Expatriates from Kerala have long celebrated Onam abroad hoping to capture the festival’s grandeur back home. But everyone agrees it’s difficult to recreate the revelry and fun that goes on in Kerala for 10 days. GN Focus talks to Malayali residents in the UAE to find out what dominates the festivities here.
Pooja Baburaj, 24
To me, Onam in the UAE is all about celebrating family reunions and incredible food. Strikingly different from Onam in Kerala is the Onam-in-a-box packages that we buy to make the preparation of the traditional meal called sadhya easy. These pre-packaged Onam ingredients help younger expats, like myself, actively partake in the festivities without prior knowledge of the cultural nuances. Sitting down for a sadhya is always the best part of Onam for me. Being a north Keralite, we tend to serve non-vegetarian sadhyas that add a bit of novelty to the traditional vegetarian meal.
However, nothing beats celebrating Onam in Kerala. Waking up at 4am to pick flowers for the pookalam, the traditional floral arrangement on the floor, and competing in various pookalam competitions have cemented in my mind the beauty and diversity of this festival.
However, nothing beats celebrating Onam in Kerala. Waking up at 4am to pick flowers for the pookalam, the traditional floral arrangement on the floor, and competing in various pookalam competitions have cemented in my mind the beauty and diversity of this festival. One of the biggest differences in celebrating Onam in the UAE is that celebrations here are restricted to boundaries of the household. In Kerala, the festivities mostly take place outdoors. Sitting outdoors singing folk songs and chit-chatting with cousins over spicy buttermilk take precedence over sitting in closed rooms.
Mahima Lizbeth, 20
We celebrate Onam with close family and friends. Everyone arrives wearing new, traditional clothes and gathers around for rounds of games and entertainment. This closeness between people is what I most treasure about the Onam celebrations. Our sadhya is always prepared in the traditional way - pure vegetarian meals served on the trademark Onam plate, the banana leaf. The best part of Onam is the feast, in my opinion. No other meal during the year compares to the opulence and variety of an Onasadhya. For me, the highlight of the feast is the dessert served at the end. The payasams (desserts) come in many flavours making it the best way to cap a brilliant meal. In Kerala, our Onam celebrations include a lot more family and relatives. I remember swinging on rope swings and playing with my cousins when I celebrated Onam in Kerala during my childhood. Being an expat, I miss the excitement of watching the boat race, tug of war and traditional pulikali (tiger dance), all of which we don’t get to experience in the UAE.
The best part of Onam is the feast, in my opinion. No other meal during the year compares to the opulence and variety of an Onasadhya.
Krishna Das Mankuzhi, 55
As a Malayali expat, Onam is very special to me. The day begins with my entire family wishing a happy and eventful Onam to our relatives back home in Kerala. Thiruvonam often coincides with a working day but I make sure to spend quality time with my family. Cooking for the Onasadhya is a celebration in itself. Often the whole family helps in making the various dishes of the grand festival; however sometimes we do resort to ordering in pre-prepared sadhya meals. For our family, Onam is a day of prosperity and happiness. We make sure to carry that joy throughout the year and spread it to whoever possible. The ten days of decorations and family reunions are certainly lost when celebrating the festival on a much smaller scale in the UAE. A number of Malayali associations in the UAE have started to bring some of the flavour and diversity of a real Kerala Onam here and a lot of us Malayali expats are hugely grateful for that.
For our family, Onam is a day of prosperity and happiness. We make sure to carry that joy throughout the year and spread it to whoever possible.
Elsa Ashish, 32
From preparing a full-course sadhya and serving it on fresh banana leaves to draping the Kerala kasavu saree, Malayalis always strive to make the best of Onam away from home. My family celebrates Onam with a gathering of friends. Four or five families join hands to put together the massive 26-dish feast, each person cooking a dish or two. This teamwork makes our Onam all the more fun. The most special thing for me is the togetherness and closeness we find in friends and family. Families come together to decorate the house and play games and musical chairs. In the UAE, Onam celebrations last a month. Various groups and associations in the country celebrate Onam at different times. Who doesn’t love month-long festivities?
The most special thing for me is the togetherness and closeness we find in friends and family.
I’ve lived in the UAE now for 25 years and I’ve encountered more Malayalis here than when I lived in Mumbai. This huge Malayali presence in the UAE means that Onam is always celebrated with grandeur. My family celebrates Onam with my extended family and we spend the day shopping, dancing and feasting on the sadhya. Spending time with my big family is what Onam is all about for me. I have never celebrated Onam in Kerala, but I feel people living outside Kerala are more spirited in celebrating any festival. Because of this, I feel like I haven’t missed out on doing the same in Kerala. There is definitely a different vibe in Kerala. The smell of the air, the music from the neighbouring houses and temples; that’s what I’m probably missing out on.
Lakshmi Panicker, 76
In my old age, Onam celebration is just to be with my sons, daughters and my entire family, all under one roof celebrating this auspicious festival. Many children from our family and neighbours’ families come together to make the traditional pookalam in our house. Usually it turns into a competition to see who makes the best designs. Seeing the whole family together, all healthy and happy, is what Onam is to me. Watching the children run around and the smells of the wonderful food being prepared are some of the things I look forward to. I’ve celebrated most of my Onams in Kerala and some of my best childhood memories were made on Onam day. I remember my whole family travelling a long way to be with us. They would bring us dresses and banana chips as gifts. All the helps and workers would also get new clothes. Of course, nowadays, everyone moves to the beat of this fast-paced world and not always do we get time to come together and celebrate Onam like the good old days. The relaxed atmosphere and grand celebrations in Kerala are what I miss most.
The relaxed atmosphere and grand celebrations in Kerala are what I miss most.
Meera Chidambaram, 21
My family’s Onam traditions in the UAE include hosting a big sadhya for all the families of our community. Watching everyone interact and have fun under one roof brings me great joy. My mother and I always dress up in the traditional Kerala sari for Onam and make intricate pookalam designs. We strive to top the designs we made the previous year by increasing the complexity. One of my fondest memories of Onam in Kerala was when I was around 10 years old and my grandfather took me along to the local temple. It was there that I had my first-ever sadhya. I definitely believe my love for Onam began then. With the growing trend of nuclear families, my relatives once native to Kerala have migrated elsewhere. I deeply miss not being able to spend Onam with my entire family in India.
My mother and I always dress up in the traditional Kerala sari for Onam and make intricate pookalam designs.
Sathi Damodaran, 67
Being in the UAE, our Onam celebrations are more modest than when I was in Kerala. Our family mostly celebrates Onam the traditional way with the exchange of Onapudava (traditional clothes) and a lavish sadhya for anyone who wishes to join. Apart from my immediate family, we also invite our friends and extended family over to join us in our celebrations. My friends and I would rush around collecting flowers for the pookalam. Having the entire family celebrate the festival with us is and will be my best memory of Onam in Kerala. Nowadays, I miss not having such a large group over for Onam. Our festivities aren’t as grand as they were back home. But we make do and definitely celebrate Onam to the fullest here in UAE.
Our family mostly celebrates Onam the traditional way with the exchange of Onapudava (traditional clothes) and a lavish sadhya for anyone who wishes to join.