An elaborate 10-day celebration, the Thiruonam or Onam is special as it is the most popular cultural festival for South Indians besides Deepavali, Pongal and the Indian New Years — Chittirai Puthandu (Tamilians), Ugadhi (Telugus) and Vishu (Malayalees).
The Onam is also known as the start of harvest and thanksgiving festival after a long rainy season in Kerala.
In fact, for the Malayalees, Onam carries a bigger significance and is celebrated on a much grander scale than Deepavali.
The Origin of Onam
According to a popular legend, Onam celebrates the homecoming of the mythical demon king Mahabali.
It is believed that Kerala was extremely prosperous under the reign of Mahabali that his subjects never resorted to any wrongdoings as they led a fulfilling life.
“Legend has it that the devas (gods) were unhappy with Mahabali’s influence and sought help from Lord Mahavishnu to send him to the underworld,” explains All Malaysia Malayalee Association (AMMA) president Datuk Suseela Menon.
“Lord Mahavishnu was said to have descended to earth as a dwarf (Vamanavathar) and requested three steps of land that his tiny feet could cover.”
“Mahabali agreed but his preceptor Shukracharya immediately warned him that the dwarf was none other than the Supreme Godhead. but Mahabali, being A righteous and benevolent king, refused to go back on his words.”
Mahavishnu then revealed himself and took three steps forward covering the entire earth on the first step and the skies on the second.
He then asked Mahabali where should he place his foot next and Mahabali graciously offered his head. As a result, the king was pushed down to the underworld.
Pleased by his devotion, the Lord granted Mahabali a boon that he could return to earth once a year.
“The elders believe that when Mahabali visits and sees his people happy, he will return to the underworld as a happy soul and that is why the festival is celebrated with much grandeur,” says Suseela adding that there are other versions to the same story with this being the most popular.
Feast fit for a king
The Onam lunch or Onasadhya is an important aspect of the celebration.
There’s a popular Malayalee proverb that says it’s mandatory for one to have the Onam lunch even if he is forced to sell his entire property.
According to the Society of Confluence of Festivals in India (SCFI) the Onasadhya is considered the most elaborate and grand meal prepared by any civilisation or cultures in the world.
“Since people believe that the King is coming to visit, feasts are prepared in accordance to royal standards.”
“Rice mashed with curd, salt, pepper, green chili, curry leaves, and ginger is said to be equivalent to the generous servings of an onasadhya so everyone eats like a king on Onam including the poor,” says Suseela.
Girija Menon, an expatriate from Kerala, says traditionally, everyone sits on the ground to enjoy the vegetarian feast served on a banana leaf.
“We have a minimum of 18 dishes served.
“Everything is natural which is why we serve the food on banana leaf so nothing goes to waste.
“It’s a way of showing gratitude to Mother Earth.”
“There is an order on how the dishes are served and there is a sequence on how it is eaten.
“Because it is a big meal, the order in which it is eaten, helps with digestion,” says Girija.
According to SCFI, in the olden days, there were 64 mandatory dishes served on three banana leaves but today it’s been reduced to a nine-course vegetarian meal.
SCFI also explains that there are 11 essential dishes — comprising curries, fried items, pickles, various types of chutneys, sweets, puddings, fruits and drinks — and the numbers may vary based on one’s affordability or liking.
Coconut milk and oil are very important in preparation of the dishes mainly because they are available in abundance in Kerala and the tradition has been carried on for generations elsewhere.
Tradition vs Modernity
Traditionally, the festival is celebrated with dance, parades, boat races and big feasts in Kerala.
“It still is but it has become a little commercialised over the years,” says Suseela.
“Families will reunite to prepare for the big feast and employers will reward their employees with new clothes and sumptuous meals.”
“In Malaysia, we tend to buy everything as they are readily available.
“Families do get together but not all know the significance of the festival or the onasadhya,” says Suseela.
AMMA’s former youth chairman Vineeth Menon says Malaysians are becoming more integrated that not much attention is being paid to tradition and culture.
“It’s not a public holiday here so everyone is busy with work and other routines so we do not celebrate it on a grand scale with cultural events and programmes throughout the 10 days,” says Vineeth.
According to Suseela and Vineeth Malayalee samaajams (affiliate centres) nationwide will generally have a get-together with food, activities for children and adults, dance, drama and other cultural and musical shows.
“This year, AMMA decided not to do anything out of respect to the MH17 tragedy.”
“Our Klang affiliate Maamaanggam is, however, arranging for a musical charity night by Unni Menon (renowned Indian film playback singer) on Oct 4 at the SUK Hall in Shah Alam,” says Suseela.