Onam celebrates the homecoming of demon king Mahabali who once ruled Kerala. It is said that under his judicious rule, Kerala witnessed a golden era.
Celebrated for a glorious 10 days in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, with street parades, pookalam, pulikali dance, snake boat race, and much more, Onam transforms God’s Own Country into a festive riot of colours.
The Myth of Mahabali
Bali, in South Indian languages, is sacrifice or giving. Maha bali translates to ‘great sacrifice’.
The story goes that, like his grandfather Prahlada, Mahabali was a seeker of the benevolent grace of Lord Vishnu. Although he had conquered all of the vast lands and heavens, he was dissatisfied with his earthly life. He, therefore, decided to sacrifice all his possessions for the greater good and well-being of his people. It is at this fateful time that a brahmana called Vamana (dwarf) arrives holding an umbrella made of palm leaves over his head.
The kind and generous Mahabali welcomes Vamana, offering the Brahmin anything he wants. Vamana asks the king for all the land that he can cover in three strides. The wish is granted. But, at this instant, Vamana grows taller and bigger, covering the entire universe with his two feet. Seeing as there is nowhere to place his third feet, he asks the king’s head as the third feet, to which the king obliges willfully.
Mahabali makes the master sacrifice, surrendering his own sense of self beyond everything he owns. The great sacrifice happens on the day of Tiruvonam. Onam is therefore a festival of giving, offering, and listening, to the other.
Although he has transcended the realm of earth, Mahabali is granted his wish of returning once each year to meet his people.
The Onam Affair
Onam marks the yearly visit of king Mahabali to his beloved kingdom. There are folktales - Maaveli Naadu Vannidum Kaalam (When Maveli, our King, ruled the land) - that testify to the popularity of the demon king, even today.
Day one marks the preparation for King Bali’s visit. On this day, people decorate the entrances of their homes with colourful floral carpets or Pookalam, with as many as 10 concentric rings of flowers arranged in beautiful patterns and colours. Fascinatingly, more layers and rings are added on consecutive days. Day five unravels in an uproar of sport, with the famed and spectacular snake boat race. Up to 100 oarsmen row the long and elegantly carved snake boats in Aranmula and other regions of Kerala.
It is believed that Mahabali, having arrived in Kerala, visits the homes of his people, on Thiruvonam. Edging closer to Thiruvonam, people prepare and place clay pyramids that represent Mahabali and Vamana, in the center of the Pookalam. Homes are decorated and the grand Onam feast, Onam Sadya, is prepared to treat the visiting king.
Traditionally the sadhya is a delicious spread of a variety of dishes including upperi (banana chips), maranga curry and naranga curry (sour lemon pickles), erissery (a sweet-spicy vegetable preparation) , parripu curry (thick lentil gravy), inji curry (ginger pickle), sambhar (savoury lentil soup), moru kachiyathu (seasoned buttermilk), chenna mezhkkupuratti (fried yam), avial (mixed vegetable with coconut gravy), payasam (sweet rice pudding). Onam is a feast for both the senses and spirit!
Kozhukattai is a South Indian dumpling made from rice flour, coconut and Indian spices. Though normally made sweet, it can also be prepared for savoury palates. While the dish is prepared during the Indian festival of Vinayaka Chaturthi (celebrating the birth of Lord Vinayaka), it is also a favourite during Janmashtami which marks the birth of Lord Krishna.
For the rice dough
● 1 cup powdered raw rice flour
● 2 cups of water
● A pinch of salt
● One spoon of oil
For the sweet stuffing
● 1½ cups of coconut
● ½ cup of jaggery
● ½ teaspoon cardamom powder
How to Make
1. Add 1 portion of jaggery for every 3 portions of coconut.
2. Mix the coconut and grated jaggery in medium flame.
3. Continue to stir the mixture. You will see the jaggery begin to melt.
4. Cook the mixture until the moisture from the jaggery dries up.
5. Add crushed cardamom and set the mixture aside.
The rice dough:
1. Add 2 cups of water to a cup of raw rice flour in a bowl.
2. Add a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the mix.
3. Stir the mixture on a medium flame for up to 15- 20 mins, until it forms a soft dough.
4. Close the pan with a lid after removing from the stove, and let it sit for about 5 mins.
5. Knead the dough to make soft and smooth balls without any cracks. Rub your palm with water to get them smooth and round.
