In India, a harvest festival regains prominence in churches

Kerala Christians join wider community in celebrating traditional Onam festival
In India, a harvest festival regains prominence in churches

Indian students pose for a 'selfie' as they celebrate the Onam Festival at a college campus in Chennai on Aug. 27. (Photo by STR/AFP) 

For Christians, the traditional Onam harvest festival in the southern Indian state of Kerala has become more than just a celebration of culture.

Church entrances are elaborately designed with floral carpets. Christian schools declare holidays for at least three days and parishes organize special lunches and competitions during this season. Some parishes also organize a special liturgy on the day.

In Kerala, Onam is traditionally celebrated with special plays, joyful competitions and good food. Boat races and dances make the season special. Men, disguised as tigers, dance on the streets to the accompaniment of drums.

The highlight of the feast is a sumptuous vegetarian feast of at least 16 items served on a banana leaf and eaten in a traditional manner sitting on the floor. Families come together for lunch and gift each other presents. Visiting friends are greeted and offered payasam — a special Kerala dessert made primarily with sweetened milk and rice.

This 10-day harvest festival concluded Aug. 28.

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"We celebrate Onam every year ... For us Onam is our own festival. We have been celebrating it for long," Bastian Fernandez, who hails from Christ the King Church in Vettucaud in the Kerala state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, told ucanews.com.

"Kerala Christians celebrate Onam with hope for a better day and the birth of the Kingdom of God where every one is treated as equals," said Father Paul Thelakkat, spokesman of the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

According to legend, the gods grew worried about the prominence of an ancient king in Kerala because he treated his people equally and justly and so sent him to the underworld to end his rule.

"It is the Hindu gods who ended a paradise-like rule," said Father Thelakkat but added "I cannot see this as a Hindu festival."

"It relives a myth of a paradise lost, myth about memories of lost golden days. Every community has this myth about a lost free world of equality, justice and prosperity, which they try to re-gain. As Christians we are called to establish a just world and as such is a Christian attempt to regain this ideal world," he said.

Hence, "every church and every Christian institution in the state makes arrangements to join in the festive joy," he said, adding that the legend is "acceptable to Christians in their attempt to live in peace and harmony" with others in the region.

 

'We are not foreign'

Some communities, such as the Lourde Matha Syro-Malabar parish, try to feed poor people during the festival. "For us, Onam is an opportunity to help the less privileged. Our celebration will be meaningful when the less privileged also join in the happy occasion," Father Rony Maliakel said.

Christians in Kerala, who form some 20 percent of the state's 33.3 million people, claim St. Thomas the Apostle brought the faith to their land and maintained their faith within the local Hindu cultural context.

However, with the arrival of the colonial Portuguese in the 16th century, European missionaries put restrictions on such celebrations.  After Vatican II, church communities began to celebrate such feasts again, said Father Thelakkat.

Also, the Onam celebration helps Christians reiterate their local culture, said Cardinal Baselios Mar Cleemis of Trivandrum, a leading Catholic figure in the state and president of the national bishops' conference.

Onam is "part of our culture and traditions. We are not foreign. It's in our roots [but] we celebrate it understanding the Christian spirit and meaning of it," he told ucanews.com.

Kerala Christians who have migrated to other places in India also celebrate Onam. A. Chinnappan, secretary of the national lay forum, All India Catholic Union, and a parishioner in Mayur Vihar, east Delhi, said such regional celebrations are necessary to assert the Indian cultural roots of Christians.

 

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