Let’s use this harvest festival to showcase the culture of Kerala to Sydney, says Poornima Koonath
Onam that is celebrated in the beginning of Chingam, the first month of the Malayalam calendar, is the biggest and the most important festival for the people of Kerala. Be it in India or overseas this is a time when Malayalees celebrate being a ‘Malayalee’. This harvest festival, which according to popular legend, is celebrated to welcome King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam, includes Keralites from all walks of life irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
The festival is celebrated with great fervour over 10 days, starting from Atham, the first day, to Thiruonam, the tenth day.The rich cultural heritage of Kerala comes to the fore during this ten-daylong celebration and the beautiful hues of the Malayalam culture are highlighted. Keralites make elaborate preparations to celebrate the festival in the best way possible. This season also attracts several tourists for it is great to be a part of the grand carnival.
The spirit of Onam is togetherness, camaraderie and living in harmony. Having so many celebrations in the name of the same festival does not depict a united front! It is no surprise then that people know nothing about our rich culture
Athachamayam marks the beginning of Onam. This amazing street parade includes various art forms of Kerala, dancers, decorated elephants, carnival floats and musicians, among other things. It is a replication of the march of the Maharaja of Kochi, when he used to ride the elephant through the streets and people welcomed and greeted him with floral decorations. The most exciting part of the festivities is the snake boat race, the Aranmula boat race being the oldest and the most popular one. The Pulikali or the tiger dance is another integral part of the celebrations. People dress up as tigers and dance to the beats of traditional music. It is said that it may take a person up to four hours to get ready for this dance as the body of the person is completely painted. The best dressed tiger dancer wins a prize at the end of it all.
The most impressive part of Onam celebration is the grand feast called Onasadya, which is prepared on the last day. Traditionally it is a nine-course meal with more than ten dishes, served on a banana leaf and the feast is enjoyed sitting on a mat laid on the floor. But this has changed with time.
Growing up outside Kerala, I have always loved and looked forward to Onam for more reasons than one. It was the time for new clothes and lots of guests at home. The aroma of the various traditional dishes wafted through the air and my sister and I along with other non-Malayalee friends in the neighbourhood had great fun making the ‘floral rangoli’. Everyone came together in the spirit of Onam.
Moving overseas, I eagerly waited for Onam as I was looking forward to meeting some Malayalee comrades. I must say that after the initial euphoria (which lasted the first two years) I was a bit disappointed with the way Onam was being celebrated amongst the Malayalees in Sydney. We come from such a tiny state in India, yet there are so many Malayalee groups! I can understand the reason behind Malayalees in areas far away from Sydney bonding together. Physical distances can be great barriers especially when cultural programs are an integral of all Onam festivities. The spirit of Onam is togetherness, camaraderie and living in harmony. Having so many celebrations in the name of the same festival does not depict a united front! It is no surprise then that people know nothing about our rich culture. When non-Malayalee Indian Australians know so little of our culture, what hope do we have projecting and showcasing our culture to non-Indian Australians?! Let us think differently and do differently.
Let us make Onam a depiction of Kerala in Sydney. Wishing all the readers a very Happy Onam!