Putting it All Together
1. Flatten the dough balls and fold inwards with your fingers to form a cup. Start from the circumference and keep the center thick.
2. Fill the flattened dough with the coconut and jaggery stuffing.
3. Bring the sides together to form a tomb in the center, and close the dough around the stuffing.
Set the dumplings in a pan greased with ghee or oil. Steam the dumplings for about 10 mins, and serve warm.
Krishna is the most endearing of Gods. His life, as told in the songs, ballads, and epics of India, speaks of the life-affirming thought that defines Indian spirituality. Is there any other God that embodies the joys of life as gracefully, playfully, and as captivatingly, as Krishna? It must come as no surprise then, that he continues to command the love and imagination of so many people.
Janmashtami, Krishna’s day of birth, is the first of many stories that define his time amongst the mortals. The torrential rains that herald his coming into this world, are reflective of the turmoil the people live with, and the ensuing calm, a reflection of the new dawn soon to follow. Through the course of his childhood, he vanquishes many a demon, ultimately slaying the demon king, Kamsa.
Of Krishna, there are as many stories as there are stars in the sky. What makes them so enchanting and captivating is that we learn the simple lessons of life in these stories. His playful nature tells us to not take life too seriously, even if there are much larger things at play.
To celebrate Krishna is to celebrate love.
From the divine love of his consort Radha, to the spiritual longing of Mirabai (the Rajput queen who renounced royal life for the Lord), Krishna has won many hearts, both within and without his leela (act or play). Mirabai’s poems are a testament to Krishna’s emphasis on bhakti (devotion) as a way to salvation.
Come to my Pavillion
Come to my pavilion, O my King. I have spread a bed made of delicately selected buds and blossoms, And have arrayed myself in bridal garb From head to toe. I have been Thy slave during many births, Thou art the be-all of my existence. Mira's Lord is Hari, the Indestructible. Come, grant me Thy sight at once.Mirabai
Utterly, Butterly, Simple.
It is no secret that butter was Krishna’s mainstay in Gokul. That is why, on Janmashtami, the special offerings (prasadam) include a sumptuous serving of butter with flattened rice and jaggery.
And as we savour the concoction, we reminisce about the story of butter tax which was levied by Krishna. Krishna made sure to collect his dues from the Gopis (cow herds) of the quaint village by any means necessary - persuasion or coercion. Yet he remained dearly loved by all. If that isn’t evidence of how good intentions outweigh actions, what is?
Today, in parts of India, particularly in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the Dahi Handi (Pot of Curd) is yet another imitation of Krishna’s never-ending antics to have butter. Just as Krishna relied on the support and strength of his brother and friends, during the game of Dahi Handi, boys and men find new brethren among strangers, as they give each other a hand or leg up in pursuit of a common goal.
From the confines of high art, to calendar portraits, and Gokul Sandal tins, Krishna truly permeated modern life in all its nooks in the subcontinent. His stories are so popular that the one about butter tax is captured in a beautiful painting titled “Daan- Lila” in the Harvard Art Museum.
This Janmashtami, we urge you to revel in the simplicity of the Lord’s ways and persevere on this journey that is life, as you celebrate both the little things, and the big things.
Holi is perhaps the only festival in India to have a tagline of its own. Bura na maano, Holi hai! (Don’t be offended. It’s Holi!) captures the essence of this festival. Celebrating the triumph of good over evil, the origins stem from Hindu mythology - the slaying of the demon Hiranyakashipu, and his sister Holikai. Also considered to be the day Lord Kama released five arrows, there is every reason to get in on the festivities - whether you’re taken by the colors, the season, or good old-fashioned love.
This culturally loaded festival is naturally accompanied by a practice that has been around for years. And with the passage of time, the way Holi is celebrated has changed in more ways than one.
