x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Indians in UAE work up appetite for Onam festival

The Indian festival of Onam is celebrated with floral arrangements, food and fanfare.

Because the festival falls on a working day, many expatriates will continue to celebrate Onam at the weekend.
Because the festival falls on a working day, many expatriates will continue to celebrate Onam at the weekend.

DUBAI // Mohan Kumar has taken one day off work for each of the past 23 years to make floral designs and cook a grand feast for Onam.

Today will be no different when he gets together with his wife, children and extended family in Sharjah to celebrate the harvest festival that reflects a similar commemoration in his native Kerala.

"We will go to the temple in the morning," said Mr Kumar, 45, a public relations officer.

"We will prepare the Onam sadhya [traditional feast] and make the flower pookalam [floral designs]. I take leave every Onam. Even as a bachelor, I used to take the day off and gather a few friends to cook."

The festival commemorates the legend of King Mahabali, who is said to visit Kerala every year at the time of Onam. Celebrants make welcoming feasts for him.

Onam also signifies the start of Chingam, the first month of the Malayalam calendar, and is marked by intricately designed flower carpets, elaborate lunches and boat races.

When Mr Kumar was a child in Kerala, the 10-day festival was celebrated with much gusto.

"A week before Onam, we used to walk several kilometres to find flowers. Since there were no refrigerators back then, we'd keep them in water to ensure they were fresh. During the festival, we'd place the flowers to decorate every step in the house," he said.

Many expatriates will also meet friends and family to honour King Mahabali's return to his kingdom.

"We'll start early morning to make the pookalam," said Satish Menon, who works in Dubai. "I'll be working today but I'll join the festivities in the night."

Because the festival falls on a working day, many expatriates such as Mr Menon will continue to celebrate Onam at the weekend. "This weekend will be with friends and family," he said.

The revelry will extend to labour camps at the weekend, when companies organise events for staff.

"There will be some songs and some cultural events," said Rathnakaran, an electrician who lives at the Sonapur labour camp. "Our company will prepare lunch for us. The mood is more celebratory here than in India because here I am with my friends, company staff and, importantly, people from different countries, who join us."

Onam, a Hindu festival, cuts across religious backgrounds.

Aziz Abdulla and his family join their Hindu friends to decorate their homes and share a meal. "Every year we celebrate the event," said Mr Abdulla, a businessman. "We wear the mundu, veshti [traditional attire] and my children wear the pavada. We tell the children the importance of Onam. We keep pookalam and help in cooking."

A number of restaurants are preparing for the Onam rush.

"We are expecting over 300 guests for the Onam Sadhya," said Sreejit, a representative of Kerala Kitchen in Karama. "We will serve 24 varieties today and tomorrow. But, since it's midweek, we expect more people on Friday."

The weekend lunch will be a slightly smaller meal with 15 varieties, he said. The restaurant expects more than 800 parcel orders over the two days.

Supermarkets are also trying to woo customers with decorations and discount offers on flowers, fruits and vegetables.

The LuLu hypermarket in Abu Dhabi's Al Wahda Mall has made its floral design with fruits and vegetables from 23 countries. About 400kg of fruits and vegetables, including Australian carrots, Chinese mandarins, local cucumbers, South African lemons, Spanish capsicum, and US and Chilean apples, have been used in the arrangement.

Cultural events are being organised across the Emirates. The Country Club will host South Indian actors and singers in Abu Dhabi on September 6 at the National Theatre, and on September 8 at Dubai World Trade Centre.

pkannan@thenational.ae