Onam and Sadya

Yesterday, 29th August, 2023, I enjoyed a delectable lunch typically called a ‘sadya’. It is a lavish feast set out for the Asura King Mahabali, to welcome him back with pomp and gaiety each year on this day of Onam, to his erstwhile kingdom of Kerala.

Myth has it that he was a very powerful, benevolent and prosperous king who had spread his rule  over the earth, Swarg (heaven) and Paataal Lok(the netherworld). He was loved and revered by his subjects but made the gods insecure and jealous when he arrogantly proclaimed that the gods no longer had power over Earth and Heaven. So though he was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, at the behest of the gods, the Lord had to teach him a lesson.

Lord Vishnu took his Vaman (dwarf) Avatar and paid a visit to Mahabali. He asked that he be allowed all the land that he could cover in three strides. The king was affronted by the request. “I am the King of all the Loks. This is what you ask for?”

“Do you promise to give it to me or not?”

“Yes, take as much as you can within three strides”.

At this Lord Vishnu began to forsake his Vaman Avatar and to the amazement of all he took on his mammoth stature. In one stride he took Heaven; with the second he covered all of Earth. He had one more step to take, so to fulfil his promise the King offered him his head. Lord Vishnu put his foot on the king’s head. Before pushing him down all the way into Paataal Lok, the Lord, impressed by his nobility decided to grant him one last wish. The king, seeing his people’s sorrow asked that he be allowed to visit his kingdom of Kerala, once a year. That is the day of Onam.

It falls in the month of Chingam (corresponding with Aug.-Sept.) in the Malayalam Calendar, The celebrations are not restricted though to this one sumptuous lunch. It is ushered in with trumpets, drums, a parade of decorated elephants; the Vallamkali boat race is held, in which nearly hundreds of boatmen participate; games known as “Onakalikal” are played - Thala Panthu Kali with a ball; "Vadamvali" (tug of war) and "Uriyadi" (break the pot) Ambeyyal or archery; traditional dance forms like Chavittukali, Kummattikali, Thumbi Thullal, Onam Kali and others are a part of the gaiety and rituals. .

Thiruvathira Kali is a women's dance performed in a circle around a lamp. Kummattikali is a colorful-mask dance. The tiger dance – Pulikali – which is a magnificent display on the fourth day of the festivities, showcases valour and the spirit of battle.

Intricate floral rangolis decorating homes and venues, known variously as Athapookalam and Onapookalam are a visual delight.

These revelries culminate in the kind of grand lunch of 24 items I had:

  1. Matta Rice (Parboiled Rice) -
  2. Parippu (Dal Curry) – cooked lentils and tempered with spices,
  3. Sambar - A hearty stew with a mix of vegetables and lentils,
  4. Rasam - A tangy tamarind-based soup flavoured with spices,
  5. Avial - A medley of vegetables cooked in a coconut and yoghurt gravy,
  6. Thoran – A dry vegetable stir-fry tempered with coconut and spices,
  7. Olan - A mild curry made with ash gourd and coconut milk,
  8. Pachadi - A sweet and tangy dish made with yoghurt, fruits, and vegetables,
  9. Kichadi A yoghurt-based curry with vegetables
10. Kootu Curry A blend of vegetables and lentils cooked in coconut and spices,
11. Erissery - A dish made with vegetables and legumes cooked in a coconut and spice mixture,
12. Pulissery A yoghurt-based curry with a touch of sweetness from ripe mangoes or plantains
13. Moru - buttermilk with a hint of spiciness
14. Inji Puli - tangy ginger and tamarind chutney
15. Pappadam
16. Banana Chips
17. Sharkara Upperi - Jaggery-coated banana chips
18. Payasam (Kheer)
19. Nendran Banana – ripe banana
20. Sarkara Varatti - Jaggery-coated banana fritters
21. Salt
22. Pickles
23. Ghee

Every dish in the balanced Onam Sadya Thali, served on a banana leaf in a particular order, reflects the unique flavours and traditions of Kerala, creating a symphony of tastes that orchestrates cultural unity in diversity.

More By  :  Shernaz Wadia

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