Dubai: Indian expatriates from the south Indian state of Kerala are celebrating their harvest festival, Onam, with full festive fervour all over the UAE.
The ten-day festival symbolising unity — beyond any religion, caste or community — culminates on Thiruvonam Day, which this year fell today.
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Malayali expats celebrated the festival in style, at their residences and outside, with family and friends. Others booked restaurants days in advance so they could partake in the traditional ‘Onasadhya’ meal served on banana leaves.
According to Dubai expatriate Hashik T.K, an advocate by profession and a social worker, there are an estimated one million Keralites living in the UAE.
“Everyone is celebrating Onam today. Onam is a festival that unites everyone irrespective of their religion or caste. It is a way to celebrate the harvest season.”
What is Onam?
The harvest festival heralds the homecoming of Hindu mythological King Mahabali during whose reign Kerala is believed to have witnessed its golden era.
Onam is celebrated on the first ten days of the Chingam month in the Malayalam calendar, which usually falls in August or September.
It is believed that when Mahabali ruled, there was no discrimination based on caste, and there was no corruption or crime. The Kerala government made it an official holiday in the 1960s.
On Thiruvonam Day, celebrations include a procession welcoming King Mahabali accompanied by chenda (cylindrical drum) performances. Competitions in pookkalam (floral designs on the floor), traditional performances as well as shows by popular artistes from Kerala headline Onam celebrations in the UAE.
The highlight of all Onam celebrations, however, is the Onasadhya, a traditional vegetarian feast served on banana leaves.
Haseena Samir, for one, enjoyed a special Onasadhya together. The Indian expat celebrated Onam with her husband Samir Ali and three children, Mubashif, Minsha and Rima. Explaining the Onasadhya, Haseena said, there are a minimum nine to 30 different dishes served on a banana leaf, including curries, daal, pickles, banana chips, a rice-based pudding and many items more.
“The festival does not restrict celebrations within a particular religion. Instead, it unites everyone and brings everyone together to partake in the Onasadhya together.”
She added: “This particular kind of feast is generally only served during weddings or Onam, and so is cherished by all at this time of the year.”
Raji S. Nair said her son Athul was most excited about the celebrations. “He had so many questions about the festival and why we do the floral decorations. He wore a traditional attire to celebrate the festival.
Raji said this year, the Onam celebrations will be a bit subdued owing to the pandemic. She explained: “Onam celebrations mark a number of performances and events back home in Kerala. One major event is the snake boat race. Also the Kummati Kali dances on the streets are particularly performed in the Thrissur district. The dancers wear colourful masks and cover their bodies in grass. The Theyyam performers are considered to be direct lines to the gods — are also commonly seen during the festival and often perform at temples. This year it won’t be the same unfortunately.”
The flowers and the clothes
Monika Deepak, an IT application specialist in Dubai said like Diwali, flower arrangements are a must-have on Onam day.
“Like during Diwali, people place flower arrangements around their community, and outside their homes, called Pookkalam. They are considered auspicious and are placed to welcome King Mahabali.”
She said women wear a kasavu sari during Onam, a special cream coloured sari with a gold border. “They also wear flowers in their hair. Men wear a mundu or a cloth wrapped around their waist. Boys wear them too.”
“We made a Sadhya with a number of curries and pudding on the menu. This time we adapted the Sadya style of south Kerala which includes a Boli which is a sweet given along the paal payasam. We made the flower carpet and made sure our traditions are passed on to the younger generations as they live in this part of the world.
Bindya Sreenivas, an engineer by profession living in Al Nahda, celebrated Onam with her husband Prasad, children Aadith and Theertha. “Onam is a reminder to every Malayali to learn to coexist and go beyond boundaries, caste or religion.”
She added: “Wherever one may be in the world, you cannot take Onam out of a Malayali.”