This year the 10 days annual festival of the southern state, Kerala; Onam commenced on the 22nd August and will conclude on the 31st August. There are two reasons why this festival is of utmost importance to the people of Kerala. One reason is, it is believed that the grandson of Prahlad, the demon king Mahabali returns to earth to see his people at the beginning of Chingam, the first month of Malayalam Calendar. The second reason being, it is also a harvest festival in Kerala.
Two years ago, i.e in the year 2018, I happened to travel to the capital city of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) with my parents. Coincidently, I was told by the local tour guide that I had come to visit the place in a very good time of the year, as their annual festival Onam was going to commence soon. I being a person who is fond of understanding the cultural diversities of the country got excited and wanted to delve into understanding more about this festival.
I asked the guide to tell me some more and he cheekily replied "Madam I will show you how it is celebrated here”. I replied "ok" with a smile. We both knew what we were planning for. For the next 10 days, I was going to be a part of a festival which is not just celebrated by the Malayalis in India but even abroad.
10 days of Onam :
The first day Atham marks the beginning of the festival. On this day both men, women, and also children visit the temple as a custom. People decorate their homes with Pookalam(an arrangement of flowers), it looks like an elaborate flower carpet spread to welcome the King. With each passing day the size of the flower arrangement increases.
Day 2 :
This day is known as Chithira. On this day a thorough cleaning of the house is done. The flower arrangement of the previous day is cleared and a bigger Pookalam is made.
Day 3 :
The third day is referred to as Chodhi. People go to the market to purchase new clothes and also gifts for family and friends. The Market bustles with energy and is crowded. It is basically a day to be out of the home and spend money. Before stepping out of the home the women add another row to the flower arrangement.
Day 4 :
Vishakam is the most auspicious day of the festival. On this day the actual preparation of the Onam Sadhya or Onam Feast kickstarts.
The best part of this day is that everyone(both men and women) contributes to the preparation of the feast. Children are also involved. The size of the contribution doesn't matter but everyone has to contribute. Seeing the spirit of the people I too contributed. I gave a bag of rice and some other necessities of the feast to my guide, which could be used on the day of the feast.
The 5th day is known as Anizham. On this day different teams from across the state participate in a boat race known as Vallamkalli. This boat race is flagged off from a small town Aranmulla located on the banks of the Pamba river.People in teams participate in this annual boat race to showcase their synchronized rowing skills.The boats look like a giant snake .
Thirekta is the 6th day of the Onam celebration. On this day the families gather in their ancestral homes and present gifts to their extended family members that were purchased on the third day.
Now only two days remain before the feasting day (Onam Sadhya). Different dance forms are integral to any celebration. After the boat race, the people eagerly anticipate for the dance performances. On this day one can see young boys and men on streets and roads in yellow and black striped painted bodies with a mask of a tiger. Some of them even dress up as goats and hunters.
All these men perform on the beats of the drums. This performance is known as Pulli Kali or Kaduva Kali. The performance is quite entertaining. Similarly, the women of the house participate in Kaikotti Kali, an elegant synchronized dance that involves going around the pookalam and a lamp in a clockwise and anti-clockwise motion and clap in unison. This day is referred to as moolam.
Pooradam or the 8th day is the day when finally small statues of Mahabali and Vamana(an Avatar of God Vishnu)are first taken around the house and erected on the flower arrangement. In this way, as the belief says an invitation has been forwarded to the king and now he can come and visit the people and bless them. The flower arrangement now becomes more intricate .
Uthradam is the 9th day, it’s the eve of Onam and now people go to the markets to buy the vegetables required in making the dishes for Onam sadhya . People reach the markets as early as possible to pick vegetables, else they would get only the leftovers.
My tour guide took an off this day, so that he could arrange vegetables for his home . By the evening I had got a call from him to be a part of Sadhya at his home.
The final day of the festival or Thiruvonam is when the festivities come to an end. But no festival is complete without feasting on sumptuous dishes.
Onam Sadhya or Onam feast is the main highlight of the festival. Sadhya in Malayalam(the language spoken in Kerala) translates to Banquet or Feast. The food prepared in Sadhya is served on a banana leaf with people seated cross-legged on the floor or the long rows of tables arranged in a hall. Typically around 24 -28 dishes are served in one course.
The dishes prepared are very thoughtfully decided and made so that everyone from any age group comes to like something or the other, you may find dishes from sweet to sour, salty to spicy.
The dishes range from Plain boiled rice, served along with other side dishes like Sambhar, Rasam, Avial(A mixture of vegetables cooked in coconut milk), Thoran (sauted vegetables with grated coconut) ,pachadi(A curry of sour curd with ash gourd), sarkara upperi (banana chips coated in jaggery, kootu curry(black gram curry), Inji Puli (tamarind and ginger chutney), plain curd, buttermilk, papadam(papad), Payasam(Kheer), to name a few.
The dishes are served in a particular place and order , around the rice so that the person serving can easily identify where he needs to serve them when they are asked in the next serving.
You will be surprised to know that all the dishes are made without using onion and garlic and yet taste so good. After a person has finished eating he turns the leaf before he leaves the place and washing hands .If the leaf is turned inwards that (from top to bottom) it means that the food was sumptuous and if it is folded outward (bottom to top) it means there is room for the food to taste better.
This year like the other festivals getting affected by the pandemic, so will the celebrations of Onam be affected. But don’t forget to enjoy the Onam Sadya at your home or at your friends and relatives home . Don’t forget to take the proper precautionary measures while visiting them .Stay Safe, Happy Onam!!
I liked the Inji Puli so much that I asked the lady of the house (Tour Guide’s wife) the recipe of it .Below is the Recipe .
Recipe for Inji Puli (Ginger and Tamarind Chutney)
½ cup ginger washed peeled and finely chopped
6-7 green chilies finely chopped
1 whole red Chilli
1 gooseberry sized tamarind ball
2 tablespoons sesame oil if available or any other oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
Curry leaves(one or two sprigs)
2 tbsp jaggery
Salt to taste
1)Soak the tamarind and extract the juice.
2)In a heavy-bottomed pan heat oil and add the mustard seeds, let it splutter.
3) Now add the red chili, curry leaves, green chilies, ginger.
4)Saute this till ginger becomes light brown in color.
5)To this add the tamarind juice and salt, mix well.
6)On a low flame let the water evaporate and allow the mixture to thicken.
7)After the mixture has thickened, add the jaggery and mix well and turn off the flame .
8)Inji Pulli is ready to be served.
Tip: This chutney can be served warm or cold and even be stored in the refrigerator for later use (up to 2 weeks)
After the feast got over I gifted my tour guide a cotton shirt. which after initial reluctance he accepted.
-- Sapna Chaudhary/Lucknow
(The author is a guest contributor with TNA and an out and out foodie, who more than eating, loves to serve people, good, healthy food.)