Onam – The Festival of Kerala

Onam is the major annual festival celebrated in Kerala, India, or by Malayali people all over the world. This is a special festival because it is not religion biased and is celebrated by all Keralites. The date of Onam can fall either in August or September (Gregorian calendar). It should fall on the 22nd lunar station – nakshatra (Thiruvonam Or Shravana) which is that segment of the ecliptic through which the Moon elapses in its orbit around the Earth. Also, it’s reflected upon the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam.

onam rangoli

The festivities of Onam are dedicated to King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala during Onam. It starts with Uthradom (Onam eve) and continues to up to 4 days expanding to around 30 regions of Thiruvananthapuram in India. Since it is the official state festival of Kerala, the government offers 4 days holiday for the celebration. As it is celebrated by almost everyone in Kerala, the festival is more of a cultural event rather than a religious one. The festivities are also observed in countries like France, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and UAE. 

Significance of Onam

Onam is a harvest festival that is significant to the harvest of rice. Two other harvest specific festivals of South are – Vishu, which signifies the completion of the spring equinox, and Thiruvathira, which includes fasting for 10 days. Being an ancient festival Onam has some very interesting legends attached to it. After the monsoon finally ends the regions of Southern India welcome the fresh harvest with colorful charms, decorations, and tasty delicacies. The celebrations are an important part of this festival as it brings together all the religions. It illuminates harmony and removes religious disparities among people. Onam commemorates the sacrifice of Mahabali which he did proving his devotion towards Lord Mahabali. 

History of Onam

The history associated with Onam can be derived from numerous legends. The most popular are two among which the first one tells us about how King Mahabali is believed to visit every year, the lands which he previously ruled. According to Hindu mythology, Mahabali or Bali was the son of Virochana and the grandson of Prahlada. Very similar to his grandfather, Prahlada, Mahabali was also a true devotee of Lord Vishnu. Prahlada belonged to a cruel dictator father, Hiranyakashipu, who hated Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu utmost hatred towards Lord Vishnu made him attack his own son, Prahlada. Since Prahlada was an honest being, Lord Vishnu saved him taking the ‘Narsimha avatar (part lion-part human). 

Although a true devotee of Vishnu, Mahabali gained success and power by defeating the Gods (devas). After the devas were devastated, they approached Lord Vishnu for help but he denied as he could not attack his forthright devotee. Mahabali was also a good ruler and this lead to his victory overall being. After being victorious he decided to arrange a yajna (sacrificing ritual) during which he promised to provide anything a person would ask. Seeking this opportunity, Vishnu came to his yajna as a dwarf monk (Vamana) which is also said to be his fifth avatar. He then tricked the King and asked for the land which he can cover within three feet. After he was granted his wish, Vamana instantly grew enormously in size and cover the whole area Mahabali ruled in just 2 feet. Mahabali kept his promise and sacrificed his head as part of the 3rd feet. Vishnu accepted this sacrifice and gave him the boon, by which he could visit once every year, the lands and the people he had previously ruled.

Another legend describes the tale of Parshuram who was the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu. The Parshuram legend speaks about a King Kaartavirya who tortured and oppressed people, sages, and Gods. Once he visited the hermitage of Parshuram when her mother Renuka was alone. Without taking her permission, the greedy King took their calf and left. When Parshuram came to know this he called the King to have a fight against the injustice he has done. The King along with his oppressive warriors was killed and finally, Parshuram threw away his axe towards the sea which retreated its path. The place where his axe fell became the lands of Kerala and other western or coastal parts of the Indian subcontinent. 


Onam Celebration

The celebrations of Onam consistes of around 6 main events. 

  1. Tripunithura Athachamayam: This event marks the beginning of Onam and is celebrated with great awaited excitements. The inaugural ceremonies are filled with beautiful decorations and street parades that are filled with different art forms of Kerala (music, dance, adorned elephants). 
  2. Pookalam: Also known as Athapookalam or Onapookalam, Pookalam is the beautiful flower rangoli which people make to decorate their house entrances during Onam. This floral decoration is a vital part and is considered very pious as each of its rings denotes a deity (10 rings for 10 deities). 
  3. Pulikali: The play or dance of the tiger defines the Pulikali event. This event was started by the King of Kochi as an act of manliness during which people dress or color themselves like a tiger and dance or perform on traditional music. 
  4. Vallamkali: Vallamkali is the popular boat race that takes place in Kerala. It the famous Aranmula Uthrattathi boat race and Nehru Trophy Boat race, both of which are held over the Pampa river. It is the most thrilling event and is known worldwide. 
  5. Onam Sadya: Onasadya or the ‘Onam Feast’ is a grand food feast that consists of a 9-course meal severed over banana leaves. The feast includes around 13 traditional dishes and is ate between 10 am to 5 pm subsequently. 
  6. Folk Dances: Like many Indian festivals Onam is also incomplete without the zeal of incredible dancing which reflects the peak of festivities. People bond and enjoy a lot during the Kaikottikali which is a clap dance form. Another dance – Thumbi Thualli is performed by women in circles.

As a whole Onam is the most significant festival and brings together everyone which is the essence of its celebration. 

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