Onam is a festival celebrated by the people of Kerala, India. It is also the Harvest festival of Kerala with State holidays on 4 days starting from Onam Eve (Uthradom) to the 4rd Onam Day. Onam Festival falls during the Malayalam month of Chingam (Aug – Sep) and marks the commemoration of Vamana avatara of Vishnu and the subsequent homecoming of mythical King Mahabali. Onam is reminiscent of Kerala’s agrarian past, as it is considered to be a harvest festival.
The festival falls during the Malayalam month of Chingam (Aug – Sep) and marks the homecoming of the mythical King Mahabali who Malayalees consider as their King. In Kerala, it is the festival celebrated with most number of cultural elements such as Vallam Kali, Pulikkali, Pookkalam, Onatthappan, Thumbi Thullal, Onavillu, Kazhchakkula, Atthachamayam etc.
Onam is an ancient festival which still survives in modern times. Kerala’s rice harvest festival and the Festival of Rain Flowers, which fall on the Malayalam month of Chingam, celebrates the Asura King Mahabali’s annual visit from Patala (the underworld).
Onam is unique since Mahabali has been revered by the people of Kerala since prehistory.The King is so much attached to his kingdom that it is believed that he comes annually from the nether world to see his people living happily. It is in honour of King Mahabali that Onam is celebrated.
The deity Vamana, also called Onatthappan, is also revered during this time by installing a clay figure next to the floral carpet (Pookalam).
The birthday of Sri Padmanabhan, the presiding Deity of Thiruvananthapuram, is on the Thiruvonam day in the month of Chingam.
Mahabali’s rule is considered the golden era of Kerala. The following song is often sung over Onam:
Maveli nadu vaneedum kalam,
amodhathode vasikkum kalam
kallavum illa chathiyumilla
When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people were equal.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Deaths of children were unheard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbor.
When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless races
The beauty of the festival lies in its secular fabric. People of all religions, castes and communities celebrate the festival with equal joy and verve. Onam also helps to create an atmosphere of peace and brotherhood by way of various team sports organised on the day.
Rituals and activities
Onam comes in the month of Chingam which is the first month according to the Malayalam Calendar. The celebrations begin within a fortnight of the Malayalam New Year and go on for ten days. All over the state of Kerala, festive rituals, traditional cuisine, dance, and music mark this harvest festival. The ten day Onam festival is considered to be flagged off with Atthachamayam (Royal Parade on Atham Day) in Thripunithara (a suburb of Kochi City).
The parade is colourful and depicts all the elements of Kerala culture with more than 50 floats and 100 tableaux. The main center of festival is at Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple within Kochi City, believed to be the ancient capital of King Mahabali. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vamana and is directly linked to the mythological background of Onam.
The ten days of Onam are celebrated with great fanfare, by Malayalees. Of all these days, most important ones are the first day, Atham, and the tenth and final day, Thiru-Onam (Thiruvonam). The rich cultural heritage of Kerala comes out in its best form and spirit during the festival.
The floral carpet, known as ‘Onapookkalam’, is made out of the gathered blossoms with several varieties of flowers of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to serve the decorator’s purpose. It is considered a work of art accomplished with a delicate touch and a highly artistic sense of tone and blending. (In a similar manner North Indians make something called “Rangoli” which is made of powders of various colors.) When completed, a miniature pandal, hung with little festoons is erected over it.
Traditionally, Atthapookalams (pookalam made on the Atham day) included flowers endemic to Kerala and the Dashapushpam (10-flowers), but nowadays all varieties of flowers are used. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vamana are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house along with the Pookalam, and beautifully decorated with flowers. In the recent years, the floral designs have evolved from the traditional circular shape to unique designs depicting different cultural and social aspects of Kerala life. All over Kerala, Pookalam competitions are a common sight on Onam day.
Onam Sadya (feast)
The Onam sadya (feast) is another very indispensable part of Thiruvonam , and almost every Keralite attempts to either make or attend one. The feast is served on plantain leaves and have more than 13 to 15 curries, along with traditional pickles, papadam and a dessert called ‘payasam’ (a sweet dish made of milk, sugar, jaggery and other traditional Indian savories). In hotels and temples, the number of curries and dishes may go up to 30. The importance of the feast to the Kerala’s Onam celebration culture is captured in the famous Malayalam proverb “Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam” which means “One must have the Onam lunch even one is forced to sell his property”.
