For 10 days in the month of Chingam, the state of Kerala on the southern tip of India decks up like a bride to welcome a legendary king who once ruled this lush and verdant land that is described as ‘God’s own country’. The occasion is Onam – the 10-day harvest festival of Kerala. It is also the official state festival.
Onam is literally a feast for the senses. The beautiful Pookkalams (floral carpets), the exciting snake boat races, the enchanting art forms, both classical and folk, the parades, floats, fireworks, martial arts, games, and the sumptuous Ona Sadya.…Onam is all this and a lot more.
Onam marks the beginning of the harvest season and the end of the monsoon. It occurs in Chinga Masam, which is the first month of the Malayalam calendar and signifies the New year of Kerala.
People come from all over the country and even abroad to witness this colorful festival that showcases Kerala at its best.
History of Onam
The history of Onam has links to mythology. It is associated with Vishnu’s Vamana avatar and the Asura King Mahabali, who once ruled this land.
Mahabali’s reign was a golden era for the people of Kerala. He was a generous and just king and was very popular. There was no poverty or inequality under his rule. However, the Gods feared that Mahabali would soon turn his eye heavenward and try to conquer them. So, Vishnu took the form of Vamana, a dwarf Brahmin called Vamana. Mahabali was in the midst of performing an important Yagna when Vamana appeared before him as an indigent Brahmin and asked for 3 paces of land. The generous king agreed. At this point, Sage Shukracharya, the preceptor of the Asuras, smelt a rat and warned Mahabali not to grant Vamana’s request. But Mahabali refused as it would have meant a loss of face, and besides, he felt that he had nothing to fear from a poor Brahmin.
But, as soon as the wish was granted, the dwarf Brahmin assumed gigantic proportions. He took 2 steps and covered Heaven and Earth. When he asked Mahabali where he should keep his foot next, the king offered his own head and was promptly pushed down into Patala, the underworld. But Vishnu granted the Asura king one concession – he could return to earth and visit his subjects once a year. Onam festival marks the exiled King Mahabali’s return to his erstwhile kingdom.
Significance of Onam
Onam is many things rolled into one in its present avatar. It is a harvest festival, it commemorates Mahabali’s return, it is a cultural feast, and it is also the biggest tourist attraction the state has to offer. Little wonder then, that the government adopted Onam as its official state festival and went all out to market it as the best time to visit Kerala.
But beyond the pomp and pageantry of Onam lies a heartwarming message of unity and harmony. During Onam, all Malayalis forget their caste and creed and come together as one to celebrate in a throwback to the times of Mahabali, when all were treated equally.
Each Onam day features certain rituals.
Day 1 – Atham
Atham is the first day of Onam. Keralites begin the day with a morning bath, offer prayers, and make Pookkalam to welcome Mahabali. On Atham day, they create simple designs using only yellow flowers.
Day 2 – Chithira
On Chithira day, people clean the house. They add more layers of flowers to the Pookkalam, usually orange and yellow flowers. Along with this, they make an earthen mound to represent Mahabali (some claim it is Vamana) and place it in the courtyard or a public space.
Day 3 – Chothi
On this day, another layer of flowers is added to the Pookalam. It is also a day for shopping, as Keralites buy new clothes and ornaments for Onam. Shops will be teeming with crowds on this day. People buy traditional dresses like Kasavu Sari, Mundu, and Pattu Pavada.
Day 4- Vishakam
Vishakam is the day to begin preparations for the Ona Sadhya, a delicious vegetarian spread consisting of 13 -30 traditional vegetarian dishes served on a banana leaf. They include dal, rasam, sambar, pulisseri, aviyal, thoran, olan, kaalan, kootu curry, erisseri, upperi, inji curry, pachadi, kondattam, pappadam, 3 types of payasam, etc. Everyone in the household helps to prepare the feast.
Day 5 – Anizham
On Anizham day, snake boat races called Vallamkali take place on the Pampa River. People come from all parts of Kerala and cheer for their team. The Aranmula Uthrattathi Boat Race and Nehru Trophy Boat Race are some of the famous boat races.
Day 6 – Thrikketta
On this day, more layers of flowers are added to the Pookkalam, and people give gifts to their loved ones. Malayalis who live in places or even abroad return to their ancestral homes on this day.
Day 7 – Moolam
On Moolam day, Hindu temples begin to serve Ona Sadya. People also make a smaller version of the Sadya in their homes. They visit relatives, friends, and neighbors and exchange greetings. Traditional dances like Pulikkali take place on this day.
Day 8 – Pooradam
On this day, people buy small idols of Mahabali and Vamana and bring them home. They place the idols in the middle of the Pookalam design. The idol of Mahabali is then called Onathappan.
Day 9 – Uthradam
On the day of Uthradam, the preparations will be at their peak. It is believed that Mahabali arrives in Kerala on this day. The house is cleaned thoroughly. People also shop for fresh vegetables for the next day’s grand feast.
Day 10 – Thiruvonam
Thiruvonam is the last day of Onam. On this day, rice flour is added to the Pookkalam, which is a traditional welcome sign. By this time, the Pookkalam will have many layers. People enjoy the Ona Sadya, and in the evening, they enjoy the illuminations and fireworks. There will also be many cultural programs like music, dance, games, etc.
On the 11th and 12th days, too, there are some rituals. These days are called Avittom and Chathayam, respectively. But the main events of the Onam festival conclude on the 10th day of Thiruvonam, which is also the most important.