Onam 101: A Festival Primer For Those Who Think All South Indians Are 'Madrasis'

Here's why all of God's Own Country celebrates Onam with much fanfare.

For those of you who club all south Indians under that wonderfully ignorant umbrella-term – ‘madrasis’, here’s why all of God’s Own Country celebrates Onam with much fanfare.

Onam- the Beginning

The earliest reference to Onam, which was celebrated by Vaishanvites as Vamanjayanti, is in 4th century Tamil poem called Maduraikanchi. Thiruvonam is the auspicious day of the annual revisit of Mahabali.

Mahabali was deemed the most benevolent king of Kerala during whose rule, all people were said to be equal, prosperous, lawful, ethical and happy. In fact, so happy were his people that Indra, the king of heavens, became jealous. A jealous Indra went to Vishnu to ask for help. Assuming the form of a Brahmin dwarf, Lord Vishnu asked Mahabali for three feet of land. Living up to his benevolent reputation, Mahabali agreed.

As soon as he said yes, Vamana covered the entire earth in two feet and looked askance at the king on how to take his third step. Mahabali bowed before Vamana, and the lord’s third step was on Mahabali’s head, sending him to the underworld, BUT with the boon of being able to return to his kingdom for a day, every year.

subhead-Onam today

Now you may call it ‘injustice’, but we made our peace with the situation long ago. Since then, the people of Kerala celebrate the arrival of Mahabali by wearing new clothes and decorating every courtyard with pooklams, beautiful designs with flowers. They worship Vishnu in the form of the Trikkakkara Appan (the Lord of the temple at Trikkakkara).

For the ordinary folk though, Onam was primarily a harvest festival. After the usually heavy monsoon, the harvest season comes with food security. In villages, the folk people celebrated it by wearing new clothes and feasting.

Therefore, Onam is also symbolic of prosperity for the poor. The rich upper castes celebrated it with new clothes and a feast, giving a share to the poor and lower castes. As socio-economic conditions changed, the modern society celebrated it as a popular festival and attributed secularism and equality to it.

What is this controversy surrounding Onam and Vamana Jayanti?

There is an element of tension in Onam – the tension between the Vishnu cult and celebration of the arrival of Mahabali. This subaltern dimension of Onam is surfacing today as the tension between the savarna and avarna. The lower castes and dalits associate Onam with their imagined glorious past under the mythical king Mahabali whom Vishnu is believed to have destroyed.

The epic feast

Now, to the best part, Onam Sadhya, or for you guys, things we eat on a banana leaf

FYI Onam Sadhya is a no-cutlery affair as food tastes best when eaten without spoons and forks

This traditional vegetarian feast of Kerala consists of savouries, side dishes, pickles and desserts, which are served with steamed rice

Parriupu – a runny curry made with lentils and ghee.
Kaalan – seasoned buttermilk made with turmeric powder and green chillies along with sour curd
Olan – a dish which consists mainly of pumpkin and red grams cooked in thin gravy of coconut milk.
Sambhar – Everyone’s favourite lentil-based vegetable stew cooked with tamarind broth
Avial – combination of vegetables, coconut paste and green chillies
Pulinji – a dark brown sweet-sour chutney made of ginger, tamarind, green chillies and jaggery
Pappadam – a thin, crisp, disc-shaped fried snack
Rasam – a mixture of chilli and crushed peppercorns boiled in diluted tamarind juice.

And for sweet endings
Palada payasam – a pudding made with milk and rice
Parripu payasam – a pudding made with lentils and milk

After a lip-smacking feast, the meal is wound up by folding the plantain leaf in half.