Music and Dance
Traditional dance forms including Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal etc. are performed as part of celebrations all over Kerala at this time. Thiruvathirakali is a women’s dance performed in a circle around a lamp.
Kummattikali is a famous and colorful-mask dance. In Thrissur, festivities includes a procession consisting of caparisoned elephants surrounded by Kummatikali dancers. The masked dancers go from house to house performing the colorful Kummattikali.
Kathakali dance is also commonly performed during this time, with dancers enacting famous mythological legends. A famous venue for this is at Valluvanad which is associated with the growth of Kathakali, and Cheruthuruthy, where Kerala Kalamandalam is located.
Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. This dance showcases performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, who dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and thakil.
At the Thrikkakara temple, every day of the festival showcases one or more of these activities including Kathakali, Thiruvathira, Chakyar koothu, Ottam thullal, Patakam, Onam songs and percussion intrument shows. The Onasadya here is grand in scale, and is attended by over ten thousand people from all religions and faiths.
The Vallamkali (the snake boat race) is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. About 100 oarsmen row huge and graceful snake boats and men and women come from far and near to watch the snake boats skim through the water.
The tradition of buying and wearing new clothes for the occasion of Onam is called the Onakkodi.
During the Onam, Keralite Hindus install an image of Thrikkakara Appan or Onatthappan (Vishnu in the form of Vamana) in their home just as Hindus install images or murtis of Lord Ganesh on the Ganesh Chaturthi festival.
Many lamps are lit in Hindu temples of Kerala during this celebration. A palmyra tree is erected in front of temples and surrounded with a wooden balustrade and covered with dry palmyra leaves. It is lit with a torch and burned to ashes to signify that King Mahabali went to Patala as a sacrifice.
The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappaatt, or Onam songs, and rock one another on swings slung from high branches.
In some parts of Kerala, people indulge in various games and dances during and post-Thiruvonam. These are known as Onakkalikal. These include competitions such as Ox races (Maramadimatsaram), Uriyady, food eating competitions, Pookalam competitions etc.
The Ten Days of Celebration
The celebrations of Onam start on Atham day, 10 days before Thiruvonam. The 10 days are part of the traditional Onam celebrations and each day has its own importance in various rituals and traditions.
1. Atham The first day of Onam Celebrations starts with Atham day in the Malayalam month of Chingam. It is believed that King Mahabali starts his preparations to descend from Pathala to Kerala on this day. The day also marks the start of festivities at Thrikkakara temple (considered as the abode of Mahabali). The Onam celebrations across the state, starts off with a grand procession at Thrippunithura near Kochi called Atthachamayam. In olden days, the Kochi Maharaja used to head a grand military procession in full ceremonial robes from his palace to the Thrikkakara temple. After independence, the public took over the function and celebrated as a major cultural procession which kicks off the official celebrations of Onam. Elephant processions, folk art presentations, music and dancing make Athachamyam a spectacular event which is now aggressively promoted as a tourist event. The traditional ritual of laying Pookalam (floral carpet) starts on Atham day. The size of pookkalam on this day is called as Athapoo and is small in size. This will grow in size day after day. Only yellow flowers will be used on this day and the design will be simple. Also,the statues of Mahabali and Vamana will be installed at the entrance of each house on this day.
2. Chithira The second day is marked off when a second layer is added to pookkalam design with 2 different colours apart from yellow (mostly orange and creamy yellow). On this day, people start cleaning the household to prepare for the Thiruvonam day.
3.Chodhi The third day of Onam Celebrations.The pookalam now will start growing in its size by adding new layers or designs with at least 4 to 5 different flowers. The day also marks the start of shopping activities. Onam is associated with gifting new clothes, hence from this day onwards people start buying new clothes and jewellery.
4.Vishakam The fourth day of Onam Celebrations.Vishakam is considered to be one of the most auspicious days of Onam. In olden days, the markets open their harvest sale on this day, making one of the busiest days in the markets for public. Today Vishakam marks the start of many Onam-related competitions like Pookalam competitions etc.
5.Anizham The fifth day of Onam Celebrations, Snake Boats get ready to race in the Aranmula Uthrattathi Vallamkali. Anizham is one of the most important day in the Onam days as it kicks off the great Vallam Kali (Snake boat) at many parts of Kerala. A mock Vallam Kali is conducted on this day at Aranmula as a dress-rehearsal for the famed Aranmula boat race which will be held after Onam.