Today, Holi comes with its fair share of environmental endangerment. There are rising concerns about pollution - smoke and toxic substances released by fireworks, noise created by large gatherings, and the usage of megaphones, water pollution, so on and so forth.
Other concerns include the skin problems caused by commercially manufactured colours, and how children, stray animals and even pets are exposed to these synthetic materials leading to short and long term damage.
So, let’s resolve to make Holi this year an environment-friendly festival. With climate change in tow, it is imperative that we do so, in what little ways we can.
One of the simplest practices to begin with, is making the gulaal (Holi Colours) at home. Grinding dried hibiscus flowers for red, crushing fresh mint for green, mixing turmeric powder and gram flour for yellow, or simply adding food colour to rice flour are alternatives that are not just good for the environment, but are also a lot of fun to make.
Another way to celebrate a sustainable Holi is to play it dry this year. The thrill of dousing friends with buckets of water, or throwing water balloons at them, may seem irresistible. But, the growing water crisis calls for us to be more reflective and responsible. Spare the pichkaris and play Holi with dry colours.
Holi bonfires from burnt wood are also a major source of environmental degradation as they reduce the much needed green cover provided by trees. Burning organic substances like cow dung or other waste materials instead of wood, prevents trees from being cut down.
At the end of the day, Holi is all about community. So, pledge as a collective to use organic, dry colours and build a grand communal bonfire, rather than one too many around your neighborhood. More the merrier.
May this year’s Holi be a celebration of a life, for one and all.
Recipe for a Holi meal
A Holi meal is never whole without the inimitable gujiya (sweet dumpling), a traditional pan-indian delicacy. Imaginatively shaped as a half-moon, its rich layered textures and sweet flavours produce a gratifying adventure for the palate. Here’s how you can make gujiya at home for your near and dear, and celebrate Holi in spirit. After all, festivities are all about food and family!
Filling: Add a few spoons of sugar to milk and boil until solid. When cooled to room temperature, add desiccated coconut, sooji( semolina) roasted in ghee, powdered cashew nuts, almond shreds, and raisins to the milk solids. Mix into a sticky paste.
Dough: Mix maida (white refined flour), with a cup of water, a pinch of baking soda and a few tablespoons of refined oil. Add more water and knead to make a soft elastic dough.
Use gujiya molds to get that perfect half-moon crust out of your dough. Fill in the stuffing and fry until golden brown. Dig in and let the delightful milky shreds of almonds, and raisins crumble into your mouth.
Pongal, more than just a Harvest Festival
Festivities at the time of the winter solstice are common in many cultures around the world. This journey of the sun northwards marks the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai, bearing great significance to agricultural communities in India. Pongal or Makara Sankaranti as it is celebrated in other parts of India, is the Tamil harvest festival, whose name literally translates to ‘spilling over’.
The origins of the custom go back over a 1000 years. Inscriptions point to a celebration of the Medieval Chola time, called Puthiyeedu . As the name suggests, it is believed to represent the first harvest of the year.
As is the case with most Indian festivals, one day is too short to pack all the novel traditions and joyous ceremonies. Pongal is a 4-day long cultural affair, celebrated by Tamilians worldwide.
Bhogi, 14 January 2019
Popular legend tells the story of little Lord Krishna, who lifted the collosal Govardhan Mountain on his little finger, on Bhogi, to protect cattle and herdsmen from an enraged Indra, King of the Heavens and Lord of the Rains.
Bhogi, the day preceding the main event of Pongal, is meant for cleansing – of the home, body and mind. On this day, people clean their homes, and dispose off old and unwanted items in a communal bonfire made of wood and dried cow dung. This activity is symbolic of parting with vices, unhealthy thoughts and emotions, welcoming spring on a fresh note. Bhogi is ‘spring cleaning’, at its truest.
Thai Pongal, 15 January 2019
Thai Pongal is observed to thank the Sun God for a successful and copious harvest – an Indian Thanksgiving, of sorts. This day marks the highlight of the festival, when the first rice of the season is made into a dish called Sakkarai Pongal and consecrated to the Sun, along with sugarcane, coconuts, and bananas.
