Onam is the most famous festival of Kerala, India. Even though Onam is a Hindu festival Onam is celebrated by all religions and caste throughout Kerala and outside Kerala wherever Malayali’s are there.
Basically Onam is a Hindu harvest festival which falls in the month of Chingam (the first month) according to the Malayalam calendar which in Gregorian calendar and it normally comes in the August–September months. It is the New Year day for Keralite. Onam is the official state festival of Kerala with public holidays that start four days from Onam Eve (Uthradom)
It marks the summer harvest and is celebrated with numerous activities. Onam is a 10 day festival starting from the Atham day to the Thiruonam day. The ten days are sequentially known as Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradom and Thiruvonam. The Thiruonam day is the most important of all. Each day has diverse range of celebrations and activities. Men and women wear traditional dress. The Kerala sari or Kasavu sari is particularly popular.
A huge range of activities take place across the state for over two weeks. It includes Vallam Kali (boat races), Pulikali (tiger dances), Pookkalam (flower arrangement), Onathappan (worship), Onam Kali, Tug of War, Thumbi Thullal (women’s dance), Kummati kali (mask dance), Onathallu (martial arts), Onavillu (music), Kazhchakkula (plantain offerings), Onapottan (costumes), Atthachamayam (folk songs and dance), and other celebrations, and the most important the Onam Sadhya, the grand feast.
According to the Hindu mythology, Mahabali was the great great grandson of Asura King Hiranyakashipu and grandson of Prahlada. Hiranyakashipu hated lord Vishnu while Prahlada despite being and Asura worshipped Vishnu. So Hiranyakashipu tries to kill his son Prahlada bur Mahavishnu kills Hiranyakashipu in his Narasimha avatar.
Prahlada’s grandson Mahabali came to power by defeating the gods (Devas), and taking over the three worlds. Mahabali was a good ruler and during the rule of Mahabali Kerala witnessed its golden era. Everybody in the state was happy and prosperous and king was highly regarded by his subjects. Mahabali, after his victory over the gods, declared that he will perform Yajna (homa sacrifices) and grant anyone any request during the Yajna.
Meanwhile the defeated Devas approached Vishnu for help in their battle with Mahabali. Vishnu took the avatar of a dwarf boy called Vamana and approached Mahabali. The king offered anything to the boy but the boy only needed land that measures “three paces”. Mahabali agreed. Guru Shukracharya, Bali’s teacher instantly realised that the Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself and advised Bali not to grant this request, but Mahabali already agreed and could not go back on his word, and warmly asked Vamana to measure out his required amount of land.
Vamana immediately grew to gigantic size and measured out heaven and earth with the first two steps and asked Mahabali where to place his third feet. Mahabali immediately bowed and offered his own head, as that was all he had left and Vamana send Mahabali to pathala.
Vishnu pleased with his devotion granted a boon, by which Mahabali could visit the lands and people he previously ruled once every year. This revisit marks the festival of Onam, as reminder of the virtuous rule and his humility in keeping his promise before Vishnu.
There are some variations in the celebration of Onam from North to South Kerala but essentially it is almost same. The most attractive part of Onam Celebrations are the ‘Pookalams’ the flower carpets, and the Onam Sadhya the Grand Feast prepared for Onam.
The floral carpet, known as Onapookkalam or just Pookkalam, is made out of the gathered blossoms with several varieties of flowers of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to design and decorate patterns on floor, particularly at entrances and temple premises or homes like a flower mat. Lamps are arranged in the middle or edges. The pookkalam is similar to Rangoli which is made of powders of various colors and is popular in North India.
Now a day’s all kinds of flowers are used to make pookkalams, but in olden times only endemic flowers were used. To make a good pookkalams one needs to have a good sense of colour combinations as well as a precise touch.
The traditional ritual of laying pookkalam starts on Atham day. The pookkalam on this day is called Athapoo. Only yellow flowers will be used on Atham with only one circular layer in simple design and small in size. The size of the pookkalam and the variety of flowers used increase progressively with each day of the Onam festival till the Thiruonam day. Statues or figurines of Mahabali and Vamana are also installed at the entrance of each house on this day.
Traditionally, Atthapookalams included flowers endemic to Kerala and the Dashapushpam (10-flowers), but nowadays all varieties of flowers are used. Now since the availability of endemic flowers is less all types of flowers are used and mostly they are purchased from marked rather than collecting from backyards.
There are pookalam competitions conducted by various organizationa and local clubs in which the most attractive get the prize.
Onam Sadhya is another important part of Onam Celebration. The Onam Sadhya is a grand feast prepared on the Thiruonam day.
The feast is served on plantain leaves and consists of nine courses, but may include over two dozen dishes, including (but not limited to) Chips (especially Banana chips), Sharkaraveratti (Fried pieces of banana coated with jaggery), Pappadam, various vegetable and soups such as Injipuli (also called PuliInji), Thoran, Mezhukkupuratti, Kaalan, Olan, Avial, Sambhar, Dal served along with a small quantity of ghee, Erisheri, Molosyam, Rasam, Puliseri (also referred to as Velutha curry), Kichadi (not to be confused with Khichdi) and Pachadi (its sweet variant), Moru (Curd with water), Pickles both sweet and sour, buttermilk, coconut chutney. The feast ends with a series of dessert called Payasam (a sweet dish made of milk, sugar, jaggery and other traditional Indian savories) eaten either straight or mixed with a ripe small plantain. The curries are served with rice, usually the ‘Kerala Matta’ parboiled rice preferred in Kerala.
Now a days a most hotels are preparing Onam Sadhya. 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 selling his property, to have so.
You can read about all the attractions and activities of Onam including Atthachamayam, PuliKali, Onam Dance, Onam Games like Vallam kali etc in the next article.