Here goes… a few candid confessions from a not-so-traditional Keralite…
Even though I enjoy sadhyas I am yet to learn how to cook the entire spread and serve people for lunch. I get by with Onam kits or better still with invitations from great cooks like my aunts or mother.
I buy flowers, the ones that come from Tamil Nadu, for Onam, and as they are quite expensive I keep them packed neatly in a Tupperware container for the next day.
The flower-carpet centre flower I sometimes steal from gardens on the way-side and bolt without looking back… and that I think is traditional – pookallanmaar and pookallikal (flower thieves) are traditional.
Have never had Onathappan kept in the middle of the flower carpet, and not sure about the significance. Gulp!
I relate to the Maveli story more than the harvest significance of Onam, even though Maveli is a mythological figure of whom Amar Chitra Katha has a great comic about.
Growing up, I remember my mother and sisters always made elaborate pookkalams and we did have shankupushapam, chembarathi, nanyaarvattam (indigenous flowers) and ferns to our pookkalam. The flower carpets looked very much from Kerala and not the market fare from Tamil Nadu. Ah nostalgia!
However, I do know certain things only a traditional Keralite knows:
I do know that inji thaiyiru (raw ginger curry in curd) is equivalent to a 1000 curries, so it’s always on the menu for me.
Also kurukkukaalan (coconut curry with sour buttermilk) made during Onam gets tastier as the days go by.
Thumbapoovu (flower) used to be the traditional way one does pookkalam on Onam day (at least in my part of the state).
Onakodi or the new dress needs to be of that Kodi (off-white) colour traditionally, so yes a new mundu or set-mundu in cream colour is the traditional way to do it.
So, Onam has evolved from a harvest-mythological festival to being Kerala’s identity and cultural festival today. The Kerala tourism significance the festival has and the shopping fairs that play out have all but swallowed the traditional Onam. And perhaps it is the way to be… as tourism continues to bring in huge amount of money into the state and prompts a lot of us to ponder and wonder the significance, traditions and the not-so-traditional truths about our state festival.
Onam has arrived, once again, bringing happiness to all and adding colour to life.
It was on Friday night that I travelled back home for the weekend. As I was arriving at my native place, around midnight, I could see young chaps getting ready with the ‘Aththapookkalam’, the floral carpet that’s characteristic of Onam. This sight I could see at almost every 500 metre or so in the 15 km stretch from the National Highway to my home, at Varkala, in Thiruvananthapuram district.
‘Pookkalam’, which is also called ‘Aththam’, is now done in an elaborate manner, with funds being collected by groups of young guys going from door-to-door and with flowers bought from the market, mostly brought in from Tamil Nadu. There was a time when every house sported an ‘Aththam’ or ‘Pookkalam’ from the Aththam day itself, which marks the beginning of the Onam festivities. Even now,there are people who do this, with flowers plucked from their courtyards. I too used to do it at my house, till a couple of years back, with flowers plucked from the surroundings for the first few days and then, on the last 2 or 3 days, by mixing with them bought flowers. This because ‘Aththam’ is made on the first day with 1 variety of flower, with 2 varieties of flowers on the second day, 3 on the third thus it becoming ten different varieties on the tenth day, the ‘Thiruvonam’ day, the main day of festivities.
I remember once, during my childhood, when my uncles, who were college students then, made an ‘Aththa-thitta‘ (the base or structure on which the floral carpet is laid out- made usually by smearing the ground with cow dung or with mud). They had made it as a structure with ten steps, one step for each flower. On day one, they placed flowers on the first step and it was going from down upwards on the following days. But alas, we were shocked when in a couple of days it was raining too heavily. But my uncles were not the ones to be beaten so easily. They got an umbrella, one that was as colourful as the Pookkalam itself, and put it over it, shielding it from the rains. And there we were, watching from inside the house the colourful Pookkalam, which stood with all pride in a pool of water that the courtyard had become, due to the rain.
So, that was it, the Pookkalam. Another important thing that’s still there and which was rather an integral part of the Onam celebrations was the ‘Oonjal’ or the native swing, usually made by tying down ropes from the high branches of trees. Kids swing on these, singing all kinds of songs. There are still houses that sport an ‘Oonjal‘ during Onam time.
As the Onam mood sets in, people get busy buying things for their home, especially from the grocers. Relatives are going to stream in, all kinds of dishes are to be made, the Onasadhya is to be had, payasam has to be served. They run here and there, buying things,going to the flour mill to get rice ground into rice flour. The smell of achappam, murukku, unniyappam, upperi, chips and number of other delicacies emanate from all houses.
Then with Aththam, start the laying of the Pookkalam and then begin the final preparations for the Onam celebrations. Earning members in all families take time to go buy new clothes to be gifted to others in the family, as the ‘Onakodi‘. Then, from the 8th day after Aththam, the ‘Pooradam’ day, start festivities in the grandest of manners. The Onasadhya, the traditional Kerala feast is prepared and people start going around, visiting friends, visiting relatives and forgetting their worries and problems.
On the main days of the Onam celebrations, on ‘Pooradam’ , ‘Uthradam’, Thiruvonam’ and ‘Avittam’, (the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th days respectively, starting from Aththam) it’s mostly the coming together of all members of a family, exchanging of the ‘Onakodi‘,partaking of the ‘Onasadhya’ and then going on to indulge in all kinds of ‘Onakalikal’ (the numerous games played during Onam). While the grown-ups prefer to sit around the table and play cards and do some light talk after the sumptuous lunch and the delicious payasam, the youngsters go about playing Thalappanthukali,
Ambeyyal etc. There is also, in connection with Onam, the women performing the Kaikottikali and the Thumbithullal. Kids gather and go from door-to-door doing the pulikali, donning the garb of tigers and leopards. All this and much more add to the spirit of Onam. In our parts, in the Southern districts of Kerala, Onam extends to Chathayam, the 12th day from Aththam, which is celebrated as the birth anniversary of Sree Narayana Guru, the great social reformer. Added to this is the Irupaththiyettaam Onam (or 28th Onam), celebrated on the 28th day after Thiruvonam and which coincides with the ‘Thiruvonam‘ day of the next month as per the Malayalam almanac.
It’s all this and much more that adds to the colour, the joy of Onam, which is celebrated by Malayalees everywhere.