Malaysian experiences a special Onam festival in Kerala before pandemic


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My husband and his friends used to make a yearly trip to Kerala in India for the Calicut Medical College Alumni Meet. In 2019, the gathering was held during the festive Onam season in September. I was happy about this because I had always wanted to be part of the Onam celebrations in Kerala.

Onam is one of a few major festivals in Kerala. It heralds the beginning of a new year for locals, and celebrates the year’s new harvest. It also commemorates the visit of the legendary King Mahabali.

We flew to Calicut (or Kozhikode) from Kochi a few days earlier than the medical event so that we could have some time enjoying the place with its long shoreline of beaches, tranquil stretches of emerald backwaters, lush hill stations and exotic wildlife.

We also wanted to experience staying in both the urban and rural parts of Calicut. We stayed in Calicut city first, at a relatively small hotel. It was tucked away in a quiet part of the city; the beach nearby was certainly not my cup of tea as it was too crowded and unkempt.

I was more interested in going to the less populated suburbs, and that landed us at The Raviz Resort and Spa, Kadavu, located a few miles on the outskirts of Calicut, on the eve of Onam.

The hotel was a beautiful amalgam of traditional and modern architecture. It did not have a beach front but we could access the backwaters using houseboats.

On the walls of the hotel hung gold-plated elephant caparisons or “nettipatam” which normally adorn the heads and trunks of elephants. And there was a huge traditional black wooden fishing boat near the reception.

There were also “pookalams” which are concentric circles of colourful flowers, typical of Onam decor, and a tiered Kerala brass lamps (kuthu vilaku) near that.

On Onam morning, I draped myself in a “mundum neriyathum”, the traditional sari usually worn by Keralan women. The receptionists, who were surprised to see me wearing the outfit, suggested that we check out the Theyyam, a worship ritual told in dance form.

Moments later, we heard the deafening rhythmic sounds of the “chenda” (traditional drums unique to Kerala) being played by a group of drummers, and the Theyyam dancer appeared in full regalia.

It was exciting to watch the performance. Villagers regard the Theyyam as a channel to God and often seek blessings from the dancer. The dancer had heavy make up and a flamboyant costume, and was retelling a legend through art form using mime and music. His headgear and ornaments were majestic to say the least. I was filled with awe.

We were also treated to the Onam sadya or feast, a multi-course vegetarian meal served on a banana leaf. The hotel served us four different types of payasam, a sweet traditional south Indian pudding which is a must during a sadya.

In the late afternoon I went to the Ayurvedic centre, a feature in most resorts in Kerala. In the evening, we went to a Bhagawathi temple nestled in a quiet area not far from the hotel.

We wanted to savour more sadyas so we went in search of restaurants offering them. We found an inexpensive, modest restaurant whose advertisements were so catchy, we couldn’t ignore them!

Bestowed with an equable climate throughout the year, most of Kerala is a tropical paradise where one can rejuvenate surrounded in nature. The Ayurvedic treatments here are top notch too. Kerala is indeed a saga of experiences.

The words expressed are entirely the reader’s own.

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