Thursday 29 Sep 2022

Celebrating Onam, in a home away from home

Goa has a substantial number of Keralites and many dynamic Malayali groups like Kerala Samaj, where Keralites settled in Goa come together to celebrate festivals and events. The Goan spoke to them to learn about how they celebrate Onam in a home, away from home

Aparna NP | SEPTEMBER 07, 2022, 09:13 PM IST
Celebrating Onam, in a home away from home

Tucked sweetly in the Malabar Coast lies Kerala, the southernmost state of India. The land, rightly called God's Own Country, is home to some of the most scenic landscapes and crystal clear beaches of our country and is a rich treasure trove of culture, heritage and festivals. Onam is a harvest festival and the official festival of the state of Kerala, celebrated by Keralites with a gusto like none other. Non-Keralites would know Onam through the delectable spread of the Onam Sadya and women beautifully clad in the white Kasavu sarees with charming gold borders. However, Onam has a significance that runs deeper. 

As the legend goes, King Mahabali was incredibly popular and powerful. Envious of his vigour, the Gods and Devas conspired to put an end to his reign. They directed Vamana, the dwarf avatar of Vishnu to Earth in order to trample Mahabali to the Patala Lok or the underworld. Vamana, as his wish, asked Mahabali for three feet of land and Mahabali couldn’t deny him, as denying gifts to Brahmins is considered blasphemy. Thus, the wish was granted. Vamana gauged the entire universe in his first two steps itself and had no space to place his third foot. Mahabali, offered his own head to place Vamana’s third foot so he can fulfil his wish. Mahabali’s generosity awed Vamana, and he granted the king's wish to come home to his land and people once every year. Onam commemorates this homecoming of king Mahabali every year. 

Goa has a substantial number of Keralites and many dynamic Malayali groups like Kerala Samaj, where Keralites settled in Goa come together to celebrate festivals and events. The Goan spoke to them to learn about how they celebrate Onam in a home, away from home.  

Ambily Sudarsan has been residing in Goa for the past 29 years with her family. Originally from Thrissur district of Kerala, she made Goa her home after coming here with her husband, who is a retired professor in economics from Goa University. She is also a Carnatic music teacher with years of experience. Onam, narrated Sudarsan,  is a 10-day festival. Everyday, small Pookalams or flower rangolis are drawn at the entrance of their house. The ninth day is Uthradam, and the family gets ready for the big day by buying vegetables and flowers required for the tenth day and also gets together to help in cooking, cleaning and other chores. “It is fun when the family gets together to make banana chips and Puliinji, which is a spicy sour-sweet, pickle-like dish consisting of tamarind, ginger, and chilli,” said Sudarsan.

Finally, the tenth day arrives, the day of Onam, also called Thiruvonam. This day in the Sudarsan home starts early in the morning. “The children prepare a big, beautiful flower rangoli while I simultaneously begin the preparations in the kitchen,” remarked Sudarsan. For breakfast, they prepare the rice Ada on banana leaves. “This is like a Malayali version of Goan Patolyo,” she chuckled. For the much-awaited lunch, there is a traditional Onam Sadhya, served on a banana leaf. It consists of pure vegetarian dishes such as Avial, Sambar, Pachadi, Erissery, Pulissery, Kalan, Olan, Rasam, Papadam, Payasam and the delicious list goes on. Generally, says Sudarsan, around 24 dishes are served and all are freshly made, in-house. 

Women dress up in traditional Kerala Kasavu saree and men wear a Mundu. “I enjoy calling my Non-Malayali friends home for lunch and introducing to them our Keralite culture and traditions,” added her daughter, Hridya Sudarsan. For Ambily Sudarshan, Onam is an emotional festival. “In Kerala, there are certain Onam special attractions like Kaikottkali, Pulikali, boat race etc that we cannot witness in Goa,” she expressed. She misses her extended family back home, but now she thoroughly enjoys Onam in Goa with her happy little family and her friends who eagerly wait to be invited to her home for Onam. 

Vaisakh Nair is an engineer born and brought up in Goa. He fondly traces his roots in Palakkad, Kerala. Nair explained that celebrating Onam in Goa doesn't feel any different or make him feel like something is missing, because as a family, they have been celebrating the festival in their Goa home for more than 40 years, happily. 

“I believe every Malayali's favourite part of the day would be 'Onasadhya' for sure, we are all foodies,” he added humorously. “Jokes aside, everything about Onam is special and is always close to our hearts, be it helping mom while she's busy preparing Sadhya, or decorating our homes with Pookalam, meeting friends and relatives, spending the whole day with them and having endless conversations,” said Nair.  

Onam, for Vaishakh, means celebrating it wholeheartedly without hampering the old, traditional, true essence of the festival. “People wake up early in the morning, offer prayers, wear new traditional clothes, make intricate Pookalam rangoli designs out of flowers, which is considered to be one of the most important rituals of every household during the harvest festival, to welcome King Mahabali,” revealed Nair.

The latter part of the day, in the Nair household, is spent relishing the festive spread of Onam Sadhya. He described that the feast is systematically served on the banana leaf, with each dish occupying a specific spot and significance on the leaf. Rice is the chief item which is complimented with Parippu curry (dal), Aviyal (famous mixed vegetables side dish), sambar, rasam and curd along with a range of sides and also plantain chips, Pappadum, pickles, Payasam and many many more. “Onam is a festival that brings us together, every year. It is a festival of homecoming, fun, and celebrations! Here’s wishing you all a very Happy Onam,” Nair expressed cheerfully.    

Ramesh Babu, is the general secretary of Kerala Samajam, Panjim, which was established in 1965 and is the oldest association active in Goa, as of today. Through this community, the Keralites in Goa bond together in terms of business, Malayali literature, news, and most importantly for festivals and events. “Onam, one of the biggest festivals celebrated all over the world by Malayalis irrespective of caste, creed or religion,” remarked Babu. Kerala Samajam Panjim delves into this festival with great passion and warmth for two days. 

The first day, explained Babu, starts with various competitions like Pookalam or fresh flower and leaves rangoli, drawing and fancy dress competitions for the kids, etc. The second day witnesses cultural programmes like Thiruvathira (traditional dance), Oppana, classical dance and music, equally involving people of all age groups. This is followed by the mouthwatering Onam Sadya, truly a flavourful treat to one’s taste buds. The pandemic unhinged this collective festive spirit. However, this year, the Samaj is elated to be celebrating the festival after two long years.

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