It was Onam this week, the most important festival of the people from Kerala! The legend attached to Onam is of the Asura King Mahabali (grandson of Prahalada) and Vamana Avatar of Mahavishnu. King Mahabali was a benevolent and much loved king who ruled over the geography that is now called Kerala. He was considered to be benevolent, judicious, revered by his people and his reign was considered a golden period! He was known for his generosity as well.
As per legend, the devas feeling envious of this Asura king requested Lord Vishnu to test Mahabali’s generosity. Lord Vishnu appeared as Vamana (a dwarf mendicant) and requested the king for as much land as he could cover with three steps. The dwarf mendicant grew in size and covered the earth in his first step, the skies in his second and asked the king where to put the third step; the King, a devotee of Lord Vishnu realising that this was the Lord himself bowed his head to accept the third step. He was thus pushed to Patala (netherworld) from where he was granted a boon by Lord Vishnu to visit his people once every year. The celebrations, feast (onam sadya), floral decorations (pookalam) are all a celebration by the people to greet their much loved King goes the story!
Now the agricultural significance of Onam: it is harvest time in Kerala, after the heavy rains of the south west monsoon particularly intense during August (Aadi/karkidakam month) during which there are hardly any fruits or vegetables (main food was preserves, green leafy vegetables and rice porridge; many people also do cleansing treatments). The Onam month (Chingam/Avani) dawns into plenty (now with climate vagaries harvests are uneven). The fields, gardens and granaries are full and it is harvest time for paddy, bananas and the various vegetable crops.
The traditional onam sadya comprised mainly of Parippu ( made with green gram dal), Olan (made with ash gourd, cow peas & coconut milk), Kalan (made of ripe nendirans cooked in coconut gravy & curd, a less sweeter version is made with yam), Erisseri (yellow pumpkins, cow peas with coconut), Aviyal (all the veggie bounty thrown in), Pachadi(cucumber, ground coconut & curd), Puli inchi (a wonderful sweet & sour ginger preserve), Lemon pickle (made with large lemons & green chillies), Nendiran chips, Thoran ( made with long beans & coconut) steamed Nendiran bananas, and the delicious Prathamans (jaggery syrup along with moong dal, rice adais or jackfruit preserve from summer) all with hand pound red rice. A number of items have been added over decades.
All this bounty is local and seasonal (like almost all harvest feasts in different parts of India) and used to be organic. The pookalam or floral designs prepared for the 10 days leading upto Onam were also created using garden flowers and the wild uncultivated flowers; again a celebration of seasonal bounty around us.
( Pic below: Pookalam prepared by our friend Sangeetha using the flowers in her garden)
This year and since the last few years in Kerala, there has been a move to make Onam organic, the government and various organisations are promoting organic kitchen gardens for onam harvest and organic onam shanties, all as part of becoming an organic state.
This year celebrating Onam with family in Mumbai and Pune we are eating one sadya at home and also at restaurants organising Onam Sadyas. It is a good beginning, however, none of these sadyas are organic. Last year at home we had made a full organic sadya for friends and family and want to repeat that in the coming years. With the festival season coming upon us I wish all of us bountiful days of celebration but do let us endeavour to make them chemical free, organic, pollution free and zero waste. Let us do more and buy less. Let us also make these festivals a time to reconnect with seasonal and local food and authentic culture rather than follow the commercial versions that is gaining currency.SHARE it! ... and spread the good word!