A white thumba flower with an ant crawling across it. Credit: Rameshng via Wikimedia Commons

By Helen Anil

When my mother was young, the arrival of Onam, a harvest festival, transformed our ancestral home nestled amidst the lush emerald green of Kerala, India. Celebrated in the month of Chingam, it wasn’t just a festival; it was a symphony of local traditions, with elaborate feasts known as Onasadya.

Tables, adorned with banana leaves, showcased a dazzling array of culinary delights. Traditional snake boat races called Vallamkali took place on the shimmering backwaters. The intricate art of Pookalam, in which vibrant floral carpets were meticulously crafted on the courtyard, connected us to the essence of Kerala’s natural beauty. At the heart of this celebration was the thumba flower, which symbolized the purity and vibrant spirit of Onam.

As a child, I watched my mother’s nimble fingers lovingly weaving garlands of thumba flowers, their pristine white petals evoking the purity of freshly fallen snow. Dressed in the traditional kasavu saree, she gracefully placed thumba garlands all around the home, their vibrant petals mirroring the laughter that filled our hearts.

In the midst of these memories, I hear the echo of a song: “Thumbi vaa thumbakudathin thunjathu aayi oonjaal idaam.” Come, O dragonfly, alight on the stem of the tender plant, let’s swing on the swing. The dragonfly is invited to sip nectar from the thumba plant, as though nature itself composed the song, calling us to taste its sweetness.

Now, I celebrate Onam in my American home, but am forced to fashion garlands from artificial thumba blooms, their plastic petals mimicking the vibrant hues of memory, a stark reminder of the world we’ve had to recreate. Although I sometimes get back to my lush homelands and am able, like my mother, to weave garlands with real flowers, I have a lingering fear that thumba flowers may one day become as rare as solace in a storm.

A map of India, showing Kerala located on the southwestern tip of the country. Credit: GRID-Arendal via flickr

Climate change impacts precipitation patterns globally, affecting the timing, intensity, and distribution of rainfall. In the case of India, changes in the all-important monsoon are contributing to rising sea levels, making coastal regions more susceptible to flooding. Kerala, with its extensive coastline, is especially vulnerable to an amplified monsoon, with storm surges that lead to destructive flash flooding.

The construction industry has made matters worse with sand mining, especially on the eroding coastline. The serene coastal village of Alappad, for example, once almost 90 square kilometers in size, has shrunk by 90%. Homes have vanished, and local communities now face eviction. Fish and other local animal populations are also in decline.

Rivers that once flowed with gentle grace now surge and swell, carrying devastation with them. Kerala, my beloved homeland, has felt the wrath of these changing tides, the floods a reminder of nature’s capricious temperament. We rebuild or relocate our homes, but the scars on the land run deep, echoing the turmoil of a planet in flux. Amidst these altered rhythms, the konna trees of Kerala stand with a muted splendor, their gold now tinged with worry, like sentinels guarding the secrets of a vanishing world. The once-thriving, delicate shoreline is being transformed into a broken monument to human greed.

In a not-too-distant future, my daughter, born into a world profoundly altered by the relentless march of climate change, will experience a different life from mine, or my mother’s …

As she flips through the holographic pages of our family’s digital album, she encounters images from my mother’s time, a period when Onam was a celebration of nature’s abundance. She gazes upon the thumba flowers, their colors and shapes unfamiliar, like relics from an alien world.

“Amma,” she inquires, her eyes wide with curiosity, “what are these vibrant blossoms in the pictures?” With a heavy heart, I narrate tales of a time when ecosystems thrived in harmony, when Onam’s pookalam was a testament to nature’s artistry.

For this child, the Kerala landscape has altered beyond recognition. Oceans have swallowed the shores her mother and grandmother cherished, and the skies are a permanent shade of gray. The seasons have lost their rhythm, and the gentle monsoons are a distant memory.

For me, the invitation we sang to the dragonfly serves as a haunting reminder of what once was — a world where nature’s sweetness flowed freely. It will be the next generation’s duty to preserve what little remains and to envision a future where thumba flowers and the resplendent tapestry of nature once again grace the festivals of Kerala.

About the Author …

Helen Anil is a student studying Economics and Environmental Science with a minor in Informatics and will graduate May 2025. She has been a part of iSEE where she served as a part of the iCAP Resilience team. She has also been a part of Enactus, a 501c3 social entrepreneurship organization since her freshman year. Post graduation she hopes to work helping businesses invest in sustainability.

This article was the memoir category runner up in the 2023 Janelle Joseph Environmental Writing Contest.