As the rice cooks and spills over, it is quintessential to yell ‘Pongal O Pongal’ repeatedly, to honour the abundance endowed by nature
Sakkarai Pongal is a sweet dish made from rice, yellow lentils, milk, and jaggery. It’s cooked in a earthen clay pot, over a wood fire, and decorated with the fresh stem of a turmeric plant.
Maatu Pongal, 16 January 2019
Conventionally, cows were used to till farms, and continue to do so, in many parts of India. The day of Maatu Pongal is thus dedicated to the worship of cows. These gentle animals are bathed in turmeric water, and decorated with garlands around the neck, and paint on their horns.
In towns and villages across Tamil Nadu, you can witness Jallikattu, a traditional bull fight, similar to bull riding in rodeos. In cities, many look forward to the visit of the holy bull, fondly known as the ‘boom boom maadu’ , outside their homes, accompanied by nomadic tribesmen who entertain and tell fortune, based on the nodding of the bull’s head.
To err is…not just human
This is the story of Shiva and his mount, Nandi the bull. Shiva once asked Nandi to convey to the people of Earth to eat once a month, and bathe every day. Mistakenly, Nandi announced to eat every day, and bathe once a month. Enraged at Nandi’s blunder, and concerned of a food shortage, Shiva banished the holy animal to Earth, to help people cultivate crops.
Kanum Pongal, 17 January 2019
‘Kaanum’, in Tamil, means to see or visit. Family reunions are typical of this day; friends and relatives come together and finish the 4-day festival in a grand manner.
The sacredness of Earth and all life is acknowledged in an intriguing ritual called Kannu Pudi , that involves women calling out to birds with a quirky rhyme. A turmeric leaf is laid out on the courtyard, on which is served pongal, flavoured rice balls, sugarcane, betel nuts, and betel leaves, all for the birds to eat.
In different parts of India, the harvest festival goes by different names, and is celebrated in unique ways. But, the one sentiment they all hinge on, is the feeling of gratitude for nature and all it’s living beings.
Uttarayan is a kite festival that takes place throughout Gujarat, and also in parts of Telangana and Rajasthan, on the occasion of Makara Sankaranti . The Sabarmati Riverfront in Gujarat, known as the Kite Capital of India, is one of the best places to witness this colourful and energetic fiesta.
In different parts of India, the harvest festival goes by different names, and is celebrated in unique ways. But, the one sentiment they all hinge on, is the feeling of gratitude for nature and all it’s living beings.
Canteens at Chennai’s Margazhi music festivals – Where to go and what to try
At The Music Academy, Royapettah At the bastion of the carnatic arts, The Music Academy, you come for the music, but stay for the food. Go for a full-course elai sapadu (meal) during lunch, for you can expect nothing short of the best authentic South Indian cooking here. Our pick for lunch? Mysore vadai (mixed lentil fritters), coriander rice, vegetable kootu (thick stew), potato roast, kadhamba sambar (vegetable and lentil curry), manathakkali vethakuzhambu (dried black nightshade in tamarind gravy), banana chips, and special mysore pak (traditional sweet made from gram flour and ghee). All time best: Podi idli (steamed rice cakes tossed in mixed spices), pumpkin halwa (pudding), filter coffee Experimental hit: Pineapple rasam (spicy tamarind soup, served with rice)
Mountbatten Mani Catering
At Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Triplicane The dish that put this catering house on the map is their experimental watermelon rasam, introduced in 2014. A delicate balance of sweet and tart, this canteen is not shy to experiment! Lunch at this age-old establishment is a right of passage among the music circle in Chennai. Make sure to complete your meal with a tumbler of sweet warm Horlicks, that is sure to take you back to your childhood. All time best: Vazhathandu uthapam (thick rice pancakes topped with plantain stem), akkara vadisil (sweet rice pudding made from milk and jaggery), pepper kozhambu (spicy gravy made from a base of pepper and tamarind) Experimental hit: Chocolate dosai, apple pachidi (jam), vazhaipoo (banana flower) vadai made from green gram and lentils
At Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, Vani Mahal, T Nagar Evening tiffin is what is best at this canteen, that is situated close to T.Nagar’s bustling shopping district, Pondy Bazaar. Start with the all time favourite spinach vadai, and move on to idiyappam (rice-flour string hoppers) with avial (coconut milk based vegetable stew), for mains. Finish with the halwa-of-the-day, and make sure to down it all with some piping hot filter coffee. All time best: Crispy ghee roast (crispy rice pancakes), poori-masala (fluffy deep fried bread with mildly spiced potato gravy), rava pongal (savory breakfast dish made from semolina) Experimental hit: Beetroot idiyappam sprinkled with grated coconut
The canteens are open to everyone, for breakfast, lunch and evening tiffin. You need not attend a kutcheri (music concert) to enjoy a meal. Get a token, sit down at the pandal (communal dining), and enjoy as the drama unfolds on your banana leaf.
