Homecoming for a King: Why the Onam sadhya is not a feast, but a feeling

For the Malayali living away from home, the sadhya is significant of everything else that they are missing, so it's not just a feast it's a feeling.

Written by Catherine Rhea Roy | Published:September 14, 2016 10:12 am
Happy Onam 2016, Onam 2016, Onam, onam sadhya, onam sadhya dishes, onam sadhya avial sambar, Thiruvonam, Thiruonam 2016, Happy Onam. Kerala celebrates Onam, Malayalis celebrate Onam, indian express, indian express news The onam sadhya is one of the most important element of the festival’s celebration. (Source: Just Kerala/Zomato)

Ask the next Malayali and you will find that the sadhya is not their favourite meal, nor is it the best thing that the cuisine has to offer. But the bon homie that Onam generates for the Malayali outside of Kerala is tremendous — the nostalgia of a 10-day celebration that is spent preparing flowers for the athapoo (floral arrangements), new clothes, the legend of Mahabali, the impending harvest — and it all comes down to a Kasavu sari and the celebrated sadhya.

“Most Malayalis settled away from Kerala live their day-to-day with the dream of going back home to Kerala. The sadhya is our reminder to them that they need to make the most of now. Now, the attitude of the people is changing through the youth who feel a deep sense of connection to Kerala that they have imbibed from their parents, and have respect and pride in the culture and traditions,” says Prakash Bhanu, Vice President of the Vasant Kunj Malayali Association.

The harvest is a great reason to celebrate the most fundamental — food, but it is the enthralling legend of King Mahabali who annihilated the rigour of caste by his karma that makes for a better story. The Asura royal was judicious, kind and ruled without prejudice. The god’s, uncomfortable with the love and respect he had earned of his people, chose Vishnu to curb his increasing popularity. Vishnu in the avatar of Vamana, a poor Brahmin boy, asked the good king for as much land as he could cover in three steps. As the promise was made Vamana’s size increased to cosmic proportions — with his first step he gained the earth, with his second he covered the skies, and when there was no more place for the god to conquer the king bent down and offered his head. Vamana placed his foot on the kings’ head and pushed him down into purgatory, where he would languish for eternity. King Mahabali had earned the favour of Vishnu and the love of his people forever, he was also granted the boon to return to his people once every year; Onam is the preparation for his homecoming, which concludes with the grand lunch.

“I prefer Kuttanadan food as far as my Malayali palate is concerned, but I absolutely love the sadhya for the way it brings people together irrespective of caste or religion. But would i have meat in my sadhya, absolutely not, that would be blasphemous,” says Smitha N, a Malayali from Thrissur settled in Delhi for over seven years and who still cooks a full sadhya with two kinds of payasm every year. But Anu George who works at International Justice Mission, Delhi, roots for protein, “Sadhya or not, I cannot imagine any feast without meat.” In fact, for a largely non-vegetarian state, 97 per cent on average as per data from the central government’s Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014, the pure vegetarian sadhya is an anomaly.

However, for the Malayali living away from home, the sadhya is significant of everything else that they are missing, so it’s not just a feast it’s a feeling. It’s sitting cross-legged with a green banana leaf in front of you, it is the meticulous way in which the little condiments that fill up your leaf in a set order. The banana chips, pickles, and curries that we relish before the rice comes on, the hectic method of the people who are serving you, they have no greater purpose in their life at that moment than to send you gently on your way to a food coma.

“Mahabelly was the result of deep homesickness and lack of home food that my partner Zachariah Jacob and I experienced while in college here in Delhi. The city has been exceedingly good to us and it only increases our responsibility to fellow homesick Malayalis, which is why we have three days dedicated to just the Onasadhya and nothing else,” says Thomas Fenn, Partner, Mahabelly.

The homecoming is the most significant takeaway from Onam, the Malayali migrant labourer working in the Gulf to the techie in Bangalore, everybody heads home. And for those who cannot afford the luxury make do with what they have – an old Kasavu and a fresh green banana leaf for the sadhya.