Regarded as God’s own country, the beautiful state of Kerala is a tourist paradise. There is a diverse range of festivals that have their distinct fragrance and music. Celebrated with much pomp and fervour, the Onam festival of Kerala is the most popular and official festival of the state. Onam-Kerala bids adieu to the monsoon and welcomes the harvest season, especially the Rice harvest.
Onam-Kerala is celebrated annually in August-September, on the first month of the Malayalam calendar called Chingam. It is also known as “Thiruonam” or “Sravanmahotsav”. The harvest festivals are meant to please the Gods and Goddesses of agriculture and pray for household opulence.
The word “Onam” comes from the Sanskrit word “Shravanam”, which means one of the 27 Nakshatras or constellations. Thiruvonam is believed to be Lord Vishnu’s Nakshatra. Onam marks the Malayalee New Year.
The famous Onam story has been articulated in-depth in the sacred “Bhagwat Purana”. Mahabali was the great-grandson of Hiranyakashyapa and grandson of Vishnu devotee Prahlada. Though he was a demon-king, he was generous, virtuous, an indiscriminate ruler and Kerala gained prosperity and joy during his reign.
Even the Gods in heaven were insecure about his fame. Out of the fear of threat to their adulation, the Gods went to Lord Vishnu for help. As the demon king was an ardent worshipper of Lord Vishnu, Lord Vishnu refused to fight with him, nonetheless, he decided to test the king’s virtue and devotion at an opportune moment.
Once the King Mahabali was carrying out a Yagna (fire sacrifice) and took an oath that he shall fulfil the desire of anyone who demands anything during the yagna. In the middle of the yagna, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf Brahmin priest and came there. This was the Vamana- Avatar of Lord Vishnu.
The Lord Vamana asked the king to give so much land that covers three paces to which Mahabali agreed. The first two steps of Vamana covered the earth and sky. Seeing the Brahmin grow enormously, the demon-king realized that he is Lord Vishnu and was pleased. For Vamana’s third step, the king offered his head which led him to PatalLok (the world underneath).
Impressed by the king, Lord Vishnu blessed him with immortality and granted a boon that he would be able to revisit his homeland, kingdom and people annually. It is said that the great king was sent to the underworld by Vishnu (or Vamana), but was given an allowance to visit his people once a year, hence Onam.
Hence, Onam-Kerala has celebrated to commemorate the arrival of the Asura-king Mahabali. Earlier during the Sangam period, Onam celebrations used to continue for a month. The Kerala government made it an official holiday in the 1960s. Thrikkakkara, an area in Kochi, is particularly significant during the festival because of its temple.
There is an alternate interesting legend behind the Onam festival of Kerala. According to it, Lord Vishnu was upset with the kings and the warrior class due to their arrogance. So Lord Vishnu incarnated as “Parashurama” or “Rama with an Axe”, also known as Rama Jamadagyna.
A king named Kaartivirya persecuted and oppressed the people, sages and Gods. One day he came to the hermitage of Parshurama and his mother Renuka. While Parshurama was away, the king took away the calf of their cow without their permission. When Parshurama returned, he was enraged by the injustice of the king and thus, called him to war.
He killed the King and all his oppressive warriors. In the end, he threw the axe, and wherever it fell, the sea retreated, creating the land of Kerala and other coastal western parts of the Indian subcontinent. As per another version, a mini-Himalayan-like mountain range was created with Parshurama’s axe and he brought Namboodiri Brahmins to Southwest India. In this way, the Onam festival celebrates the creation of Kerala by marking those days as New year.
Also known as “Tripunithura Athachamayam”, it is the first day of Onam celebrated with grandeur and zeal. It is regarded as the day when King Mahabali starts preparations to head towards the earth. People begin to design beautiful Pookalam (only with yellow flowers) in front of their houses and temples.
