How to Celebrate Onam While Living Abroad
WHAT IS ONAM
Every year in the South Indian state of Kerala, a major harvest festival occurs called Onam. Like most major Indian festivals, of course, there is a mythological story behind this 10 day festival as well. Now, there are a few variations to the Onam story, but here’s the version of how I remember it from all the community Onam events my parents forced me to attend as a kid. These events always included elaborate skits to especially help the kids in the audience follow along with the story. Imagine women dressed in white and gold sarees with a processional of colorful flower petals and men dressed as tigers to represent strength and power all to welcome who this event is for: King Mahabali.
Back in the day, there was a king named Mahabali who ruled over Kerala. Everyone loved him and he loved his people, but the gods weren’t too crazy about him and wanted to kill him. (We won't worry about "the why" at this time). So, the gods asked Vishu if he would help remove Mahabali. Vishu thankfully wasn’t on board with this idea, but he was willing to test Mahabali to see where his loyalties were. During this time, Mahabali was setting out to do a yajna where he’d offer anyone anything they wanted. This turned out to be perfect timing for Vishu to act on his loyalty test.
Vishu decided to meet with Mahabali, but in the form of a dwarf named Yamana. When Yamana met Mahabali he decided to ask for a meager three paces of land for himself. And Mahabali happily agreed! But then Yamana turned into a giant and revealed himself as Vishu!
Vishu took one step which covered the earth. The second step covered the universe. Just before he was about to take his third, Mahabali said WAIT! He asked Vishu to place his third step on his head which would send him to the netherworld. In return, Mahabali wanted to be granted only one with. His wish was that each year he would get to be with the people of his land that he loved so much.
Vishu granted this request. That’s why every year during the Malayalam calendar month of Chingham (which is around September), we celebrate Onam. The celebration occurs over 10 days all to greet King Mahabali. And the festivities are GRAND. People dress in white and gold attire, there are beautiful flower carpet decorations, boat races, folk dances, and, of course, food! Lots and lots of food!
Onam Sadhya (The Feast)
Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the only thing you might have heard about Onam is related to Onam Sadhya which is the beautiful multi-course vegetarian feast that is served on a banana leaf. The food prepared during Onam is one of the most iconic parts of the festival. The feast happens on the last day of the celebration. Communities gather to prepare and serve a meal that is entirely vegetarian. The feast is vegetarian to honor and use up all the beautiful crops yielded on Mahabali’s land.
A sadhya can feature anywhere from 30-40 dishes with around 9-10 courses served on a banana leaf. The types of vegetables used include native fruits and vegetables like snake gourd, yellow cucumber, and white pumpkin as well as carrots, green plantains, and lots and lots of coconut!
The way I remember it as a kid is that all the men of the community would serve a spoonful of food to all the people gathered for the feast. Each banana leaf will typically include a mound of Kerala’s native matta rice; a spoon of the various side dishes like a pachadi, khichdi, olan, erissery, and aviyal; something sour like a ginger pickle; something crunchy like banana chips or sarkara varatti which is a jaggery and spice coated plantain chip; and something sweet like semiya payasam and a baby banana.
Inspired to make some traditional Onam Sadhya dishes? Check out these recipes from South Indian food blogger, Ann Ittoop of @thefamiliarkitchen:
Many of you have heard of Rangoli. You know the pretty designs that are made during Diwali every year. But what many of you may not have heard is that during the 10 days of the Onam Festival which is celebrated in Kerela also do Rangoli every year however it’s called Pookalam. These beautiful yet intricate designs are made with utmost precision, it looks like a work of art. Not overwhelming at all. Just kidding.
To be quite honest, growing up in a mixed Gujarati and Malyali household, I didn’t even know that Pookalam was such a huge part of this 10 daylong celebration. Sure, we acknowledged Onam and my mom did pooja but we never really celebrated Onam as it should be. Now here I am a mother of 2 toddlers who probably don’t know that they even have Malayali in them.
More than just pretty artwork, Pookalam is weaved with beautiful history and meaning. “Poo” meaning flowers and “Kalam” means artwork. Creating this floral arrangement marks the start of the Onam festival. There are various flowers and colors that are used each day as a particular flower is dedicated to each of the 10 day festival. Historically, the preparation of these motifs are done by cleaning the front porch of the house. Pookalam is then arranged in ten rings, each signifying a Hindu God. First step defines Ganesha, second defines Shiva and Shakti, third to Shiva, fourth to Brahma, fifth to Pancha Boothangal, sixth to Shanmughan or Muruga, seventh step describe Guru, eighth step is for ashta digpalakar, ninth for Indra and tenth defines Lord Vishnu.
The flowers that are used for the Pookalam are Kakka Poovu, Thumba, Thechipoovu, Chemparathy, Mukkutti, Aripoo or Konginipoo, Hanuman Kireedom and Chethi. The design of these arrangement can be simple or elaborate based on personal preference.
Sounds fun right? The clothes, the food and the beautiful arrangements... but why do we create these arrangements? Well, according to the legends, King Mahabali who once ruled the region visits the land during these ten days of Onam and these beautiful flowers and colors made at an entrance of a malyali home makes his soul happy and to ensure happiness and prosperity.
When you google Pookalam online, you can get overwhelmed with the amount of sheer beauty that will take over your screen however, making a Pookalam doesn’t have to be so overwhelming. You don’t have to use the exact flowers and you can make simple design that work for you and your home. Here's a short video I made on how to make a simple design right in your own home. You can choose the flowers you want and it takes less than 10 minutes. Easy for you and your kids to do together. Enjoy making these memories together!
Written by: Avani Sarkar
During Onam, women of all ages wear the Mundum Neriyathum and take part in folk dance meant only for women called kaikottikalli. The mundum neriyathum for festive occasion has golden colored borders or a broad zari border known as Kasavu, lending the costume another name of "Kasavu Saree". The color for the blouse of the mundum neriyathum for this occasion is determined by the age and marital status of the woman. Young unmarried girls wear green colored blouse, while married middle aged mothers wear red blouses.
People in Kerala years before used to wear simple white clothes one around their waist and one to cover their upper body. In those days there was no dyes to color their clothes so they wore plain white clothes. As there were no special dyes to color their clothes the upper caste people started wearing gold ornaments to look more beautiful. The white cloth along with the golden ornaments looked beautiful and it was the favorite color of goddess Saraswathy. Slowly people began accepting this combination and it slowly transformed into the modern day Kerala saree.
Manisha is shown here wearing the mundum neriyathum with two different blouses: an Indian silk green one and a floral top from Zara. By simply substituting two different type of blouses, you can completely transform the overall look. Manisha played with an existing trend by pairing a floral, smocked top with puff sleeves. The floral top serves as an added benefit because jasmine flowers are traditionally used for the Onam festivities as well.