‘What is Onam?’ a Chinese friend asked me.
Onam, a festival celebrated by people who come from Kerala, a state south west of India. People who come from Kerala are called Malayalees or Keralites, and their native language is Malayalam.
This Hindu festival celebrated by Malayalees falls between August and early September on a waning moon. The ten-day celebration takes place in the month of Chingam of the Malayalee calendar. A prehistoric harvest festival but it is also steeped in folklore, celebrated to mark the mythical homecoming of King Mahabali. He is revered for his wise ruling of Kerala, a time that brought much peace and wealth to the country, a golden era.
Kerala — the long turquoise strip on the southwest coast of India — is known as ‘God’s Own Country’.
Onam observed by Malayalees whether the community is large or just a small cluster in some remote part of the world. The festival has religious origins but is celebrated by Hindus, Christians, Muslims and by Malayalees who practice other religions.
My clearest memory of this celebration comes from the age of ten when my family lived in Penang. My parents observed first nine days on a minor scale. Days before the tenth day preparations started. Servants rushed about endlessly, it seemed, cleaning the home, changing upholstery and curtains and all things that could be changed to new, or washed, cleaned and polished. Silver shone, brass became gold. Our small family altar filled with flowers and offerings. In the very early hours of day a special feast, vegetarian feast, was prepared for family and hordes of friends of different nationalities who would visit us. People of Penang in those days were very cosmopolitan.
We children stayed up late to the constant mantra ‘time for bed’ from every adult in the household. Finally and reluctantly, we went to bed and slept fitfully, dreaming of new clothes, usually pretty flashy, and new shoes and all the good food, though I do not remember ever being short of food at that time.
We were up early to see the home decorated and warm and lit up with many lamps, flowers everywhere. Scent of joss sticks and incense filled the air and each time the kitchen door was flung open the smell of delicious food. A carpet of fresh flowers lay out the front door welcoming the day. New mango leaves were strung up auspiciously above the front door.
The only painful thing I remember is the cold shower we had to take at dawn before we could don our new clothes. Some of the older girls received gold jewellery too. Wait, sorry no food yet. We had to pray first at the home altar. Papa and Mama would bless us and thank ‘the gods’ for all good things bestowed on us while we could only think of food and fun and games that awaited us. We speedily and fervently mouthed our prayers, and I, ‘bless mama, bless papa, make them buy me a new bicycle soon and I want a camera, and I want a new pen, what else, oh yes …’ was my prayer.
Now that I am grown up, well almost, and an elderly adult in Hong Kong I go with the flow, celebrate all that comes my way. It was Eid a couple of weeks ago. After Onam we are into mid Autumn Festival. This is a full harvest moon Chinese festival that falls on 12 Sept in 2011. It is the one I love best in Hong Kong. Homes, parks, public venues and shops are decorated with colourful and interesting lanterns and children walk about carrying them too. Come evening streams of lit lanterns float like fire flies as people make their way to the beaches and hills and mountaintops to view the full moon. We also get to eat tons of Moon-cake, once a year treat.
And then along will come a frenetic Christmas to round off the year.