Almost Like Fair Friday

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

As I have previously mentioned in these short epistles, this week is the Keralan festival of Onam, a wonderful, colourful spectacle where the main household/community decoration is the floor carpet. This is essentially a temporary carpet made entirely of flowers, well flower petals, to be exact, thousands of flowers producing millions of petals. It is called a floor carpet but it is not only for floors. You see them on roadways and in the foyers of hotels. You come across them in restaurants and cafes and public buildings, everyone producing their own design and choice of colours although orange and yellow seems to be the favoured choice.

The largest in Cochin is this magnificent specimen. Funded by the local tourist board and created and maintained by local volunteers, it is about 100 feet square and made mostly with yellow and orange chrysanthemums. The red areas, however, are the most gorgeous heads of red roses, thousands of them. We had to have one, of course, and so on earlier today all the staff and volunteers got busy and created a pretty good floor carpet showing the GVI logo in the traditional colours.

We had been invited to a local café for the traditional Onam Sadhya, a vegetarian banquet which is a bit like Christmas dinner but served on banana leafs and with much less turkey and stuffing and hardly any roast potatoes or cranberry sauce. Well actually no roast potatoes or cranberry at all but you probably guessed that; lots of rice and chutney, though, and delicious banana chips. By far the most unusual items were the payasam, pudding to you and me. One was like a thin rice pudding with cashew nuts and raisins, more a drink than a desert but delicious. The other takes a small effort of will to try, but it is worth it. Lentil payasam is one of the must have desserts for any Onam Sadhya. Made with lentils, obviously or it probably wouldn’t be called lentil payasam, coconut milk, cashews, raisins and pieces of coconut fried in ghee, it looks like a thick lentil soup with nuts but it is sweet and the perfect sauce for banana.

No major public holiday should be without a downpour of rain and so it was today in Cochin. As we were just setting out on foot for the café it started to rain. No, Gentle Reader, I mean IT STARTED TO RAIN! Fortunately we hadn’t far to go and after days of very intense heat the rain, if not exactly welcome was certainly very refreshing. Our table was at the front of the café, almost al fresco but covered, an interesting place to sit and look along a very empty, almost totally deserted K B Jacob Road and compare it to the usual happy traffic chaos and symphony of car horns to which I had become accustomed. I was told this was partly to do with today being the main Onam holiday but also it had something to do with the bad weather. It was almost like being in the UK on an August Bank Holiday or Glasgow Fair Friday.

The rain did stop after lunch which was good as it meant it would be dry for the parade. This is a massive parade with groups of men in differing costumes dancing and performing various rites which were beyond any comprehension but which, I suppose, made senseto someone, even if it was only the choreographer but believe me this was definitely not Strictly Come Dancing. Most of the groups had some kind of musical accompaniment which largely took the form of lots of drummers, all playing different beats and rhythms. One group of dancers, for that is what they were, had the aforesaid drum section but it also had a horn section thrown in. I say horn section, the instrument was more like a bugle which had been stretched out and bent to form a rough C shape. The ‘band’ seemed to know only one tune which they played over and over again. It was a bit like an Orange Order March really; a colourful spectacle, a lot of noise, and not that much point to it unless you were involved in marching or banging a drum.

One very colourful group were the tiger men. This was a group of about 25 very overweight men who had they whole bodies painted like tigers. Well tigers of various colours, traditional orange and black, pink and black, blue and black, purple and black and one man, who seemed to be the leader, who was entirely painted black and whose main function seemed to be to smash fluorescent lights with his head and then eat them after which he set his hair on fire. Actually it was a lot like an Orange Order March but without the bowler hats.

Unfortunately I can’t show any photographs of this strangely entertaining parade because the battery in my camera gave up the ghost just as it was starting. I did, however, get some photographs of one very important member of the whole thing, the star of the show, in my opinion, the elephant. I say star of the show but to be honest I am in two minds whether or not I approved. He didn’t look that happy, his feet were chained, albeit thinly disguised, and his handler did use a stick and a metal prod to keep him under control and I noticed that he kept moving from one foot to the other in quite an agitated way, the elephant, that is, not the handler. He did look very grand in his parade attire but I would much rather have seen him without either it or the chains and wandering around in a natural state instead of being held captive and in a very distressed state.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people are always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.