Onam—the state festival of Kerala—is celebrated with great enthusiasm. The festive season of Onam, which falls on the Malayalam month of Chingam, every year (between August and September), is a ten-day carnival for the Malayalees all over the state, country and abroad. Being a harvest festival, it is time to thank God for the bountiful yield. According to the stories in Hindu epics, Mahabali, the legendary King of Kerala, visits the state every year during the Onam festival, to ensure the wellbeing of the people. He is welcomed to his kingdom with reverence. The festival is all about relishing on the grand Onasadya (traditional feast of Onam), shopping, family reunion and welcoming King Mahabali by spreading good cheer.
Onam, which is spread over a period of ten days, is celebrated in the month of Chingam, corresponding to August-September of the Gregorian calendar. The time, which comes directly after the dark and rain-drenched month of Karkidakam (July-August), is in itself a major factor. It signifies the beginning of the harvesting season, which is always a happy time for the farmers. Indeed, the festival is a reminiscence of the state’s agrarian past and its vibrant culture.
Among the many legends associated with the festiva of Onam, the legend of Mahabali is most popular. According to this legend, the region comprising the present day state of Kerala was once ruled by Asura King Mahabali. He was a good and benevolent king and people lived happily under his rule. He was also very pious and powered by a boon, granted by Lord Brahma, he became undefeatable in wars. Very soon he became the master of heaven and earth. Devas, deprived of their realm, went to Lord Vishnu, asking for a remedy. Lord Vishnu agreed to restore their rights and took birth as the dwarf son of Rishi Kashyap and his wife Aditi. Years later, Mahabali arranged for a big yagna on the bank of River Narmada and declared that nobody would go away from the sacrificial ground empty handed. Hearing this, Lord Vishnu, appearing as a dwarf or ‘Vamana’, reached the sacrificial ground. Although Bali was warned by his guru Sukracharya, who had recognized the Lord, he welcomed Vamana and asked him what he should do for him. At this, Vamana asked for land measuring his three steps. Bali laughed and granted it to him.
Immediately, Lord Vishnu took up his own form. With one step, he covered the earth and with the other he covered the heaven. Now, he did not have any place to put his third step. So Bali offered his head and Lord Vishnu put his feet on it. Now that Bali did not have any place to stay, the Lord sent him to the nether land or the patal and made him its ruler. However, Mahabali also missed his subjects on the earth. Lord Vishnu, pleased with Mahabali’s devotion, granted him the boon that he could return to earth once a year. It is believed that every year, during the Onam, he returns to Kerala to see how his subjects are doing.
Like all other festivals in India, Onam also incorporates many customs and rituals. Earlier, the celebration used to be flagged off by the King of Kochi with a colorful procession known as Athachamayam. Although the royal patronage is no more, the tradition continues even now. At personal level, devotees install the image of Thrikkakara Appan or Onatthappan in their homes and worship him. They also light lamps at the temple and offer puja. Another significant ritual is to erect a palmyra palm tree in front of the temple, which is later burnt to ashes, signifying the departure of Mahabali for the nether land. Pookkalam, made with flowers, is another important ritual followed by the people.
Pookkalams are something similar to rangoli made in North India. The only difference is that instead of powdered color, they use variety of flowers pinched up into tiny pieces. Most householders start putting pookkalam from the first day of Onam and continue adding layers to it till the tenth day.
The pookkalam made on the first day is known as Atthapookalams. Traditionally, they are circular in shape and are made with ‘dashapushpam (ten types of flowers) native to Kerala. However, today these are made in various shapes, using all kinds of flowers. The Atthapookalams is generally put in the courtyard. In front of it, two earthen mounds, representing Mahabali and Vamana Avatar are erected. These two are also decorated with flowers.
Onam Sadya is the traditional feast held on Thiruvonam, which falls on the tenth day of Onam. Customarily it consists of twenty-six dishes, but in temples, number may go up to thirty. Such a huge number of dishes are prepared to show king Mahabali, who comes visiting them during this period, that the people here are as happy and prosperous as they were under his rule. Traditionally, the meal is first offered to Lord Ganapati on a plantain leaf, placed before a lighted lamp. The family members sit in rows on the floors close to the lamp. The central place in the row is always reserved for head of the family. The food is served on plantain leaves in a fixed order and at a set place.
Music and Dance
In India, no festival is complete without music and dance. In Kerala also, women sing Onam songs. In addition, there are quite a few dance forms, which are performed during this festival. Among them, Thiruvathira is a women's dance performed in a circle around a lamp. There is also the Theyyam, another ritual worship dance performed during this time. Another important dance form is a mask dance called Kummattikali. In Thrissur, the Kummattikali dancers not only take part in processions, but also go from door to door. Another famous dance form performed during Onam is Pulikali or Kaduvakali. In this dance form, the dancers, painted like a tiger in bright yellow, red and black, perform to the beats of instruments like Chenda and thakil.
The snake boat race or Vallam Kali is another event, which has become closely associated with Onam. Traditionally Chundan Vallam or the Kerala Snake Boats are used in this race. Each boat is rowed by one hundred rowers and people turn up in thousands to watch this grand show.
The tradition of buying and wearing new clothes during Onam is known as Onakkodi. Generally, the head of the family gifts new clothes to the family members, which is worn on Thiruvonam. In general Keralite women prefer white or pastel colors; but for Onam they generally buy bright colored sarees with intricate zari deigns. The dhoti and the utthariyeem bought for men also have zari work.
Onatthappan/Onathappan signifies the worship of Lord Vishnu as Vamana Avatar. It is also a means by which homage is paid to Mahabali, who was also an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu.
Onakkalikal is the collective names for various games played during and after the Onam festival. It includes both outdoor and indoor games. Among the former, we can mention a ball game called Talappanthukali and also a variation of Kabaddi called Kutukutu. Combats such as Kayyankali and Attakalam are also very popular and so is the game of archery called Ambeyyal.
The Ten Days of Celebration
Onam is celebrated over ten days and each day has a particular name. Atham is the first day of the festival; it is believed that on this day Mahabali sets on his yearly journey to the earth. To commemorate it, a colorful procession is taken out from Thrippunithura, a suburb of Kochi. People also visit temples and start putting pookkalam, to which fresh layers are applied on subsequent days.
The second day is known as Chithira. On this day, people start cleaning the house. Shopping for new clothes start from Chodhi, the third day. The fourth day Vishaka marks the start of competitions. The snake boat race is generally kicked off on the fifth day or the Anizham.
By Thriketa, the sixth day, schools begin to close down and people start heading for their native villages. However, the official Onam celebration starts from Moolam, which is the seventh day.
Poorada or the eighth day starts with a religious note. Statues of Mahabali and Vaman are bathed, taken around the house and finally placed on pookkalam. From this day onwards, the Vamana statue is called Onathappan. The ninth day is called Uthradom or the Onam eve.
The tenth day, Thiru-Onam / Thiruvonam, is most significant day of the festival. Known as Second Onam, this is the day of Mahabali’s banishment to patala and his yearly visit to the earth. On this day, special pujas are held in temples and homes, alms are given to the poor, new clothes are distributed among family members and the Onam Sadya is held. Afterwards, people engage in Onakkalikal.
Post Onam Celebrations
The two days following Thiruvonam are celebrated as Third and Fourth Onam. The third Onam, called Avvittom, marks the preparations for Mahabali's return to patala. On this day, Onathappan is immersed in nearby rivers or sea. The next day is Chatayam. This marks the end of official celebration, mega dance festival is held on this day in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram.
Onam 2017: September 4 (Monday)
Onam 2018: August 24 (Friday)
Onam 2019: September 11 (Wednesday)