G.’s Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Onam’

Of Onams Past

Posted by G. on October 8, 2009

ThumbaOne of the advantages of being an expatriate Malayali is that almost every weekend in September is an Onam celebration, organized by official and unofficial associations/groups. Eating the last Thiruvona Sadya of the year last weekend, talk turned to Onams past spent at home, and other related memories. Nostalgia is always a byproduct of these marunaadan Sadyas.

Onam never had the importance of Vishu during my childhood days. Vishu heralded the beginning of the long summer vacation, while you had to be satisfied with a measly one week holiday for Onam. There was the possibility of late monsoon rains playing spoilsport, and the fields around the tharavaadu would be submerged under ankle deep water, putting to rest any thoughts of football. Yet, there are also memories of pookkalam contests at school, and several naadan contests organized by the local clubs on Thiruvonam day (kamba vali comes to mind, as well as the strange contest of applying engine oil on kavungu (areca palm trees) and seeing who could climb up the most).

At the tharavaadu, Onam celebrations began on the last day of Karkkidakam. That day, “Ashreekaram” (Jeshta) was driven out of the house to prepare for the coming of Chingamaasam. To do this, the whole house and surroundings were carefully cleaned, and some of the refuse put in an old kalam or muram. An old maachi (broom), some hair, nail clippings etc were also added to this. This was then taken outside the house and left on a varambu in the fields (care had to be taken to use a spot not used as a walkway by people). One was then supposed to go straight (without looking back) to the kulam and take a dip before coming back into the house. This whole procedure was called “Karkkidothikku kodukkuka”.

Poovidal started the very next day, the first day of Chingam. Small ari kalams were drawn in the padinjittakam and purathirayam, and the flowers were arranged in accordance with these patterns. The enthusiasm for decorations and the size of the pookkalams progressively increased till on the two big days of Uthraadam and Thiruvonam, ari kalams would be made in padinjittakam, akathirayam and purathirayam (the left over ari maavu would be splashed on the mittam as well, but not too much time was spent in drawing as there was always the possibility of rain). Pookkalams would then be laid out in conjunction with these kalams, with the largest one either on the mittam or on the purathirayam depending (again) on the possibility of rain.

Thiruvonam day began with a trip to the neighbouring temple. Very soon, the kitchen would fill up with different valliammas and ilayammas (and occasionally an ammayi or two) in a race against time to prepare all the items for the sadya by lunch time. The entire extended family would be gathered in the house, with those who were away atleast making their way home by lunch time. Discussions on politics would be in full swing in small groups at different areas of the purathirayam and parambu.

Before the age of Asianet and cable TV, a post-sadya movie was also a serious ritual for some folks. The movie industry obliged, releasing 5-6 “super star” movies each Onam. After the sadya, the idavazhikal would fill with long throngs (mostly women) in their best clothes, walking to the local C-grade theater showing one of the previous Vishu’s hit movies. The more adventurous (usually youngsters) would clamber onto crowded buses to go into the city, to fight to get into an “Onam special show” for one of the new releases.

The celebrations did not end with Thiruvonam day. Starting the next day, for two weeks or so, smaller pookkalams would be arranged to await the arrival of Bhagavathi to the house on Makam naal. Cheeyothi (Shree Bhagavathi) poo (a fern like green plant) was the important component for these floral arrangements, with all other flowers playing second fiddle. On Ayilyam naal, the entire house and surroundings would be tidied up and cleaned  (nobody knew when Bhagavathi would come into the house on Makam naal, so all the brooms had to be kept hidden for the entire day, which meant that all cleaning at the house had to be completed the previous day). By Ayilyam naal evening,  manja koova and ari would be ground together to draw kalams in purathirayam, kitchen as well as the padinjittakam. Achamma would dip her hands into the koova-ari maavu, and then fold them into fists and make marks on the floor resembling small feet. The intention was to show a pair of feet walking in from the purathirayam into the kitchen, and from there to the padinjittakam. A small kindi‘s base would also be used to make intelinked circular markings around the “footprints”.

The Makam naal aaghosham was mainly meant for the girls of the house. Early morning,  pookkalams (with cheeyothi poo again as the main constituent) would be made in the padinjittakam and mittam (after sprinkling aripodi/koova water). Later on in the morning, manja koova and some thumba poo would be added to an ural, after which a lot of water would be poured in, and the whole thing churned using the olakka. Mattemma would then make some conclusions on the basis of how the thumba poo lay in the water, but us children were never privy to her thoughts (I guess the significance of this ceremony as well as the science of reading how the thumba lay in the water is something that has now been lost forever). Onanga chor (made using onangalari and coconut) and an uppery made with 7 or 9 types of leaves were the main dish for lunch. Soon after the food was cooked, 3 ila would be placed in the padinjittakam. The avana palaka would be placed in position,  the kindi would be filled with water and the vilakku lit. The Onanga chor, and uppery would be placed on each of the ilas, along with some rice prepared for the previous night’s dinner (pazhanjor). Some moru and venna would be added to the pazhanjor. The doors would be closed for a while, as Bhagavathi and her companions ate (no food served for the gods could be prepared using salt, so portions to be used for the ritual were usually prepared separately). Then everyone would have lunch (onanga chor, with olan and/or erishery), and that concluded the activities for the day.

For children, Onam vacation was also usually the last chance for fishing for the year. As the water receded from the fields, small fish that had bred and spawned during the Monsoons and the larger fish that had wandered in from some thodu and forgotten its way back would start congregating in shallow ditches where there was still some reasonable depth of water. You had the choice of using a choonda (hook) and tangees (plastic thread) to try your fishing skills, or you could just wait a few days for the water to recede, wade into the ditch and try to literally kick the fish onto the banks. The only danger to the latter methodology was the occasional presence of neerkkoli (water snakes), which although not dangerous, could still be an unnerving experience. For the enterprising individual, Kaichal, Mushu, Choottachi, fresh water prawns etc. where all there for the taking.

During childhood, Onam was never a single day’s holiday, it was a season of celebrations. Somewhere in the process of growing up, between studying for board exams and a stressful professional life, it got truncated to a single day’s hurried sadya. Today, for expat Malayalis, the Thiruvona Sadya might still be a hurried weekday dinner at home with just the immediate family; but atleast in one respect it is a return to roots, with an entire month of celebrations and sadyas to look forward to every September.

(Belated) Onashamsakal.

Note: Picture by “Intruder”, from Flickr.


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