Onam greetings to all our friends and family from Kerala.
More about the Onam festival HERE. The best feature about Kerala’s two main festivals, Onam and Vishu are that they are celebrated with equal fervour by all religious groups.
If you can describe Kerala in one word, it would be LUSH. It’s a green, gorgeous place with the Arabian Sea on the west and the Sahyadri mountains on the east.
It’s a tiny sliver of land on the southern tip of India, the size of Maryland, just 75 miles wide at its widest. (See MAP) It, however, has the population of California, and a per capita income rate of just $300. What makes Kerala special is it’s literacy rate of 90%, and its religious diversity – 58% Hindu, 21% Muslim, 21% Christian. Kerala was the first place in the world in 1956 to democratically elect a Communist government. The language spoken is Malayalam.
This strip of land on India’s western coast is crisscrossed by 44 rivers. Forty-one of these originate in the Sahyadri mountains. Kerala is covered with paddy fields, coconut, mango, cashew and rubber plantations, and produces 40% of the world’s black peppercorns. (More about Kerala HERE)
I’m Keralite from my mother’s side (and Telugu from my dad’s). In Kerala, among the Nair community, it’s a matriarchial system, and it’s your mother’s lineage and family name that counts. Not the father’s, not the husband’s. Muaaaah. So yeah, as far as technicalities go, I’m a Keralite.
So here’s my fav place in Kerala – my Ammaman’s (maternal uncle) home. It’s a semi-rural setting with modern buildings interspersed with paddy fields.
This is the view from my uncle’s front gate. Across is the village tank, dug out to collect rainwater. In the backdrop are the Sahyadri mountains. Next door, sharing his boundary wall, is the village temple. It wakes everyone up at 6 a.m. with devotional hymns blaring though the loudspeakers. If you’re already awake, it’s nice to listen to the music. If you’re not, it’s a darn irritating way to be woken up. Half a block away is the Communist Party office. Many of the office-bearers are not averse to visiting the temple once in a while. :devil:
That temple serves the most awesome aravana payasam or neyy payasam from time to time. It’s a dark brown rice pudding without milk. It’s made of rice, ghee (clarified butter) and jaggery. When I was a kid and teenager, I would visit during summer vacations. To get the payasam, you have to have a bath, dress up, go next door, and pray, or atleast feign to pray – all at or before 8 a.m. That’s a lot of work. So I would contract this to my little cousin who would fetch it in exchange for assorted shiny objects from Bombay. I had to ration out the little things I bought her from my pocket money, in dribs and drabs, if I wanted a steady flow of payasam.
Word gets around fast here. Fifteen minutes after my mom and I would arrive at my uncle’s place, the phone would ring, and some neighbour half a mile away would be enquiring of my aunt who her visitors were. It couldn’t have been the lady who works at my aunt’s house who told the neighbour, ‘cos she’s still working, and hasn’t left yet. I swear, people there have x-ray vision that lets them see through all the thickets of trees, walls and fences. And antennae that allow them to pick up every single conversation you have, even above the blaring temple music.
The same evening, my cousin and I walk to the small corner shack (6x6x6 feet, with a surprisingly comprehensive inventory) to buy some Parle-G biscuits, when we see some neighbourhood boys swagger around. It is a sign of machismo to have their lungis double folded so high, you can see all of their hairy legs and part of their underwear.
One’s telling the other, “Who’s that one?”. The other replies, “She’s S’s cousin from Bombay.”
Huh?? It’s been six hours since I landed and they even know how my cousin and I are related?
The first one speculates: “She probably doesn’t understand Malayalam.”
The second one: “Of course not. She’s a mademoiselle who only speaks English. She has nice tits.”
All this three feet away from me. Welcome to my uncle’s friendly neighbourhood grocery store. I know why my cousin hated going there.
A typical Kerala home has a back door leading from the kitchen to the courtyard, lined with banana, mango and coconut trees.
My aunt tends to her jasmine field. There’s construction activity all around, with agriculture giving way to multi-storeyed housing.
An important event to mark the Onam festivites are the boat races. Scores of rowers line up in the snake boats and race across Kerala’s network of backwaters.
The most famous among them is the Nehru Trophy Boat Race at Punnamada Lake in Alleppey.
Basia is a Polish-American who currently lives in Chennai and captures vignettes of India in her wonderful blog India Ink. Check out her photo essay of this year’s snake boat races HERE.
More about Kerala, it’s history, cuisine and traditions @ Pepper Trail, Ammini Ramachandran’s website.
Kerala picture gallery @ chitram.com
How do we plan to celebrate Onam? The way we celebrate all festivals – by sipping margaritas in our backyard. This was the view from our patio last weekend.