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Get ready for celebrations

Get ready for celebrations
Pookalam in the making.

With Onam around the corner, Malayalee expats gear up for the upcoming festivities

By Natalia Ahmed

Published: Mon 9 Sep 2019, 9:22 AM

The popular Keralite harvest festival takes place around August or September, beginning in September this year. The festival has transcended religious and geographical boundaries and is celebrated by Malayalees across the globe.

According to local mythology, the festival celebrates the return of King Mahabali, a spirit that visits Kerala during Onam. The myth revolves around a demon-king that defeated the gods and came to power. Lord Vishnu, however, refused to go against Mahabali as he was a good king and an avid devotee. Vishnu decided to test Mahabali's loyalty by disguising himself as a small boy and asking for 'three paces of land'. Mahabali agrees, and Vishnu grows in size to cover the entire land in two steps. Mahabali graciously offers his head for the third step, and Vishnu accepted this as a sign of devotion, granting him the boon of returning to his land once a year.

Despite having mythical roots, the festival is deeply secular, and is celebrated by Keralites of all religions, castes, and communities. It is meant to be celebrated by all, with no cultural or religious restrictions, and people of different religions come together to share meals and presents. It is ten days long, and celebrates the unique cultural heritage held by Kerala. The final day of the festival is known as 'Thiruvonam', and is celebrated by having the onasadya, the vegetarian feast.

Locals in Kerala celebrate by having boat races, feasts, flower arrangement competitions, and more, with the state declaring a week-long holiday. People take part in social gatherings and spend time with friends and family members. Onam celebrations in Kerala can be lavish, and can include street parades, dances, public performances, and much more. The festival is also used to showcase particular art forms and dances, including 'kathakali' and 'pulikali', two forms of masked dances.

Keralite expats, particularly in the UAE, choose to celebrate Onam by preparing floral arrangements ('pookkalams'), wearing the latest fashion trends, meeting friends and family, and taking part in the onasadya feast. Most celebrations are focused on the weekend, with restaurants offering onasadya lunches, social clubs having Onam-themed dinners, and families getting together to create pookkalams outside their doorstep.

In the UAE, the growing Keralite community celebrates Onam with joy and fervour every year, with more people joining the festivities. Whether you are from Kerala or not, make sure to check out the many Malayalee restaurants across the city and have some onasadya, wear white and gold (the traditional Onam colours), and help your Keralite friends create lavish pookkalams with leaves and flower petals.

Despite a growing number of Keralites born and brought up outside the state, Onam is a way of teaching children about their home culture, celebrating their home state, and reminding them of their cultural roots. Feasts, games, and social gatherings all enforce the idea of a strong Keralite community that welcomes those beyond its borders. Though the celebrations are limited to one weekend, gatherings are still held in various social clubs so Keralites can get a taste of home.

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