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Virtual festive fervours
Social distancing and restricted travel has many expats celebrating Onam at home
The annual Onam celebrations are back in the UAE. But unlike all other years, this year is a bit different for Malayalis around the globe. And it's no different for the community in the country.
Malayalis comprise more than one million of the 3.3 million Indians in the UAE. It is then but natural that Onam, the traditional harvest festival of Kerala, will be reflected in the spirit of festivities in the UAE.
As Covid-19 continues to threaten social gatherings and functions, the expat community will celebrate Onam virtually with their families and avoid any public gatherings. Usually, Malayalis celebrate Onam with pomp and grandeur over special meals called Onam sadhya, which translates to banquet. A vegetarian meal that consists no less than 25 dishes served on a banana leaf is served in many restaurants across the UAE.
While traditionally, the Onam sadhya is prepared at home, due to time constraints, many Keralite residents tend to eat sadhya at restaurants or opt for catering for celebrations at home.
Majority also participate in the tradition of pookalam by creating elaborate and colourful flower arrangements on the floor. Tradition demands that older family members buy new clothes or gifts for younger ones as well as new outfits.
The 10-day harvest festival began on August 22 this year and ends on September 2. During this period, Malayalis commemorate the homecoming of the mythical King Mahabali. Apart from fresh flower decorations and power-packed boat races, the highlight of the festival is an elaborate meal. Onam sadhya is enjoyed without any cutlery and is usually eaten while sitting on the floor.
The usual items in an Onam sadhya include: kaaya varuthatha (banana chips), chena varuthatha (yam chips), sarkara upperi (jaggery coated banana chips), mango pickle, lime pickle, puli inji (tamarind & ginger chutney), kichadi (gourd in mildly spiced yoghurt), pachadi (pineapple in yoghurt), olan (ash gourd with black beans in a coconut milk gravy), stir-fried vegetables with grated coconut, theeyal (mixed vegetable gravy), erissery (mashed beans and pumpkin with coconut gravy), avial, puliserry (yoghurt based curry), kootu (black chickpeas curry), sambar, rasam, spicy buttermilk, bananas, papad, and of course, boiled rice.
The floral carpet, known as Onapookalam or just Pookalam, is made out of the gathered blossoms with several varieties of flowers of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to design and decorate patterns on the floor, particularly at entrances and temple premises like a flower mat. Lamps are arranged in the middle or edges. It is a work of religious art, typically the team initiative of girls and women, who accomplish it with a delicate touch and a personal artistic sense of tone and blending. When completed, a miniature pandal (umbrella) hung with little festoons is erected over it.
The traditional ritual of laying pookkalam starts on Atham day. The pookalam on this day is called Athapoo, and it is relatively small in size. The size of the pookalam grows in size progressively with each day of the Onam festival. Only yellow flowers will be used on Atham with only one circular layer made and the design is kept simple. Statues or figurines of Mahabali and Vamana are also installed at the entrance of each house on this day.
Traditionally, Atthapookalams included flowers endemic to Kerala and the Dashapushpam (10-flowers), but nowadays all varieties of flowers are used. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vamana are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house along with the pookalam, and beautifully decorated with flowers. All over Kerala, pookalam competitions are a common sight on Onam day.
Let's take a look at some of the Dubai-based expats looking to celebrate Onam this year
Anu Thomas, Counsellor
Onam is a celebration where all Keralites across the globe look forward to and celebrate without any barriers of religion, caste, or creed. From the time I have been in expat, I have always tried to be back home in Kerala to start off my Onam celebration with my family. But this year because of the pandemic and travel bans we are not able to visit our parents, so it's just going to be about us in our home here. Missing the energy, shopping and family time because of the pandemic.
Arjun Radeesh, Student
Onam is all about fun when family members are forming the pookalam (flower carpet) and having sadhya together in the banana leaf. I usually celebrate the festival back in India with my cousins and grandparents. The good part of Onam is families reunite. This year would be different in a way that families members wouldn't gather together, but still, the vibe hasn't been lost. Mostly a Zoom Onam can be expected.
Sharon Philip, Student
Being a Malayali, brought up outside Kerala, I celebrated Onam in a non-traditional way. If there weren't any flowers available for creating the pookalam, I used to make it up with colourful vegetables. This pandemic has taught us the value of connection. We had Zoom before, but now it is used more. This year's Onam will be cherished by everyone. You will connect more and bond more. And yes, I am really looking forward to the "can you hear me?" situations. Live this Onam to the fullest!
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