Archive for August 30, 2020

The noble king and his royal subjects

The extra large ‘Ela’, the plantain leaf, can scarcely accommodate even the first course of the colourful and aromatic Onam spread lined up in a sequence that is most sacrosanct. The jostling for space begin with serving of the ‘Upperi’, the famous banana chips, as it is placed on the left most tip of the leaf heralding the commencement of the “Sadhya”, the festival feast.  What then follows is an avalanche of delicacies –  hot, sweet, sour, and pungent; each placed along the outer edges forming a grand multi-layered semi-circle. The inner periphery is occupied by a slew of pickles – of lemon, mango and ginger; bananas and of course the Pappadams, that rounded crispy savoury which is to be crushed with every mouthful that is gulped in. The centre part of the leaf is reserved for the “Matta”, the red rice, which when poured with an overdose of “Sambar’ forms a delicate mix of celestial flavour to be relished separately with the each of the dishes marshalled on the leaf. When eaten with the ‘Eliserri’, you are introduced to the light sweet tone of the pumpkin and the grated coconut lavished on it gives a crunchy experience as does the “ Puliserri’ that follows the course. The ‘Puliserri’,as the names suggests, hints a sour taste of seasoned yogurt and with spices all over it, the experience of savouring this preparation is tongue-smacking. And to give a bolder sourish treat the thicker “Kalan” is the next in course that with its rich and abundant gravy does the job splendidly well. With vegetables of all conceivable variety, a lump of “Avial” is indeed a concoction of different textures while the lighter “Olan” is distinct with its singular flavour of coconut milk. The saucy “Pachadi” and the spicy “Kichadi” are only to be attempted once you are done with the fried “Thoran” and the greasy “Kuttu Curry’ and the list of this gourmet’s delight just got started. And the grand finale of the royal banquet is the “ Adda Pradaman” a supremely sweet serving of milk with rice flakes that stays in the mouth to cud much after the dish is drained down. Such is the grandeur of this once a year feast that to forgo it is an injustice to the taste buds. 

Just as colourful as the Onam Sadhya is the floral decoration that is laid out in every courtyard called the “ Pookalam”.  In hues of green, lavander, crimson and marigold, the floral display lends expression to a thousand artistic ideas and carpet the entire countryside with a visual treat, the most magnificent. The beauty of the “ Pookalam” is only matched by the charm and elegance of the giggling young girls who come together to put up the floral designs and the revelry and merriment around them through music and dance enhance the joy of the occasion. Onam celebration is thus, at once about cultural extravaganza as it is of food and feasting. 

Historically, Onam is the occasion when the natives of Kerala welcome the annual visit of the mythological king, Mahabali, who once ruled the land. In his kingdom, prosperity was in abundance and righteousness a way of life with falsehood and deception alien to the people. He was just and a benevolent emperor and treated his subjects as equals and people, in turn, revered and respected him. The reign of Mahabali affords us with a glimpse of the existence of an egalitarian society, aeons before the concept was even understood, much less practiced in the western world and therein lies the significance of Onam, a reminder of the modern concepts of equality and social justice. 

But in a monarchial set up, the absolute power rests with the emperor and however magnanimous he may be, the people are always only subjects, incapable of deciding for themselves and thus need constant care and nurturing from the ruled. The ruler is a loving and tendering guardian and care and security is always the benevolence of the king and never a right of the people. It is this idea of governance that is in variance with the modern concept of citizenship which guarantees equality and justice as irrevocable fundamental rights. The power of the state flows from the will of the people and the state exists to further their welfare thus placing the citizen at the centre of the scheme of governance. It is this transition from the idea of subjects to the concept of citizenship that is still to be achieved and is a work in progress! 

The Malayalis are all decked up to receive Mahabali and this time around, along with kasavu sarees and silk kurtas, many are also wearing designer masks! 

Wishing you all a Happy Onam!

Yours

Narayanan 

August 30, 2020 at 12:19 pm 29 comments


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