Reading Time: 4 minutesKerala’s main event, Onam is a blend of tradition and modernity in its Sydney avatar
Three essential symbols portraying the bounty of nature are the hallmarks of Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala.
These are Pookkalam (floral carpets), Onasadhya (a sumptuous feast that consists of 24 dishes – but not limited to this number – served on a freshly cut banana leaf), and Onakkodi (new, cream and gold coloured traditional Kerala costumes made of soft cotton fibre).
All three were to be found in plenty at Sydney’s Onam this year. As pure co-incidence has it, between the end of winter and when spring extends its first rays, is when Onam comes to Australia. The occasion stirs nostalgia; however, when it comes to celebrating it in Sydney, it has a different, distinct flavour.
“New South Wales has a robust and expanding Malayalee community that has approximately 8000 families,” Babu Varghese, the President of Sydney Malayalee Association, told Indian Link.
“As we grow in numbers, the opportunities to meet up are greater. Onam, being our state festival, is probably the biggest fete that we organise.”
Yet Onam celebrations signify something else as well, he added.
“They are an opportunity for new migrants to meet the wider community, who speak their native tongue, that aids them with the settling in. Many people make great friends, find job openings or even get their lives changed by these opportunities to network and develop some new relations.”
Like other Indian festivals, Onam has an appealing legend attached to it. It is about the homecoming of the mythical Asura king Mahabali who ruled Kerala, who loved his people so dearly that he returns annually to check on their welfare.
The legend is that even the gods grew envious of the able ruler and approached Lord Vishnu to mark an end to his rule. Lord Vishnu disguised as a Brahmin boy by the name Vamana, approached the king and asked for land equivalent to three paces of his feet. Once the king agreed, Vamana grew large in size and with one footstep measured the whole of earth and with the second measured the whole of heavens. When asked about where to place the third footstep, King Mahabali offered his own head, and thus Vamana sent him down to Patala (the underworld).
It is fascinating that even in this age of space travels and Google’s self-driving cars, people commemorate and passionately cling on to this image of an ancient King revisiting them. The festival is living proof that righteousness and the concept of a welfare state are cherished by many.
It was these values that were passed on to Gen Next at the Onam celebrations of ‘Padasala’, one of the Malayalam schools run in Western Sydney. Run by five teachers committed to teaching the Malayalam language and the essence of Keralite culture, the school has more than thirty students attending every Sunday. The school celebrated the festival by organising a small get-together that carefully wove in the prominent cultural elements. Students, with help from their parents and teachers made pookkalams (floral carpets) using fresh, Australian wild flowers. The Onam meal was served to them as they sat cross-legged on mats, in the traditional manner.
Following lunch, the little ones entertained each other with cultural programs they had prepared themselves.
Shabu Thomas, the head teacher of Paadasala was ecstatic as he described the festivities.
“This is like a family affair, where we bring in potluck dishes to share, dress up in traditional costumes, and get the kids to do some Malayalam-based performances.”
Shabu added that the attempt is to uphold some traditional as the festival is celebrated. “One thing we decided to completely avoid is the so-called ‘Bollywood’ style performance that sends the wrong message to our children. As much as it denies authenticity of any kind, it confuses their little minds.”
All of the parents as well were sincerely happy about that effort, seeded at the grassroots’ level.
Meanwhile, on a more private level, a different kind of celebration was on at Malayalee homes. Many young families made attempts to help their kids experience the essence of Onam.
At Pradeep Nair’s home at The Ponds, many friends gathered for an Onam party, including one non-Malayalee family, the Nevises from Cherrybrook. What took them to this celebration? Renu Nevis told Indian Link, “Tamilians by background, we’ve developed a great fondness for Onam. There is the fun of catching up with Malayalee friends, but at the same time we feel special to be assimilated into this group. What makes it even more beautiful is the effort everyone puts in to restore the charm of the festival. As every year goes past, I understand Onam a little bit more, and I love how different aspects like games, food, traditional costumes, flowers, and togetherness are built into it.”
And that is the bottom-line: when Onam transcends the borders of Kerala and Malayalee, that is when King Mahabali’s dream of the perfect kingdom comes true.