Onam is the festival that all Malayalis look forward to every year. It is the official festival of Kerala state, which lies at the southernmost tip of India. Onam festival is celebrated over 10 days, and the last day is Thiruvonam, the most important day of the festival. It is a harvest festival as well as a tribute to an ancient and benevolent ruler, King Mahabali, who once ruled this verdant land. Every year, during Onam, Mahabali supposedly leaves his abode, Patala (the underworld), to visit his erstwhile kingdom and inquire about the well-being of his subjects. The day he lands in Kerala is Thiruvonam day. The 10 days of Onam in order are Atham, Chithira, Chothi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketta, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradam, and Thiruvonam.
Who was Mahabali?
Mahabali was an Asura king who was the grandson of Prahlada, for whom Lord Vishnu took the Narasimha avatar, as per Hindu mythology. Though most people think that all Asuras were bad, this does not seem to be the case with Mahabali. He was a very capable and generous king for whom the welfare of his subjects was paramount. During his reign, the kingdom experience peace and prosperity. All people were treated equally, so there was complete harmony. Mahabali’s power grew, and he soon came to rule the 3 worlds.
The gods, who had ruled heaven, decided to curb his power and recapture their territory. They sought Lord Vishnu’s help. Vishnu knew that Mahabali was a generous king who would not turn down a poor man’s request for help. So, he took the form of Vamana, a dwarf Brahmin, and appeared before him when he was conducting a yagna.
Seeing the dwarf Brahmin, Mahabali asked him what he wanted. Vamana replied that he wanted 3 paces of land. Shukracharya, the guru of the Asura clan, smelt a fish and suspected that Vamana was not who he pretended to be. Since the rivalry between the gods and the asuras was no secret, he felt that Vamana could be Lord Vishnu and that his intent was to trick Mahabali and divest him of his power or kill him. So he tried to warn Mahabali, but the latter did not heed him, as he was a devotee of Vishnu himself.
Once Mahabali agreed to his request, Vamana began growing in size and assumed gigantic proportions. In two steps, he covered earth and heaven. “There is no more land. Where should I keep my foot next?” he asked Mahabali. The king knelt down and bowed his head before him. “Keep it on my head,” he told Vamana. Vamana placed his foot on the king’s head and pushed him down into Patala. But, pleased with Mahabali’s act of surrender and devotion, he also blessed him. He also granted permission to Mahabali to visit his kingdom once a year to see his subjects. Mahabali’s return is celebrated as Onam.
Onam is a many-splendored festival. Here are the highlights of the Onam rituals or celebrations.
This event takes place on the first day of Onam, and it is a grand spectacle. The main feature is a street parade which includes different art forms, musicians, dancers, floats, and caparisoned elephants.
These floral rangolis start making their appearance on the first day of Onam, which is Atham. Initially, the designs are small, but with each day, it becomes more intricate as more layers of flowers are added. Every house sports a Pookkalam, and the entire family comes together to make it. Pookkalam competitions also take place in schools, colleges, workplaces, etc.
Snake Boat Races
Vallamkali or Snake Boat race is the most anticipated event during Onam, and it is also a major tourist attraction. The boats are called Chundan Vallams. Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru was so impressed by it that he instituted a trophy for the races. This is the Nehru trophy boat race, held on the Punnamada backwaters in Alleppey. The curled ends of the boats resemble cobra hoods, hence the name. The boats are meticulously crafted by skilled craftsmen. The boat is regarded as a deity and has great emotional value to the villagers. Only men can touch the boat, and that too with bare feet. Each boat is owned by individual villages lying near the Pamba river. The race takes place on a stretch of 40 km from the hills to the low-lying plains on the 5th day of Onam. Traditional songs called Vanchipattu are sung in tune with the rhythm produced by the splashing sound made by the boats. Each boat has 150 men. Four are helmsmen, 25 men form the singers, and 125 are the actual oarsmen.
Pulikkali and Kummattikkali
Pulikali (Tiger Dance) is a folk art form of Kerala. On the 4th day of Onam, the performers of this dance paint their bodies like tigers and dance to the rhythm of musical instruments like thakil, udukku, and chenda. The carnival takes place on Swaraj Ground in Thrissur district. Locals and visitors alike join the revelry. The main theme of the dance is a tiger hunt. Participants play the roles of tiger and hunter.
In Kummattikkali, the performers wear masks and wear skirts made of plaited grass. It is more common in places like Thrissur, Palakkad, and parts of south Malabar. The colorful wooden masks represent characters from the Hindu scriptures and epics. The dancers play the roles of Kali, Shiva, Krishna, Sage Narada, Kiratha, Darika, hunters, etc. The name of the dance comes from the long sticks of agricultural residue they hold in their hands. It is called Kummattikkali.
This is a martial art form of Kerala, similar to wrestling. It is also called Avittathallu and Kayyamkali. It emerged in Pallassana, a hamlet in Palakkad.
Ona Sadya is an elaborate feast like a banquet. Everyone in the family helps with the preparations. It includes 26 different vegetarian dishes like aviyal, dal, olan, kaalan, pachadi, injicurry, mango curry, naranga curry, thoran, mezhukkupuratti, upperi, pappadam, sharkkaravaratti, erissheri, pulissheri, rasam, sambar, koottucurry, three types of payasam, etc. The dishes are served on a banana leaf laid on the floor. It is truly a royal feast.
Many cultural events that showcase the music and dances of Kerala are also organized. They include performances of Kathakali, Theyyam, Mohiniattom, Kaikottikkali, Thiruvathirakkali, Thumbi Thullal, etc. Food fairs that showcase the variety of Kerala cuisine are also part of the festival. Many games are also part of the events. On the last day, groups of people take part in 'Vadam vali' or tug-of-war games.