Onam is almost washed away by Kerala floods (Lead)

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Thiruvananthapuram : Onam, Kerala's most important festival, will see subdued celebrations on Saturday in the state and whereever Keralities live due to the terrible misery heaped by the worst floods in nearly a century.

With the Kerala government cancelling the official Onam festivities, ostentatious celebrations are ruled out.

Reports of cancellation of Onam events by Kerala expatriates are pouring in from the Middle East and other countries.

This is probably the first time the government has axed the Onam celebrations. The Rs 30 crore earmarked for state-sponsored festivities has been diverted for relief work.

Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran, who was overseeing the Onam festivities, said: "This tragedy has damaged our state immensely. Lakhs continue to suffer. Many people have lost their life-long savings... So Onam celebrations organised by the state are out of question."

Sarala Devi, a retired government official near Thiruvalla, one of the worst-hit areas, said she was sure no one would be in a mood to go for Onam celebrations this year.

"One has been witnessing on TV the huge loss of lives and destruction caused by the floods. I doubt if anyone will be able to enjoy the traditional sumptuous Onam 'sadya' (lunch) after all this," she said.

The 26-dish Onam 'sadya' is normally served in every Kerala household on the three days Onam is celebrated.

Flower sellers on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border say their business has been hit hard.

"Even in Thiruvananthapuram, which has not been much affected by floods, people are not coming to buy flowers," a retailer said.

At best, those who escaped the flood fury -- which has claimed some 370 lives, displaced hundreds of thousands and caused unprecedented destruction -- may mark Onam in their homes but on a subdued scale.

Amid the gloom, volunteers are trying to cheer up the survivors. Those managing the 3,000 relief camps plan to serve at least a decent Onam lunch to nearly one million persons lodged in the camps.

"Onam provides a sense of unity as everyone celebrates the festival. However, this time too there is 'unity' but it is about people coming out in huge numbers to help those affected by floods," Cardinal Moran Mar Baselios Cleemis Catholicos, head of the city-headquartered Syro Malankara Catholic Church, told IANS.

Onam celebrations normally start on 'Atham' day, 10 days before 'Thiruonam' (which falls on August 25). This year, on that day, Kerala was grappling with torrential rains and extensive flooding.

The harvest festival sees three important days - the first Onam falls on Friday (today), followed by Thiruonam on Saturday and the third on Sunday.

According to legend, Kerala witnessed its golden period during the reign of King Mahabali. Onam is celebrated to mark King Mahabali's annual visit to see his subjects.

"I am 93... I cannot recall any year when the Onam festivities were called off. I also cannot recall any tragedy of this magnitude ever hitting Kerala," a retired teacher told IANS.