Islanders with roots in Kerala, India find sense of home on P.E.I. through festival celebrations

·2 min read
Children wear traditional clothes from Kerala during an Onam event held on Sept. 3 in Stratford, P.E.I. The boys are dressed in shirts with dhotis — cloths tied around the waist and covering most of the legs — while the girls wear a traditional dress called a churidar. (Thinh Nguyen/CBC - image credit)
Children wear traditional clothes from Kerala during an Onam event held on Sept. 3 in Stratford, P.E.I. The boys are dressed in shirts with dhotis — cloths tied around the waist and covering most of the legs — while the girls wear a traditional dress called a churidar. (Thinh Nguyen/CBC - image credit)

When Kense Philip moved to P.E.I. more than a decade ago from Kerala, a small state on the southwest tip of India, there were only a handful of people from his home state on the Island.

Since then, he has seen the community grow to nearly 800 people, and many of them have been coming together this past week to celebrate an annual harvest festival called Onam.

"We feel that we are back home celebrating," he said. "A lot of people are… thousands of miles away from their original home, so these kinds of events bring people together."

The 10-day festival runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 8 this year. It marks the first month of the calendar year for the Malayali people — an ethnolinguistic group from Kerala.

Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC

The Kerala P.E.I. Cultural Association has organized a number of local events to mark the festival, with the largest one attended by nearly 250 people at Stratford's recreation centre on Saturday.

The ceremony began with everyone gathering outside the centre to welcome a community member dressed up as King Mahabali — the mythical ruler of ancient Kerala, who according to mythology was a generous and virtuous ruler.

Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC

The point of Onam is to welcome the king home, Philip said.

"We believe that Mahabali comes to visit everybody in Kerala, so we make a flower carpet and we make a big meal," he said.

Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC

Glory Jacob, who's also originally from Kerala, helped put together the event. She came to the Island three years ago.

Saturday's event was the first time in two years that the association, established in 2019, could organize an in-person Onam celebration.

Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC

"I am so grateful to be here with my friends, my family — and they all look gorgeous, with different colourful dresses," she said.

"I'm so happy we have a community here. We could celebrate together, we could cook together, we can have the feast together, to see each other and share the joy, happiness and everything."

Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC