mahabali was an Asura king. In modern-day Hinduism, “Asura” is taken to mean “demon” and is depicted as ugly, ferocious and cruel – the complete antithesis of the Devas. But that was not always the case. In the 3,000-year-old Rigveda, the Asuras are referred to as the older gods and the Devas as the younger gods. During a process of polarisation over the millennia, some of the Asuras changed into Devas.

The other Asuras were driven away from the earth and remained as exiles in the netherworld. This coincides with the legend of Mahabali as he, too, was driven to the netherworld by jealous Devas. However, he was granted a boon; he would be able to visit each of his subjects once every year. That visit falls on Thiruvonam day.

Non-vegetarian dishes are sometimes included in the Sadya which is traditionally a vegetarian lunch.
Non-vegetarian dishes are sometimes included in the Sadya which is traditionally a vegetarian lunch.

Overjoyed at the prospect of seeing their king again, the people of Maveli adorn the threshold of their homes. A sumptuous home-cooked feast called Sadya is prepared for him and new clothes are worn.

In Kerala, processions of caparisoned elephants walking to the beat of vibrant music are an integral part of the traditional celebrations but which are now being questioned by animal rights groups. Happily, the Kathakali and Mohiniattam dance performances which are part of the tradition, are welcomed by one and all.

Over the years, the legend of Mahabali has taken a back seat and with the absence of religious rituals, Onam is celebrated as a cultural festival by Malayalees of all religions.

The Sadya or feast is served on a banana leaf and is a vegetarian lunch. The rib of the banana leaf serves as a marker as each item has a specific place on the leaf. A little salt, mango pickle, inji puli (a relish made of ginger, chilly, tamarind and palm sugar), papadam, a banana, jackfruit chips, salted banana chips and sweet banana chips are compulsory items.

The rice is served in the centre on which the server pours the curries one after the other. The family takes turns to serve. The rice is topped up for each curry. In a traditional Sadya, the total number of dishes comes to 26.

With changing times, “potluck” Sadya is very popular with each person bringing a dish. It has become common to have a weekend Sadya dinner to accommodate busy work schedules. Non-vegetarian dishes are sometimes included.

Must-dos during Onam

A simple pookalam.
A simple pookalam.

Design a pookalam (floral design): In the old days, children were entrusted with the task of collecting flowers from the garden and nearby areas, while the older girls arranged them in beautiful designs around a central oil lamp (the ubiquitous nilavilakku) in the threshold of the house. Everyday the design would be embellished and it would reach its full size and magnificence on Thiruvonam day. Modern pookalam retain the inherent structure but use a wider variety of leaves and flowers and also include berries and powders. Scented tealights, LED lights and string lights are sometimes used instead of the traditional oil lamp as they are long-lasting and can survive windy weather conditions.

Wear a set mundu: The set mundu is the oldest form of the modern-day saree. It is off-white with a gold brocade border and comes in two pieces. The broader piece, called the mundu, is worn sarung-style and the narrow length, called the neriyathu, is worn over the top half of the body. Today the set mundu is worn with a silk blouse in a vibrant, contrasting colour.

Do the Thiruvathirakali: The Thiruvathirakali is a dance originally performed by young girls. The dancers, numbering eight to 10, sing as they dance. They clap their hands and provide the beat while moving in a circle around a floral pookalam. The dance flows in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions, and is accompanied by graceful swaying. In the old days, it was performed in the front courtyard of the house. Now in keeping with the times, all ladies, irrespective of age, perform the Thiruvathirakali before an audience.

The older generations are perhaps the lucky ones as they have childhood memories of picking basket after interminable basket of flowers from the garden for the pookalam being arranged by their older sisters, their mothers bustling about in the kitchen as they prepared the Sadya, neighbours and friends dropping by without prior appointment and of course, new clothes.

As the saying goes, all change is not progress and modern Malayalees take pains to keep these simple traditions alive.

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