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Vineetha Biju (first from right, standing) with her friends and children during an Onam-themed photo shoot in one of the parks in Abu Dhabi.

Dubai: Expats from the South Indian state of Kerala have begun, what they say is, the biggest celebration of the Onam festival in the UAE post Covid-19 pandemic.

With mass dining of ‘Onasadhya’ (vegetarian feast served on banana leaf) and months-long events, Malayalis (people of Kerala who speak Malayalam) are set to soak up the true spirit of the harvest festival that symbolises unity, equality and oneness.

Onam is the state festival of Kerala which is celebrated to mark the homecoming of mythical King Mahabali or Maveli, whose rule marked the golden era of the state, according to Hindu beliefs.

However, it is celebrated by Malayalis across the world irrespective of their religion and beliefs. There are an estimated one million Keralites in the UAE.

Though it is a 10-day festival with the last day, Thiruvonam (which falls on Thursday this time), assuming the highest significance, Onam celebrations in the UAE usually go on for several months as Keralites organise get-togethers over the weekends stretching up to December.

As the Onam revelries were scaled down in the last two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Malayalis are eager to go in full swing with their celebrations this time. Most community groups and associations have booked large venues for the celebrations on upcoming weekends. Mega shows featuring popular Malayalam actors and singers are also planned by many.

Some community groups, friends’ groups and families kicked off the celebrations last weekend with many ensuring that all elements of Onam festivities are included with full gaiety.

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College friends from the alumni group of Nirmala Giri College perform Thiruvathira during their Onam celebration.

Maveli and pookkalam

One such celebration was organised by the alumni members of Nirmala Giri College (NGC), Kuthuparamba, one of the college alumni groups under the AKCAF Association, a forum of Kerala college alumni groups licensed by the Community Development Authority in Dubai.

Around 150 old students of the college and their family members living in the UAE took part in the celebrations held at a restaurant party hall.

“What was special about our Onam celebration was the fact that it was the first time that most of the alumni members, who knew each other through WhatsApp and Facebook, met in person. But, we made sure that we had all the elements of a typical Onam celebration,” Hanson Markose, coordinator of the NGC alumni’s Onam get-together, told Gulf News.

A procession with the accompaniment of chendamelam (cylindrical drums performance) welcomed an expat dressed up as Maveli, a custom followed in most of the celebrations organised by expat community groups.

A pookkalam (floral designs on the floor), an integral part of the Onam celebrations, was also arranged to welcome the mythical King.

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Pulikkali and Onasadhya during the Onam celebrations of the employees of Smart Travel.

Attire, dance and games

The white and gold Kerala saree for women and mundu (a dhoti-like garment worn around the waist) for men are the ethnic attire worn for Onam celebrations.

College mates wearing Kerala saree presented Thiruvathira dance, a ritualistic folk dance performed only by women.

There were separate sessions of vadamvali (tug of war), a traditional game played during Onam, for men, women and children.

Pulikkali (tiger and hunter dance) and uriyadi (pot breaking competition) are also usually played during the Onam celebrations. Over the years, blindfold games such as sundharikku pottu kuthal (putting the decorative mark on the forehead of a woman’s portrait) and aanakku vaal varakkal (marking the tail on the picture of an elephant), have also become popular games associated with Onam.

Malayali Manka and Purusha Kesari contests to select the most ethnic Malayali woman and man, respectively, from the crowd attending the celebrations are also popular.

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Maveli being welcomed with chendamelam during the Onam celebration of Nirmala Giri College alumni group.

Onasadhya, the highlight

The highlight of Onam celebrations is the Onasadhya, the sumptuous vegetarian feast that includes up to 30 items in some restaurants. Various types of payasam (a dessert similar to wet pudding) are served in Onasadhya.

Malayalis savouring sadhya in large groups was a regular feature of Onam celebrations in the UAE before the pandemic. This year, mass dining of Onasadhya is back with organisations like Indian Association Sharjah and AKCAF arranging sadhya for thousands of people.

“We used to arrange sadhya for 10 to 15,000 people earlier. This time, we are planning to serve around 20 to 25,000 sadhyas,” said advocate YA Raheem, president of Indian Association Sharjah.

He said the association’s massive Onam celebrations will be held at different venues over two weekends starting from September 18. “We are hosting the sports and games activities first and the mega celebration will be held on September 25 at Expo Centre Sharjah,” said Raheem.

Apart from the regular Onam festivities, entertainment shows by artists in the UAE and from Kerala will also be part of the mega event.

AKCAF is arranging sadhya for about 4,000 people at Zabeel Hall 2 of Dubai International Convention Centre on September 25, said Paul Joseph, president of AKCAF Association.

“Our mega Onam celebration is taking place from 8am till 11.30pm. We are expecting a floating crowd of around 10,000 people.”

He said AKCAF is also celebrating ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav,’ the celebration of 75 years of India’s independence on the occasion. “Apart from the pookkala malsaram, payasa malsaram, cinematic dance performances etc, we will have a large procession involving people from different states of India. There will be a public meeting and concert by popular Malayalam singers also,” Joseph added.

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Members of the Nirmala Giri College alumni group pose in front of a pookkalam they made during their Onam celebrations.

Onam shoots

Malayali families across the UAE are also gearing up to celebrate Onam with their loved ones. The rush to buy the ethnic dresses and other Onam-related items is at the peak in most of the shops and hypermarkets catering to the Malayali community. Such outlets including jewellery shops and exchange houses have come up with huge discounts and special offers for the Malayali community.

While taking photos with pookkalam and sadhya, wearing traditional attire has been part of the Onam day activities, many families are now arranging Onam-themed photoshoots ahead of the festival. “Posting beautiful Onam pictures on social media to wish everyone on Onam day is now a trend among us, Malayalis. So, we have started having Onam shoots before the festival to put up Onam-themed pictures on social media. It is also a chance for us to get our children involved in these festivities and make them learn about our culture and traditions,” said Abu Dhabi resident Vineetha Biju, who organised an Onam-themed photo shoot along with her friends and kids, in one of the parks in the Capital.

Onam music video

Onam has its own theme song “Maveli naadu vaanidum kaalam, maanusharellarum onnu pole,” which roughly translates into ‘all human beings were equal during the rule of Maveli.’ It is sung in most of the Onam events.

Over the years, expat Malayali artists have been coming up with Onam-themed music videos and short films as well.

This year, UAE-based singers Anoop Menon and Sneha Sajjin have released an Onam special music video on You Tube. Titled “Thiruvonasadhya,” its music has been composed by Menon himself while Prem Vadakkan Diaries has penned the lyrics.