Onam (Malayalam: ഓണം) is the biggest festival celebrated in Kerala, India. The festival falls during the Malayalam month of Chingam (Aug – Sep) and marks the commemoration of home-coming of the mythical King Mahabali. In Kerala, it is the festival celebrated with most number of cultural elements such as Vallam Kali, Pulikali, Pookkalam, Onathappan, Tug of War, Thumbi Thullal, Kummati kali, Onathallu, Onavillu, Kazhchakkula, Onapottan.Atthachamayam etc. Onam is reminiscent of Kerala’s agrarian past, as it is considered to be a harvest festival.
Onam is an ancient festival which still survives in modern times. It’s one of the rarest festival which is celebrated by a complete state, irrespective of religion, caste and creed.Kerala’s rice harvest festival and the Festival of Rain Flowers, which fall on the month of Chingam, celebrates the Asura King Mahabali’s annual visit.
Onam is unique since Mahabali (locally known as Maveli) has been revered by the people of Kerala. 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 Thrikkakarappan 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 Thiruvonam day in the month of Chingam. Thiruonam day is the most important day of Onam.
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
The Ten Days of Onam Celebrations
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.
- 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 (netherworld) to Kerala on this day. The day also marks the start of festivities at Thrikkakara temple, which is considered as the focal center of Onam and the abode of Mahabali, with the raising of the festival flag.
- 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 pookkalam (floral carpet) starts on Atham day. The pookkalam on this day is called Athapoo, and it is relatively small in size. The size of the pookkalam grows in size progressively with each day of the Onam festival. Only yellow flowers will be used on Atham with only one circular layer made and the design is kept simple. Statues or figurines of Mahabali and Vamana are also installed at the entrance of each house on this day.
- Chithira The pookkalam design on the second day consists of a second layer added on top 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.
- Chodhi On the third day of Onam celebrations, the pookalam starts 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.
- 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. Nowadays, Vishakam marks the start of many Onam-related competitions such as Pookkalam competition.
- Anizham The fifth day of Onam celebrations is one of the most important days in the Onam celebration, as it kicks off the great Vallamkali (Snake boat race) in many parts of Kerala. The snake boats are prepared for participation in the boat race at Aranmula Uthrattathi Vallamkali. A mock Vallamkali is conducted on this day at Aranmula as a dress-rehearsal for the final boat race which will be held after Onam.
- Thriketa The sixth day of Onam celebrations. By the sixth day, the public frenzy starts building up. Most of the schools and public offices are granted holiday from this day onwards and people start packing their bags to their native homes to celebrate the festival with their dear ones. The pookkalam design will be very large by this time, with at least 5 to 6 new flowers types added to the original designs.
- Moolam The seventh day of Onam celebrations. On this day, the smaller versions of traditional Ona Sadya (Onam lunch feast) start in many places. Most of the temples offer special sadyas on from this day. Festivities include Puli Kali (masked leopard dance) and traditional dance forms like Kaikotti Kali which are performed in various functions. The official Government celebrations start on this day with heavy illuminations in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode along with fireworks.
- 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 (Lord of Onam). The pookkalam design from Pooradam day onwards gets much bigger and complex in design.
- The ninth day of Onam Celebrations. Uthradom is the ninth 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 Thiruvonam feast also start during the evening of Uthradom day.
- The tenth and final day of Onam celebrations 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 representing Vishnu, like Vamana of Thrikkakara 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.
- Sumptuous Onam Sadya feasts are prepared. In Thrikkakara temple, a mega-feast is conducted which is open to the public and is attended by more than twenty thousand people,The afternoon is marked with various traditional Onam games, usually seen in rural areas, and are organized by resident associations and clubs 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.
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 mostly found in 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. People start putting atha-pookalams from Atham ( First day of 10-day festival ) till thiruvonam, while only some put Onam Pookalams till the 28th day after thiruvonam.
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 consists of about 26 dishes, including (but not limited to)
Dishes for Onamsadya
- Jaggery chips
- Banana chips
- Ginger pickle
- Mango pickle (preferably kadumanga achar)
- Lemon pickle
- Inji puli / Puli inji
- Moongdal / Parippu curry
- Kumbalanga Pulissery / Mambazha Kalan
- Sambharam / Buttermilk
- Ada pradhaman
- Pal payasam
In hotels and temples, the number of curries and dishes may go up to 30.
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, and is given special importance during Onam.
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 Chenda and thakil.
Performances of the ritual worship dance Theyyam are given during the Onam season. In this, Mahabali is played by the Onathar. Its variations include characters such as Oneswaran and Onapottan.
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 instrument 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 Uthrattadhi 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.
Wishing you all a happy and prosperous onam…