Monday, August 23, 2010

Happy Onam - the Harvest Festival!

Happy Onam! To my foreign readers who do not know what Onam means here’s a short introduction.

Onam is the festival of harvest celebrated in Kerala and wherever Malayalis (the inhabitants of Kerala, the state situated at the southern extreme of India) exist, which mean anywhere and everywhere in the world, er, and the Moon. (It is said that when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, the first thing he saw was a Malayali’s Thattu shop.) Onam is celebrated in the harvest season, the season of prosperity. It’s the time that the ears of corns have ripened in the rice fields of Kerala and the labourers are singing “Nadan Pattus” (country songs) and “Vadakkan Pattus” (songs from the north) when they harvest the paddy and collect them on huge bamboo mats. Their voices blend into an enticing chorus wafted on the water-filled fields and one is almost tempted to join in the harvesting. There’s a sense of competition and rivalry as each farm labourer is rewarded a percentage of the portion he/she harvests. So, even children pitch in to help their parents as they gather the grains that will go into their pathayams (granaries) and feed them for the rest of the year.

Then, in the night, under a starry sky, in the dim light of storm lanterns and petromaxes the threshing is done. I remember sleeping in the field on such nights under the stars when I was a child. The whole atmosphere is rent with a feeling of festival, a joie de vivre which permeates everyone. Palm toddy is consumed, food is downed. Then in the morning after a night of revelry the freshly threshed paddy laid out to dry and the straw is also spread to mature into a dry tindery aspect. Then when the sun goes down on their petty rivalries they measure out the grains in “Paras” and “Changazhis” – the traditional measures of Kerala. Then complication calculations are done mentally (no paper, calculator or book is used) on each ones share of the paddy and everyone goes home with their share of the grain.

That’s the harvest season in Kerala, in short. Legend has it that Mahabali, the benevolent and much-loved demon King of Kerala (before he was jealously banished from his kingdom by Lord Vishnu) asked to visit his subjects once every year – during the time of harvest. He knew he will see his subjects at their very best and most joyful. Pictures show Mahabali as a smiling and potbellied and double-chin-ed king with a crown on his head and an umbrella made from palm leaves shading him. That sterotype continues even today. A potbelly and a double chin are considered signs of prosperity, still. Honest!

That’s the spirit of Onam, celebrated by all Malayalis all over the world, of whatever religious faith or persuasion they are.

Happy Onam!