Thiruvananthapuram, Aug 23 Women wearing white and gold saris and men in spotless 'mundus' (dhotis) thronged temples across Kerala early Monday and beautiful 'pookalams' (floral designs) adorned homes but the 24-course 'sadhya' feast was clearly the highlight of Kerala's Onam celebrations.
While Onam is a weeklong festival in Kerala marked by cultural shows, shopping and get-togethers, Thiruvonam is the main day to rejoice.
Women woke up early in the morning to make new pookalams outside their house and light lamps in their puja rooms while others got busy in the kitchen to prepare the much-awaited grand feast.
The children were a happy lot as they got 'Onapada' or new clothes for the festival.
Temples like the famed Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district and the Guruvayoor temple dedicated to Lord Krishna near Thrissur drew maximum crowds while devotees thronged other places of worship across the state as well.
But it was the 24-course vegetarian lunch served on plantain leaves that was the star of the day.
Some of the main dishes of the sadhya include 'parippu' (lentils), sambhar, mixed vegetable 'aviyal', 'thoran' (dry vegetable dish), kalan (made of ripe plantain and yoghurt), olan (black beans mixed in coconut milk), mango pickle, 'kichedi' (vegetables in curd), papadums and banana chips. All this of course is rounded off with mouth-watering 'payasam', sometimes three varieties of the sweet dish.
However, many women limited the sumptuous meal to around 15 dishes. Rema Devi, a retired college professor here, said she would not be making all the 24 items like she used to in earlier years.
"Honestly even though I feel like doing it, my body can't take the strain to make 24 dishes, which is the traditional full-course Onam sadhya. Today even our domestic help has taken a day off so I managed to do some of the cooking yesterday itself...I simply can't have an Onam sadhya bought from a hotel," said Devi.
Bhuvena Chandran, a 58-year-old cook at a restaurant here, said that cooking the Onam sadhya is a tricky affair unlike cooking non-vegetarian dishes.
"The three basic ingredients for an Onam sadhya are coconuts, yoghurt and the oil used. The quality of these three have to be of the highest standards and the taste of the dishes depend on this. I remember my teacher who taught me cooking more than three decades ago was very particular about the quality and those days he used to himself select the coconuts, make the yoghurt and also select the coconut to be dried to make the coconut oil," said Chandran.
Homes apart, the five-star hotels are not to be left behind to provide the 'Onam experience to their gusts on the festive occasion.
John Muthoot, who owns the plush Taj Green Cove resort overlooking the Kovalam beach, said Monday's lunch in the resort would be a typical Thiru Onam sadhya for all.
"Being the off season, the resort is now home to more domestic tourists and we have prepared the traditional Onam sadhya for over 250 people. We have got bookings from outside also and, over the years, the number of people coming to have the sadhya has gone up," said Muthoot.
Since 1961, Onam has been the official festival of the state and is celebrated by all Malayalis irrespective of religion or caste.
It is widely believed that Kerala's mythological king Mahabali, known for his benevolence, comes to visit his people and ensure their well-being and prosperity on Onam.