The menu in every one of these canteens is refreshed everyday, and the owners are constantly experimenting with the dishes. The only way to know what’s best is to visit.
If you’re in Chennai this Margazhi season, ditch the bar hopping, and go canteen hopping, instead!
Andal is a revered saint amongst the worshippers of the Lord Vishnu. It is believed she was an incarnation of the Goddess Lakshmi herself. Her story goes thus: Her adoptive father was a devotee of the Lord, and found her as a baby as he was about his morning routine of plucking fresh flowers to string a garland for the Lord. As Andal grew up hearing the tales of the Lord, she was completely besotted with Him. And one fine day, she tried on the garland her father had set aside, admired herself in the mirror and returned it to whence it came. While considered a form of blasphemy to enjoy what was made for the Lord, it is believed that the Lord loved Andal so, and in fact, favoured garlands worn by her. In time, she became one with the Lord, but not before she bestowed upon us a glorious collection of hymns that are sung to this day.
When the ringing sounds of Suprabatham are replaced by the lilting tunes of the Thiruppavai atop the Seven Hills, you’ll know that Margazhi is upon us.
The story of Kodhai, or Andal as she is better known, is a tale of love, respect and romance. And that we rejoice her union with God and play out her life for one month of every year, is a testament to the power of prayer. The Thiruppavai, written by her, is a set of 30 lyrical songs that talk about the cardinal principles of dharma - the path to salvation. The unique nature of these songs stem from the fact that they are not all about the Lord, but the playful yet significant tidings of everyday life.
By expounding the nature of something as simple as making a kolam, or taking a bath in the wee hours, she tells us that you can find salvation even in the small things. (A gentle reminder that life is made of micro-moments.) For the more spiritual among us, there are markers that indicate this is a time for balance and stability. Just as a planted seed grows slower in this season, our life force is also believed to come to an idling halt, a state of high inertia. Essentially, science and nature come together to re-energize us, just in time for the new year.
As the festivities begin, celebration and pomp through the fine arts are considered the ultimate show of faith and devotion. Music and dance are the highlights of this month, but theatre aficionados also have more to enjoy this season! So, if you find yourself with some time to spare on a cool Thursday evening, it might just be time to step out of your home, and jump into the world of Krishna, that Kodhai so lovingly built for us all to enjoy.
Some of the shows you won’t want to miss this season are:
● 3/12/18 - Narada Gana Sabha - Sridevi Nrithyalaya presents Srinivasa Kalyanam Dance Drama
● 9/12/18 - Narada Gana Sabha - Ranjani Gayathri, H.N. Bhaskar, K.V. Gopalakrishnan - Vocal Concert
● 16/12/18 - RK Convention Centre - Sudha Raghuraman followed by TV Sankaranarayan - Vocal Concert
● 22/12/18 - Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium - Malavika Sarukkai - Bharathanatyam
● 24/12/18 - Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium - Chitra Visweswaran & Chidambaram Dance Company present 'Skandam' - Bharathanatyam.