Bouquet of scents

Onam is a festival that provides a veritable feast for the senses. While we are quite used to the riotous advertising hoardings, television commercials and interviews with superstars on every media available, an often overlooked aspect is the variety of smells Onam brings along.

The most easily recognisable scents are obviously those from the traditional sadya, with families gathering at ancestral homes and embarking on the preparation of a feast. The smells of freshly made banana chips, payasam simmering on the stove as it enters the final stages of preparation, and the collection of assorted sweetmeats are sure to leave mouths watering. For those who pay more attention to olfactory stimuli, that heady mix of indescribable scents that hit your nostrils as you sit down in front of a fresh plantain leaf is a treat in itself. Venture outside and smell the flowers, literally, for a freshly made athapookkalam is an indispensable aspect of Onam. And for the more fashion savvy, the smell of crisp, fresh fabric as the covers are opened and new clothes are revealed is the high point of the festival. In a nutshell, be it food, flowers or fashion, Onam is a treat for every sense in every sense.

Touch and tell

Isn’t this true—there is only one sense, the sense of feeling? All other senses are in fact different forms of the same sense. As someone rightly put it to see, hear, touch, smell or taste is to feel. It is not that physical touch that matters. There are moments when you feel something, someone touch you right deep in there. Onam is just one of those moments when the senses burst alive. The colours around, of the flowers, of the clothes, of the stripes on the pulikali everything seems to touch us psychologically, spiritually.

Onam creates an ambience which is made up of the collective thoughts of many people you knew and with whom you had passed through. There is an association with all this that you feel, unknowingly, during Onam, every year. Yes, the sense of touch at this time of the year transports me to the time when Amma used to touch you on the forehead, whisper to you that it was time to wake up on Onam morn. That touch is gone and Onam mornings have become routine. There used to be the excited feel of putting on the new clothes and touching those of the others around. The breeze touched you as you walked along with others to the temple, at the crack of dawn, the smells and sounds from the houses nearby touched you.

There used to be different sounds that I still associate with Onam. The shouts of aarpo, the busy clatter in the kitchen, the usual songs that wafted from the radio, the regular cinema-based television programmes churned out every year at this time. They touch me, sometimes taking me back in years. It is more than physical. Emotion and thinking are symbiotic, one never exists without the other.

Despite the monotonously regular, conveyor belt-like Onam, there is that sea of vibes that touch you, which mingles with the other senses that make you realise of what you have lost. And a realisation that it is important to keep these vibes alive for some more time at least.

Medley of melodies

Close your eyes; take a deep breath, and listen. Listen as the calm notes of “Maveli nadu vaneedum kalam” roam the air. Listen to adorned elephants trumpet their way down the long procession at Athachamayam, to drum beats rain down as chendas announce Onam, and to victorious shouts as snake boats power through vallam kali. As mighty oars splash the waters apart, perk your ears up to painted pulis roaring past your home, to synchronised claps of women dancing kaikotti kali and to fireworks ripping your sky asunder with light and colour. Onam is truly an incredible, yet welcome, assault to your senses. But if all you had were ears to experience the happiness, you would hear the excited tear of wrapping paper as Onakodis reveal themselves; you would hear the slap of banana leaves hitting tables, the hard knocks of pachadi, kichadi and erissery being served and the hungry slurp of payasams being polished off. You would notice the gentle break of flower stems snapped for pookkalams and the quiet footsteps of Mahabali on his morning rounds. But most of all, you would hear whispered prayers—of gratitude for a blessed harvest, and wishes for the same next Onam.

Timeless flavours

The ‘jaggeryed’ sweetness of ada pradhaman, the saltiness of banana chips, the sweet-sour inji curry, milky and sugary palada….if Onam memories were to come packaged in flavours these would be some. Onam is a feast for the senses, more so in the literal sense. Memories of Onam are inextricably tied to sadyas. There is such a fulsome rock and roll of flavours on the ela—as if symbolic of life and its ‘flavours’ or rasas. The sweet pachadi, fiery manga curry, mellow olan, complex koottucurry there is such a flavour fest on a leaf. Times have changed, most sadyas come out of the caterer’s plastic containers or are had at hotels in the presence of thermocol Mahabalis, homemade sadyas are abbreviated for convenience and you don’t even have to wait for payasam at the end of the sadya, just head to a ‘payasa mela’ and buy it by the litre, Onam or no Onam. NRIs get their Onam packaged. Present day Onam may have diminished nostalgia-making capabilities, it may be more about perfection and uniformity rather than the joy of chomping down less than perfect coin-sized, thick, homemade salty banana chips…but it is still Onam.

Visual drama

Before life became what it is today, a complicated series of events packed into little time capsules, festivals were more realistic. Onam announced itself with brilliant blue skies. It was as if after days of melancholic grey, Nature set the tone for the visual drama to unfold. Fields shone with a new hint of emerald, humble shoe flower petals stuck to the ground like flaming tongues of fire and the white of the thumbapoo browned a bit by evening in the pookkalam. Every possible colour on the spectrum showed up on the ela (banana leaf).

Men painted in animal prints and clad in fluorescent shorts danced on the streets, keeping pace with the racing tempo of the chenda, till they seemed like a whirl of yellow and black stripes. There was no festival that celebrated the excesses of life like Onam did. However, today, every festival has a uniform colour scheme, which is often decided by the television channels. Marigolds that used to be sold in heaps on the roadside have become fewer in number as ready-made pookkalams are available for happy rates. The tigers (pulikkali dancers) look better on TV and as for the skies, they are still a sad grey.

The glorious sights of Onam, are those that are prettier in memory today.

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