Sadhya: The Famed Feast Of Onam

The celebrations during Onam are incomplete without the lavish feast prepared entirely using vegetarian ingredients
A typical sadhya spread
A typical sadhya spreadShutterstock

An essential element of Onam celebrations, the sadhya holds a central position. This grand feast forms the core of the festivities, observed on the tenth day of the harvest festival. This elaborate vegetarian banquet showcases an array of multiple dishes, each intricately crafted and presented on a banana leaf. Beyond merely pleasing the palate, this feast serves as a unifying force, bringing communities together through a shared culinary endeavour that commences well ahead of time.

"I love the serene elegance of a sadhya. The sequential serving of different courses including all six rasas adds to the enjoyment of the festive community meal," said Pushpesh Pant, academic, food critic and historian.

The Feast

Embodying humility with serving the sadhya on banana leaves, the 26 different curries, sweets, and fried vegetables made using more than 60 ingredients are eaten with bare hands and a bowed head. With a symphony of flavours consisting of sweet, savoury, sour and spicy, the Sadhya food takes centre stage during the celebrations of Onam. A lot of local ingredients and flavours are incorporated in making this entirely vegetarian feast, which includes regional specialities from all over the state, including numerous curries, fried snacks, pickles and delicious desserts, all served with red rice.

Jaggery, coconut, yams, and lentils are some of the more commonly used ingredients in preparing the sadhya dishes. Using these ingredients, traditional dishes such as Palada Pradhaman, Avial, Pulissery, and Sambhar are prepared.

"My favourite dishes are avial and parippu payasam. I was introduced to sadhya by my Malyali hostel mates many moons ago during the mid-sixties, and that was love at first bite. I never miss an opportunity to savour the sublime flavours," said Pant.

Pulikali folk art Onam tiger dance
Pulikali folk art Onam tiger danceShutterstock

History

Onam, alternatively referred to as Thiru-Onam or Thiruvonam, holds profound importance as a rice harvest festival observed throughout Kerala. The festivities for this year commenced on August 20 and are scheduled to conclude on August 31.

Deeply rooted in Kerala's abundant mythology and history, the origin of Onam Sadhya is deeply intertwined with the legend of King Mahabali, a ruler renowned for his benevolent governance that attracted divine notice. As the tale goes, Lord Vishnu assumed the form of Vamana, a diminutive Brahmin, to assess Mahabali's humility. He asked Mahabali for three feet of land, covering the entire world in just two steps. For the third step, Mahabali asked Lord Vishnu to put his foot on his head. Impressed with Mahabali, Lord Vishnu granted him a boon to come back to his kingdom once a year. Onam marks the annual homecoming of Mahabali to his subjects, and the opulent feast stands as a symbol of Kerala's deep respect for its heritage and its cohesive cultural identity.

Rituals

Onam festivities are not just limited to food but a diverse array of cultural traditions and rituals. Although the major highlight of the celebrations is the food, customs like making Pookalam (floral patterns akin to rangolis), games or Onakalikal, boat races or Vallamkali, archery and Pulikali occur during the celebrations. Sadhya, of course, takes centre stage, but what essentially makes Onam unique is the sense of community that is felt among the people, whether from indulging in the feast together or enjoying the general festivities with each other.

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