REST STOP: Some members of the Malayali community take a break from festivities at the Onam celebration. Photos Troy Baker D8951-08

WHAKATANE is in a mass of colour, fragrant food, beautiful flowers, and an abundance of music and dance.

One of our little-known cultural communities gathered last week to collectively celebrate Onam, one of the Malayali culture’s most important festivals. The Malayali people are an ethnic group originating from the present-day state of Kerala, in the south of India.

Around 40 and 45 Malayali families live in the Eastern Bay – most having come from Kerala, – and one of the event organisers, Udai Raghavan, says the celebration marked the first time the community has come together as a whole.

“Malayali families have been coming here for a long time,” Udai says. “Some have been here for a decade or two,” while others, such as his own family, have arrived in more recent years.He says the main drawcard to New Zealand is the nursing profession.

“The majority of us are nurses,” says Udai. Though he himself is a biomedical engineer at Whakatane Hospital, he says most Malayali families in Whakatane have at least one member who is a nurse at the hospital or in one of the Eastern Bay’s rest homes.

Udai’s wife Praseeda, an administrator at the hospital, says both male and female nurses were drawn here to fill roles created by New Zealand’s nursing shortage.

“There are quite a few of us and so you might expect we all know each other,” Praseeda says. “But that’s not the case. Even with all of us that work at the hospital, we are often working in different departments and we don’t even see each other, let alone meet.”

With Udai’s role at the hospital requiring him to move between departments, and thereby providing an opportunity to meet many employees, he says he was inspired to help initiate the Malayali Association.

“We wanted to create an association so that we can provide opportunities for everyone to get to know each other. This is the first celebration we’ve had all together and the event will also formalise the association,” he says.

Around 90 people gathered at a meeting space in the Knox Presbyterian Church last week for the Onam, a harvest festival celebration. A major annual event for Malayali people, both in and outside of Kerala, the 10-day festival traditionally involves boat races and numerous festivities featuring elaborate masks and costumes. With some traditions adapted to fit, Onam Sadhya, the elaborate feast that is a highlight of the festival, was celebrated in traditional style.

With elaborate arrays of foods laid out in a traditional order in individual place settings, and served, as per tradition, by men, Whakatane-based Malayali families enjoyed the feast together instead of within their own circles of friends as they had previously.

Accountant, Shruthi Shaji, who moved to New Zealand with husband, Jaydev Kammath, says she welcomed the opportunity for the community to come together, and welcomed the creation of a Malayali association that could bring people together for future events. “It also helps us to keep our culture alive for our children,” she says. “Today, for instance, there are children here wearing traditional dress for the first time. It’s very special.”

Shruthi says the fact so many Malayali in Whakatane are nurses, is no mystery. “Nursing is not a valued career in Kerala and at the same time, there are many nursing schools there run by church groups that are connected to nursing opportunities abroad. So, training to be a nurse in Kerala can provide a lot of opportunities.”

Onam is one of three major festivals celebrated by Malayali people, regardless of religion.

“It’s a cultural festival,” Udai says. “And as in Kerala, whether we are Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, we all celebrate it together.” Around 54 percent of the population in Kerala is estimated to be Hindu.

The 10-day Onam harvest festival is celebrated to commemorate King Mahabali, whose spirit is believed to make an annual return to Kerala during the period.

By Lorraine Wilson