A slice of Kerala in Madurai

Ona Chandha. Photo: A. Shrikumar  

Two days ago, inside a small Church on Bypass Road, I find myself in the middle of a chattering of Malayalam. In the heartland of Tamil, I am surprised to hear the sister language. But the melting pot of Madurai has always welcomed people from far and wide and there are over 1,500 families from neighbouring Kerala who have made the Temple city their home.

The Malayali Samajam in the city was instituted in 1962 and ever since has held annual Onam celebrations. Switching with ease between Malayalam and Tamil, they are a cordial lot who have held on to the traditions and customs of Kerala, while imbibing local characters of the city in their lifestyle.

We are no aliens here and the city is our home, say those who stay back for Onam, while some flock to their native nadu. For the convenience of its members, the samajam organises a Ona chandha (Onam market) every year, where the essential items of the festival such as the banana chips, Upperi (jackfruit chips), nendranpazham fruits, coconut oil and various other knickknacks are sold. “The items are brought from Kerala as we may not get them in the local market,” says P.N. Pradeepkumar, the Secretary of the Samajam.

Dr. Sridevi Rajeev Warrier, a Malayalee born and brought up in Madurai, says, “Onam in Kerala is a 10-day affair. In Madurai, we keep it to the Pookalam and a sumptuous Ona Sadya” During the festival, Sridevi and her relatives get together to cook an elaborate sadya and make grand pookalams all over their house. “In Kerala villages, the flowers for the pookalam are plucked from home gardens. Here, we buy it from the market as we live in apartments,” says Dr. Santhosh Rajagopal, working with WHO. “Another important part of Onam is the making of small clay pyramids representing Lord Vishnu.”

Ramadoss, a city Malayali, sings a song in praise of the special Ona Sadya, enlisting the 30-odd items the lunch contains. Even an ordinary Ona Sadya has over 25 kinds of dishes, he says. Typically, there are two or three varieties of Pradhaman (payasam), Olan (a kind of paal kootu in which the red and white pumpkin are cooked in coconut milk), Kalan (yam and raw banana cooked in butter milk), erisherri, pulisherri, aviyal, sambar and papadam.

“One feature about Onam that I miss the most here, are the numerous kalis (sports) performed as part of the festival,” says K.N. Mohanan Namboodiri, a Sanskrit teacher, who hails from Thrissur. “Hence, I escape to Kerala almost every Onam. Puli kali (Tiger dance), Thiruvadirai Kali (dance for women) and boat race are famous during the festival.”


Malayalathanpatti, a village on the way to Melur, has over 35 Malayali families migrated 150 years ago. Supposedly, the earliest set of Malayalis in the district, the families though have lost touch with their native language and customs, retain the surname Nair and celebrate Onam. According to A. Vasudevan Nair, an old man in the village, it was a trader Sulavani Warrier from Kolattur in Malappuram district, who bought few acres of land in the village during the laying of Periyar irrigation channel. “He was said to be on the way to Rameswaram when he liked the place and bought some agricultural fields here. It was later given to a set of Nair families from Palakkad.” Currently, the families are part of the Madurai Malayali Samajam. While some can speak and read Malayalam, others are learning the language to be able to get in touch with their roots.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 8:36:22 PM |

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