There's No Onam Sadhya Quite Like Thrikkakara's
Image Credit: Devotees at the Thrikkakara Onasadhya

ONAM is undoubtedly important all over Kerala, and to Malayalis living elsewhere in India and the world. But in few places does it have quite the same significance as Thrikkakara. Situated within Ernakulam district, Thrikkakara is considered the region where it all began — where Vishnu, in his avatar as Vamana, visited King Mahabali and sent him to the netherworld, while also granting him the boon of being able to visit his kingdom once every year. 

Thrikkakara has perhaps the only temple (Vamanamoorthy) where Vishnu is worshiped in his Vamana avatar, and a deity of Mahabali is also placed within the same premises. The other lore connected with Onam celebrations and Thrikkakara is that the Chera kings would convene annual month-long gatherings culminating in Thiruvonam, at the Vamanamoorthy Temple, that all the local rulers and chieftains were expected to attend. When they couldn’t make it to Thrikkakara one year, the king decreed that the Onam festivities be held in every household instead. 

At Thrikkakara, the temple serves sadhya — the traditional feast served on a plantain leaf — not only on Thiruvonam in Chingam (the month corresponding from mid-August to mid-September in the Malayalam calendar, when the harvest festival is observed), but on the Thiruvonam days of all the other months in the year as well. The menu may not be as grand as it is for the actual Onam feast, but it still encompasses a fair few delicacies: sambar, kalan, erissery, injithairu and chena (elephant foot yam) curry or potato curry, string beans thoran, pal payasam.

For the Onam celebrations, the feast at Vamanamoorthy Temple begins on the penultimate Uthradam day with a ritual known as “anayoottu” — the feeding of the elephants. Every devotee who visits the temple on this day is then served a lavish Uthradasadya. This, however, is still the prelude to the main event of Thiruvonam. 

On the main, 10th day of the festival, the Thrikkakara temple begins serving the Onasadhya from 10 am onward, in its sprawling courtyard. The spread includes parippu, poppadom, the prescribed pinch of salt, sambar, erissery, kalan, avial, olan, pachadi, kichadi, pickles, ginger curry and palada pradhaman. Rasam — served in each diner’s palm — finishes the meal. Also part of the festive fare is injithairu (ginger in curd), considered the equivalent of 108 curries.

Around the temple, in individual homes, the Onam feast preparation begins on the ninth day, i.e. Uthradam. A well-known adage states: "Uthradam uchathirinjal, Achimarkkoru tathuaram (The afternoon of Uthradam is a busy time for housewives)”. This is when most of the prep work for the Onam sadhya is undertaken. Dishes that will not spoil — for instance, sambhar and pulissery — will be readied as well. A modest sadhya, comprising some of the dishes for the next day that have already been cooked, will be served to the family.

Another Thrikkakara Onam custom is seen in the setting up of Thrikkakara Appan or Onathappan — long four-faced pyramids made of red clay and splattered with rice batter — at the centre of the pookalam (flower arrangement) or on a base of rice flour. Replicas of traditional kitchen tools like the grinding stone, coconut scraper etc are also fashioned out of the same clay. Plantains, tender coconuts, paddy, incense and poovada — rice cakes — are placed before the Thrikkakara Appan as offerings. In some parts of Kerala, there is a ritual of shooting the poovada with a (fake) bow and arrow before serving the pieces to all. 

On Thiruvonam day, the lamps are lit in the home, and an offering featuring the sadhya items is made to the gods, Mahabali, and one’s ancestors. The patriarch ceremonially serves the feast to the members of the family, who sit in linear rows, facing east. As the eating takes over the day, there is more still to come in the form of games and cultural performances — merriment to ease Mahabali’s mind about the wellbeing of his people.

Incidentally, food also features in the lore surrounding how the Thrikkakara Onam’s grandiose scale reduced from a month of pomp and ceremony to just 10 days. Seemingly, it was the result of a Brahmin’s ire, who cursed that the temple’s prominence would wane, when he was wrongly accused of theft. The item he was believed to have stolen? A bunch of golden plantains.