Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Onam and Kerala- are they losing the magic?

ONAM is undoubtedly the most secular festival in India.  Though it has its basis in the Hindu mythology involving the demon king Mahabali and Vishnu’s incarnation Vamana, it has always been celebrated as more of a secular festival associated with harvest season and also the people’s aspiration for a welfare state. 

Celebration of Onam used to be the very essence of lifestyle of a Keralite.  Boat races (Vallam Kali), Tiger dance (Pulikkali), Flower arrangements (Pookkalam), Feast (Sadhya), clean/ new cloths, various sports activities etc were all part of the Onam celebrations, showcasing the best of Kerala.

Onam falls in the season immediately after the harvest of paddy and when the surroundings are full of after the rain flowers.  Its celebration is traditionally not restricted to Hindus alone but by and large extended to all sections of society.   We can see Christian churches officially conducting Onam celebrations at many places.  Coming back home to celebrate Onam is a very important ritual in the lives of expatriates of Kerala.  Even those unfortunate ones who could not manage to reach home makes sure that they celebrate Onam in a befitting manner, whichever corner of the earth they may be in!

This year’s Onam was special to me.  It was after the ages that my sister and her family were available at home to celebrate Onam. In fact, entire immediate family from my side as well as my wife’s side were together for most of the week, giving me one of the happiest and memorable Onams.  We decided to make it a grand celebration by combining Onam with the first anniversary of our new house ‘Ambady’ and got together at Ambady on the first Onam, or Utradam as we call it. 

However, it was not all bliss.... Like everything else in life, this Onam also presented a mixed bag.   While it was nice to watch the initiative of celebrations being shifted to the next generation who are entering their early teenage now, it was slightly painful to watch Onam losing its magic in this generational shift.

I was among the dismal minority who voted for the traditional Onam feast, the Sadhya, against the vociferous majority of the younger lot for Chicken Biriyani.  We used our High Command powers and managed to make it a dual feast, with traditional Sadhya and Chicken Biriyani as options.   I must say I have no regrets in electing the Sadhya since it was a great spread with all traditional items.  However, when I saw the rush at the chicken stalls at 7.00 in the morning, I realised that our children were just being part of the new trend and it was we the older minority that was being out of touch with changing reality!

There were not many options as far as the Pookkalam goes.  There is hardly any forest or open space left (in spite of my house being situated in a rural area) where children could go and collect flowers for the Pookkalam.  The only options were to give up the Pookkalam or to buy flowers that were imported from Karnataka.  While our children lost the fun and thrill of going out to collect flowers, I didn’t want them to miss the happiness of arranging a Pookkalam.  So, I bought whatever flowers were available in the market and left it to the children to make the Pookkalam.  The result is here to see:

Post lunch, when the time came for the plays we chose to go for a swim.  20 children and 7 of us grownups had a great time in the nearby pond.  My son and his cousins who learned swimming recently showed their skills in the pond.  The younger ones including my daughter played in the shallow sides of the pond, learning the first steps of swimming under the watchful eyes of the ladies.   Once again the pot bellied uncles became children in showing off their swimming and diving skills.  However, I could not but be aware that it will not be for long that we will have such a pond to enjoy, most of the others having already been land filled to find place for the ever increasing housing needs of Kerala!

However, the worst was yet to come.  It was when I sat with my brothers-in-law and the co-brother, in the evening, and discussed the political and social developments in the area (what else, when Mallus get together?!) that I really became sad.  I was told about the tension being built up in the surrounding areas by some or other groups. 

I came to know that in some parts of the district there appeared some posters which warned that since the Ramsan celebrations were washed out in the incessant rains, no one should hope to celebrate Onam and that even if it did not rain all celebrations will be stopped by force.  On the face of it, the message looked really stupid and should have been laughed at.  But the fact that the police had to remove it and people generally took it seriously shows a disturbing trend of communal polarisation that is slowly taking place in Kerala.   It apparently even affected the spirit of celebrations in some parts of the district.

The increasing belligerence of NDF (the militant Muslim political front) is making a lot of people in the area nervous.  Coupled with frequent skirmishes involving selective but bloody attacks by CPM or RSS, this development is causing heartburns among all right-thinking people of the area.  With the number of crude bombs being recovered from the northern parts of Kozhikode district and number of provocative attacks / attempts from different sides, it is clear that the existing goodwill and resilience among general public are the only factors that is preventing a flare up.  But how long can this continue before another major incident like the one that shook Marad, in the recent past, takes place?

