By Rachel Kunjummen Paulose
AAP Guest Columnist
The Minnesota Malayalee Association will lead a community celebration of the traditional Kerala holiday of Onam on Saturday, August 25, 2012, at the Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins, Minn.
The Minnesota Malayalee Association is a civic organization that aims to heighten awareness of Indian Americans from Kerala, India; foster community spirit; and provide social services. The close-knit Malayalee-Minnesota community is made of at least 400 families and numbers approximately 1,500 people in the Twin Cities area, estimated Narayanan Kartha, a past MMA officer and software architect for a Fortune 500 corporation.
Popularly known as “God’s own country”, Kerala is a southwestern, tropical state in India known for its well-educated and highly literate population, civic engagement, and tolerant society. Malayalees claim the full array of faith backgrounds, including Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Their mother tongue is Malayalam, a derivation of Sanskrit.
Onam is a traditional Kerala festival that lasts ten days every fall during the harvest season. Onam commemorates the legacy of the ancient Kerala King Mahabali, a wise and generous ruler who reigned over Kerala during its golden era.
According to Kerala myth, the gods felt threatened by Mahabali’s great popularity and asked Lord Vishnu to intervene. Vishnu agreed, taking the form of a poor Brahmin named Vamana to visit Mahabali and to test his renowned generosity.
Approaching the king after morning prayers, Vamana asked Mahabali for alms, beseeching the king for as much land as he could cover in three steps. Sensing no threat from this seemingly modest entreaty, Mahabali granted Vamana’s request. Vamana then grew to cosmic proportions, covering the sky and the earth with his first two steps.
Seeking to protect his people, Mahabali offered his head for Vamana’s third step. With this, Vamana pushed the king into the netherworld. The king asked Vamana to reveal his true identity, at which point Vishnu appeared to Mahabali.
Pleased by Mahabali’s self-sacrifice, Vishnu granted Mahabali one wish. Still the devoted monarch, Mahabali asked to be granted a visit to his beloved people in Kerala each year. Vishnu was pleased to grant this request and promised Mahabali he would always be honored by his people.
Onam is the Kerala community’s secular “welcome home” celebration for this legendary king, whose sacrifice, devotion, and redemption color the festival.
“Onam is a festival of joy that celebrates a time of richness,” said Kurian Benjamin, a past vice-president of the MMA, CEO of Smart Delivery Services, Inc. in Minnesota and Texas, and longtime sponsor of MMA celebrations. “People of all faith backgrounds come together to mark the occasion by buying clothes, giving gifts, creating ornate scenes of flowers in homes, and hosting great feasts.”
The MMA will celebrate Onam by hosting the traditional Kerala dinner for the community, known as the Onasadya. Onasadya is Onam’s traditional nine-course meal consisting of eleven to thirteen primary dishes, along with many side dishes. The MMA also will showcase local talent in dance, song, and other performance art. Men, women, and children are scheduled to share a variety of presentations. In keeping with longstanding Kerala traditions, the MMA will hold competitions for the best pookalam presentation and payasam preparation.
Pookalam is an intricate floor floral arrangement that symbolizes a flower carpet to welcome the beloved king. Payasam is a traditional Kerala dessert consisting of a milk based pudding typically flavored with spices, nuts, and raisins.
The MMA’s Onam celebration typically attracts about 350-400 hundred people, said Kartha, and it is the MMA’s largest single annual event. The event is sponsored by Indian-American led businesses and other corporations, and it is supported by event ticket sales.
Narayanan commented, “Onam is every Keralite’s festival. It is being celebrated all over the world by Malayalees. The thing that excites me the most is how the children, our next generation, enthusiastically participate in Onam, including by sharing their artistic talent. They do identify with our community. That is a great success of the MMA in organizing this event.”
The MMA’s next major community event is the annual Christmas party on December 15, 2012. Community members may learn more about the MMA by visiting www.mnmalayalee.org.