Pookalam is a form of rangoli specifically dedicated to Onam, the size of which increases with each day of the Onam festival by adding a layer. Usually, men gather flowers for women and also arrange them. The various floral patterns and elements used are considered to be auspicious. Several Pookalam competitions are held on Onam throughout Kerala. It feels as if a carpet of flowers is placed whereby you don’t wish to step on it.
On the 2nd day, the house cleaning commences. The planning for the main day of Onam probably commences on this day.
From this day onwards, markets are overloaded with people shopping their hearts out. Abundant clothes and accessories are sold.
Throughout Kerala, a line-up of competition commences from this day. Also, the Malayali ladyfolk begins with certain items of the sumptuous cuisine Onam-Sadya. Some of them start with their toothsome pickle preparations.
There arrives the fifth day full of entertainment. A majestic and traditional Snake Boat race event takes place which is popularly known as Vallamkali in many parts of Kerala such as on the banks of River Pampa at Aranmulla. The Nehru Trophy Boat race and Uthrattathi Boat race are the major crowd pullers.
River Pampa is considered to be sacred equivalent to River Ganga.
The exquisite snake boats are called as “Chundanvallams” and are 100 to 120 feet long. These races date back to 400 years whereby the Kings of diverse regions used to battle with each other in boats. Once King Devnarayana suffered heavy losses and to seek revenge the special Snake-like canoe was architected.
Hundreds of oarsmen along with helmspersons accommodate the massive and festooned boat. There is a cut-throat competition whereby the team who reaches first while singing VanchiPattu (song of the boat), wins the coveted trophy. There are other men in the boat who motivate the oarsmen by singing songs and playing traditional percussion instruments. After winning, the rowers are fed a feast called Vallasadhya.
Rowing of the boats at the rhythm of the songs and music makes the event thrilling and captivating. Lakhs of people, including tourists, witness this resplendent event. Photographers keep on clicking continuously with drones flying over the backwaters so that no visual is missed out of this marvellous race. This race driven by a sense of competition invigorates exhilaration via sensation to the culture of the ‘Onam-Kerala festival’.
By the 6th day of the Onam festival, Schools start closing and people devote all their time to the Onam celebrations. People travel to their ancestral homes in order to enjoy the revered fest with their dear ones. Gifts are exchanged among family and friends.
By this day, the state is divinely adorned and is a treat to the eyes. Shops become overfull with flowers and goods. Various Hindu temples also start serving the traditional Onam-Sadya. Pookalam is made in a new design with Kondattam (gaiety) accompanied with most lovely flowers. A medley of dance performances related to the Onam festival including Puli Kali takes on the 7th day.
Pulikali is a tiger dance which is also known as Kaduvakali. It is a common sight during the Onam festival. The performers are painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black and they dance to the beats of instruments like Chenda and Thakil. This folk art is primely performed in the cultural district of Thrissur and thousand pour into the city to be a part of this enthusiastic art.
Splendid dance forms are performed such as Thiruvathira kali (women dancing in a circle around a lamp), Kummattikali (colourful-mask dance), Onam Kali (around a pole or tree or lamp, players dance and sing songs derived from the Ramayana and other epics) and Kathakali (dancers enacting famous mythological legends).
Small idols of the Vamana and King Mahabali are installed in the middle of the vivid pookalam to which many layers have been added by now. King Mahabali is invited and greeted. Now the figurine will be called the onathappan. This day is also called Pooradauttigal
As per mythology, the king Mahabalitours his kingdom and blesses the people this day. Being considered as First Onam, the 9th day is a declared holiday in Kerala. People buy fresh vegies and cook the gala traditional meal and welcome the spirit of the King.
The public holiday starts 4 days from Uthradom.
Finally, on the 10th day, the Onam festival is at the apex, it is the main day. It is also known as Sacred Onam Day or the Second Onam. Celebrations start in the early morning itself with people getting dressed, cleaning and decorating the houses, placing a rice water mix at the entrance on this auspicious day, visiting temples to offer prayers, making or attending the grand Thiruona-Sadya and distributing gifts to friends and relatives.