6.Thriketa The sixth day of Onam Celebrations. By the sixth day, the public frenzy starts building up. Most of the schools and public offices give holiday from this day onwards and people start packing their bags to their native homes to celebrate the festival with their dear ones. The pookalam design will be very large by this time, with at least 5 to 6 new flowers types added to the original designs.
7.Moolam The seventh day of Onam Celebrations. On the seventh day, the smaller versions of traditional Ona Sadya (Onam special buffet lunch) start in many places. Most of the temples offers special sadhyas on from this day. Festivities include Puli Kali (Masked leopard dance) and traditional dance forms like Kaikotti Kali also performed in various functions. The official Government celebrations start on this day with heavy illuminations in Thiruvananthapuram City, Kochi city and Kozhikode along with fireworks.
8.Pooradam The eight day of Onam Celebrations. The day starts off with a major traditional ritual where the small statues of Mahabali and Vamana will be washed and cleaned and taken around the house in a procession. It will be later installed in the center of the pookkalam smeared with a rice-flour batter. The smearing is done by small children who are called Poorada unnikal. From this day onwards, the statue will be called Onathappan. The pookkalam design from Pooradam day onwards gets much bigger and complex in design. Shopping is one of the major activities as the public will be making final purchases for the great Thiruvonam day.
9.Uthradom The ninth day of Onam Celebrations. Uthradom is the ninth and the penultimate day of the festival of Onam. It is considered as Onam eve and celebrated in a very big way. The importance of this day is last minute extreme shopping frenzy called as Uthradappachil and is considered the most auspicious day for purchase of fresh vegetables and fruits along with other provisions from the Thiruvonam day.
Uthradam is known as ‘First Onam’ because it marks the day when King Mahabali descends onto Kerala. Traditional myths say that the king will spend the next four days touring his erstwhile kingdom and blessing the subjects. Due to this, Uthradom is celebrated in a very pompous manner with larger pookkalams and celebrations in all households. The Uthradom lunch is generally grand. Women normally cut the first set of vegetables on this day that marks the celebrations of Thiruvonam in each household and preparations for grand Thirvonam feast also start during the evening of Uthradom day.
10.Thiruvonam The tenth day of Onam Celebrations The final day of Onam that culminates the 10 days of Onam Carnival. The day is known as Thiru-Onam (Sacred Onam Day) also known as ‘Second Onam’. Myth says that this was the day Mahabali was sent to the netherworld ( Pathalam) by Vamana. The day marks the return of Mahabali to his fabled land (Kerala), as per the boon he received from Vamana to meet his subjects and bless them. Apart from this myth, this day is considered auspicious being birthdays of several temple deities like Vamana of Thrikkara temple, Sree Padmanabha Swamy of Thiruvananthapuram etc.
Activities begin early in the morning. People clean their house, apply rice flour batter on the main entrance (a traditional welcome sign), take an early bath, wear new clothes and distribute alms to needy. The eldest female member of each family presents clothes to all the members of the family. Special prayers and Masses are organized in temples, churches and mosques that highlight the secular nature of festival. The Pookkalam is prepared to welcome Mahabali.
Most cities in Kerala, such as the political, commercial and cultural capitals Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Thrissur, are lit up with lights and fabulous displays of fireworks. Sumptuous Onam Sadya feasts are prepared. The afternoon is marked with various traditional Onam games normally seen in rural areas and are organized by resident associations, clubs etc. in large cities. In some parts of Kerala, people indulge in various games and dances (Onakkalikal) during and post Thiruvonam. These include Thiruvathirakali, Kummattikali, Pulikali etc.
Post Onam celebrations
Normally Onam celebrations end by Thiruvonam. However two following days after Thiruvonam, are also celebrated as Third and Fourth Onam. The third Onam, called Avvittom marks the preparations for King Mahabali’s ascension to heavens. The main ritual of the day is to take the Onathappan statue which was placed in the middle of every Pookalam during the past 10 days and immerse it in nearby rivers or sea. The pookkalam will be cleaned and removed after this. The day is also important, as the famous Pulikali is held in the city of Thrissur. In this, men dressed as lions and tigers parade through the city in large numbers. The Puli-Kali also marks the end of traditional Onam celebrations. Fourth Onam is called as Chatayam. The official government celebrations ends on this day with a mega dance festival in the capital city- Thiruvananthapuram.
Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlada (son of Hiranyakashyapa who was slain by Vishnu in his Narasimha Avatara). Prahlad, despite being an Asura, had great faith in Vishnu. Mahabali learned the act of love and devotion to Lord Vishnu as a child, from Prahlada.