Onam in the 1980s was Extra-special

I woke up to the chit chattering of my cousins who were excited about this big day – duh, Onam!. The dawn was still dark and I could hear devotional songs from the nearby Bhagavathi temple. Caught between sleepiness and excitement, I found myself thinking about last year’s Onam only to be disturbed by my Velyamma calling out at us.

“Makkale enittu vegam kulikku, kalam kollande”

The words resounded in my ears and I couldn’t spare even a single second. What if Maveli comes early and finds me in my sleepwear? I didn’t want that to happen and rushed to the bathroom.

 ‘Kalam kollal’ is the most interesting part for us kids. The preparation would start from the previous day itself. Unlike the pookkalam we make on regular days, on Onam, we make a different one. It Is made out of tiers of bricks arranged in a square format. We decorate the bricks with a white paste made out of rice flour and water and finally adorn it with flowers.

For my brother Appu who is an ardent foodie, it wasn’t just about the Kalam Kollal. Of course, I can’t imagine him waking up early in the morning on other days. His eyes were on the ‘poovada’. Achammas poovada was the tastiest of all things in the world. Hand-selected ripe bananas mashed and mixed with rice flour and spices to create the perfect dough, pressed into glorious rounds onto the plantain leaves and then steamed to perfection.

Picture Courtesy: Malayala Manorama

Oh, wait! Did I miss the most important part?

 It’s the ‘onathappan’ aka ‘thrikkakkara appan’, A cone-shaped sculpture made out of clay and baked. Onakkalam isn’t complete without his presence. My aunties and cousins all decked up in white kasav sarees with golden border and pattupavadas start singing folklores and called out to the imaginary Maveli. Once the customs were over, we bid farewell to him. While my cousins were busy fighting for the biggest piece of poovada, I stared at the narrow path with the trodden flowers of different hues wondering where Maveli went.

Breakfast that day is special, not just because of the food but because of the unity, sharing, and love that fills my ancestral house. Puttu and the previous day’s sambhar were my favourite and when Achamma serves it with love, my heart fills with milk and honey.


While Achachan, Achan, Velyachan, and the rest of my cousins are busy making the olapanth for ‘thalappanthukali’, I have my share of the delicacy. The ball is made of plantain fibers and coconut leaf tightly spun around a small-sized stone. We make two teams, one consisting of all the women in the house and the other with all the men. Achachan would be the referee in this game. The idea is to hit the natta (a stick) erected at one corner with the ball, where an opponent from the other team would be standing there, trying to dismiss the throw and prevent the other team from winning.

Being a shortie in my family, that game was amongst my least favorite ones. All my Velyammas and Amma would sneak into the kitchen to do the final preparation of the Onam sadya. I always admired the female figures and the energy and spirit they showed in both the games and serving food with bits of love were immense.

Unlike now, Onasadya wasn’t just a call away. The preparation would start two days before. Achamma made sure that the kitchen would never run out of snacks for the kids. From soft unniyappams to banana chips and ‘sharkaravaratti’, we had authentic delicacies to munch on. No branded Unniyappams I had, did (or rather could) ever match the pleasantness of Achammas uniyappam.

After we have the gigantic meal consisting of olan, kaalan, pachhadi, kichadi, aviyal, parippu curry, pazham, payasam, etc. (is your mouth watering?) we take a short nap. Amma and Velyammas would still be doing something or practising for the Thiruvathirakkali. As and when I fall into deep sleep, achachan barges into the room and starts calling all of us for the grand, dynamic events that are going to happen.

It always starts with the good old Vadamvali or the tug of war. A big, wide rope, a red ribbon tied onto the middle of the rope, and two teams separated by a line in between them. You do know what happens next, right!?

Picture Courtesy: WeToHelp

It didn’t matter who won the game, the prize ( probably a plantain bunch) was shared among all. There used to be many other games that existed like Kayyankali (a basic fight between two opponents without any weapons), Kutu-Kutu ( malayali-cized version of kabaddi), and Ambum Villum (archery) which we wouldn’t play considering its physical impacts. Achaachan was very austere about it.

The dusk was meant for artistic endeavors like singing and dancing. Two of the most important ones were ‘Onakkali’ and ‘Thiruvathirakkali’. Onakkali is a dance form where men dance in different formations singing peculiar songs meant for Onakkali. Thiruvathirakkali was done by women dressed in set mundu, a dance form where women come around the periphery and dance. It often had semiclassical steps and progresses from slow music to a speedy one.

Picture Courtesy: Indian Holidays

As the flames of the lamps around us glow, so does the light of curiosity in our eyes. Customs, traditions, and desires have changed but the core which smells of ghee and soft unniyappams still remains unshaken.

Arja Dileep
In an attempt to balance between the aesthetics of an aspiring writer and the goofiness of a kid.


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