Aranmula temple rituals are overseen by the patriarch of a renowned Brahmin family. Though the major chunk of the cultural extravaganza ends by Thiruonam, 2 more days are added to the joy – Third Onam and Fourth Onam. The Third Onam is also known as “Avittom”. The Post Onam celebrations mark the departure of King Mahabali to heaven.
In some parts of Kerala, multiple games and dances are held post-Thiruonam, known as “Onakkalikal”. These comprise of ox races, food-eating and pookalam competitions, etc. The important ritual is to immerse the Onathappan Statue which was earlier placed in the middle of the magnificent pookalam. The Pookalam is also cleaned and removed.
The word “Sadhya” means “banquet” in Malayalam and as the name goes, Onam-Sadya is a complete diet full of nutrients, vitamins, proteins and lip-smacking taste. It is feast originated from Kerala which is composed of 13 to 30 traditional vegetarian dishes. This nine-course meal is mostly served on the banana leaf. Though it is usually offered as lunch a lighter version may be made for dinner.
Some typical items of this lavish food include rice (parboiled brown rice), Parippu, Sambar (one which goes with idlis), Kottukari, Pachadi (similar to Raita), sweet pachadi (known as Madhura curry), Kaalan, Thoran, Papad, Plantain (banana) chips and so on along with several accompaniments to add to the overall flavour and joy of eating.
To make it complete, special desserts namely Prathaman and Payasam are available for the ones with sweet-tooth to relish. The Payasam has cow milk while Prathaman has coconut milk that makes them apart.
South-Indian food including Sadhya is considered to be the healthiest cuisines as it is a blend of eating habits from Sanatana Dharma, seasonal cooking and nutritional values. First of all, it is served in a Pankti i.e. where people sit on the floor in a line. This not only increases social interaction but also aids in proper digestion, promotes blood flow and improves the flexibility of your body.
The main item of Onam sadya is the rice which itself is a powerhouse loaded with fibre, protein and selenium. The red rice is a solid source of carbohydrates, the controlled consumption of which reduces the risk of diabetes. The Kootu curry made of chickpeas is perfect for the diabetics.
As Sambar is a melting pot of all sorts of vegetables, it is healthier like nothing. The rasam that is a common accompaniment, has several herbs, spices and ingredients which ensure smooth metabolism and cures nausea by detoxing the body. It is rich in iron and calcium.
Majority of the dishes are cooked in coconut oil that has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties to boost the immune system. Asafoetida is also used in cooking which further is beneficial to treat intestinal troubles, respiratory problems and headaches.
Apart from the health advantages, the disciplined practice of eating with hands benefits us immensely in every possible way. The fingertips connect with the heart and the motion and touch activate all the chakras of our body. Eating on a banana leaf is a cherry on the cake in the holy and scientific way both.
The food absorbs the anti-oxidants present in the leaf. It is rich in antibacterial properties, vitamin A, calcium and carotene. Local custom says that closing the leaf towards self at the end communicates satisfaction with the meal.
Thus, Onam-Sadya is undoubtedly a balanced and healthy meal to savour during the festive mood. There are a plethora of guilt-free dishes to binge while working for weight-loss. The significance of the feast is captured in the famous Malayalam proverb which says that one must have the Onam lunch even by selling one’s property if need be!
At Thrikkakara Temple, about 10,000 people attend Onasadya fest on the last two days of the Onam festival.
Explore other colourful and lively festivals of our country
The vivid 10-day celebration gives a glimpse of the unique culture of Kerala. It gives a golden opportunity to present dynamic creativity in decorations and cooking. The adventurous water carnival, the outstanding pookalam designs, the temptingly tasty Onasadya.
The people decked in typical traditional outfits, the sound of the folk-instruments and the cheering crowds of tourists and people fill the air with vigour, excitement, togetherness and aesthetic feelings. The land of tall palms and calm backwaters turn into a riot of colours. Onam festival is a rare festivity to maintain your health while gaging upon scrumptious items.