Immediately after the Onam, comes the birthday celebration of one of the foremost spiritual leaders of Kerala, Sri Narayana Guru.  The great teacher who taught Kerala lessons like “One Caste, One Religion, One God for men” and “Ask not, Say not Think not Caste”, must have been sad to see his birthday being celebrated as a show of strength for one of the most powerful caste based organisation of Kerala, the SNDP, with Yellow processions being taken out in most parts of the State.  Knowing that until few years back, none of the caste based organisations like SNDP or NSS could find any roots in the Northern Kerala, it is indeed worrying for people like me to see such open display of caste power.

Then came the news on liquor sales, during Onam, in Kerala.  Yet another record broken, with 25% increase in sales in comparison to last year’s Onam! 

On the one side an Onam that is losing out its traditional flavour to the changing tastes of younger generation and the increasing urbanisation.  On the other side a society that is losing its traditional values– with increasing violence, communalisation and alcoholism & decreasing camaraderie and secularism.  

Is it that Onam and also Kerala are losing their magic?  Or is it just the pessimistic apprehensions of someone who is growing old?  I sincerely wish the latter is true. That wish will take me back to Kerala during next Onam as well, irrespective of the heartburns and the few extra kilos of weight that I will accumulate during the short stay. 

In the meanwhile, I would request the readers to add their perspectives on the issues raised above by way of their valuable comments, so that we can attain more clarity.


  1. hey jay !
    u seem a little bogged down. a heavy heart perhaps!
    an important prerequisite to being happy is to accept that nothing remains for ever.
    change is an essential force of life.
    nothing is static, there is a dynamism in life which puts it in gear!

    Onam will always be pon-onam in the heart of every malayali..
    everyone will buy an ona-poduva , shorts and tee's might replace the settu mundu..
    everyone will relish a sadhya, maybe the sadhya might turn a lil non veg..

    home is always where the heart is..the onam will never be replaced with anything else :)

    yeah traditions change,along with times, to keep up with the trends.. but the essence of it, it stays..

    as for me this onam, i learnt to cook the traditional sadhya... all 20 curries !

  2. Read your post and am having mixed feelings..felt a bit disturbed by the fact that the real feel of this wonderful Kerala festival ONAM is going in for a change the way it is being celebrated..I least prefer it

    As the legend behind this festival goes..Our King visits the households and we on our part prepare a variety of Onam Dishes and make a beautiful Pookalam to welcome him..I am shocked to learn that we are ready to prepare "Chicken Biryani" too, on this day ! I just cant accept it..Onam is a Grand Traditional Festival of Kerala..and Methinks we should never try to change the the way of celebration .. And yes People just cant be without consuming alcohol too ..they just need a reason to indulge ..

    How I wish .. the present generation continued to celebrate Onam in the same traditional fervor instead of manipulating the pure essence of the festival..The spread of a variety of traditional food on a banana leaf is so very appealing to the eyes and tummy too..Why bring in those non veg items into it ?

    The joys of collecting variety of flowers by own self has a joy of its own..I have done it when very young .. used to carry a small basket with my kiddo friends and loved the violet coloured small flower the most.. I miss those days

    Anyways.. to each his own..A request to the present generation..Please dont disturb the traditional ways of Kerala..it is a lovely festival and let us continue being very traditional..the settumundu villukku pookallam Trikaarapaan sadhyaa..etc are part and parcel of this festival..let us not manipulate it..There are other days for other things..At the least these 10 days must be devoted to this festival celebration in a purely traditional way..

    Btw the mention of "kulam or pond" was too nostalgic for me..I used to jump around in those waters with my granny..Sigh Sigh ..gone are those days !!!

  3. I have to agree to you jay. I came down to Cochin with a lot of expectations on how Onam would be celebrated. But I realised as years go by, the celebrations and vigour in which Onam is celebrated is also coming down. People seem to be taking it for granted. I miss seeing Maveli in every shop, miss the elephants in temples, miss the home made sadya, the puli kuttans running around here n there n in general people who just cant make time to spend with family. Nice writing...