Festivals and Festive Fare

Pooram To be in Kerala at any time of the year is to be in the midst of a festival. Astrology, convention, and resourcefulness together have bestowed us with a wealth of festive days. There are several festivals that are celebrated at temples and there are many more that are observed at home.

The flair for pageantry and grandeur accomplishes its fullest potential in our temple festivals. Most temple festivals are held in honor of the patron god of the town, and they last for several days. During these festivals, temples are decorated with fresh flower garlands, and rows and rows of tiny oil lamps positioned throughout the temple are lit at dusk. At the grandest festivals there are parades of several elephants, sometimes more than thirty, elaborately decorated with gold-plated headdresses and colorful parasols. Elephants sway to the rhythm of the panchavaadyam band as they lead the procession. At night the sky is alight with great explosions of fireworks. Performances of various classical art forms – both music and dance- at temple grounds provide another venue of entertainment. Every little village and town has at least three to four, if not more, temples and they all celebrate annual festivals.

Vishu, which is always celebrated on the first day of the lunar month of Medam (mid April) on our calendar. It is believed that the first thing one sees on Vishu morning influences one’s fortunes for the rest of the year. Before dawn, with eyes closed, everyone is led to see the Vishu Kani, a very pretty display of flowers, fruits and other things arranged in a large bell-metal pan - uruli. Children light fireworks before dawn, and at noon a fabulous feast is served. The traditional gift at this holiday is money. During this month many village temples celebrate a festival called Vishuvela.

Throughout the lunar month of Karkitakam (mid-July to mid-August), at the height of the monsoon season, food and prayers are offered to Sridevi - goddess of plenty and prosperity.

In late August to early September we celebrate Thiruvonam. The festival cherishes the memory of the legendary King Mahabali and his prosperous reign during which perfect harmony prevailed. Flowers bloom in plenty at this time of the year and people decorate their houses with `Onapookalam´ or floral arrangements on the front yard. It is also our harvest festival. On Thiruvonam day households enjoy a sumptuous noontime feast called “Onasadya" following the morning festivities.

Mid-autumn brings the festivals of Navarathri and Deepavali - both celebrated with bright lamps and mounds of sweets. The nine-day colorful festival of Navarathri is celebrated in honor of goddesses Durga and Saraswathi - goddesses of strength and knowledge. It is a fun festival for children - nine days of exuberance and extravagance - a profusion of favorite sweets and snacks and a three-day holiday from school and homework. Deepavali, festival of lights, is celebrated with fire works, lighted oil lamps and an abundance of sweets.

During our mild tropical winter, in the lunar month of Dhanu (mid December to mid January) we celebrate Thiruvathira. The origin of this festival is shrouded in obscurity. It is considered auspicious to worship Shiva on this day and devotees reach temple before sunrise. Women observe partial fasting for the well being of their husbands and children. They consume tender coconut, fruits, and dishes made of arrowroot. Many temples celebrate their annual festival at this time of the year.

During certain months of the year, the eleventh day of month on the lunar calendar —Ekaadashi—is a day of special observance. On those days no rice is cooked at home. Other grains, such as wheat and wild rice are cooked and served. These are called partial fast days—when no rice is served it is considered fasting.

Food is an essential part of our culture and tradition. Serving or giving a gift of food is observed practically at every religious or family occasion. Each of these ceremonies features certain specific dishes that are prepared only on that occasion. And in each family, the same festive dishes for each of these occasions continue to be prepared and served by one generation after another.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN