Onam is not just the biggest and the most important festival of Kerala, but also a reminder of a “good old Past”. It is considered as a harvest festival and is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm all over the state by people of all communities.
Name of the festival
The word Onam comes from the name of the star Thiruvonam which is also called as sharavana. It comes on the brighter half of the Chingam month. The festival has a unique beat which highlight a culture which hold the concept of Tolerance, Truth and Honesty above every personal constrains.
When it is celebrated
Onam is celebrated in the beginning of the month of Chingam, which is the hasta constellation the first month of Malayalam Calendar (Kollavarsham). This corresponds with the month of August-September according to Gregorian calendar. This is the time when the heavy rain stops and the nature acquires a special charm.
Carnival of Onam lasts for ten to twelve days. First day, Atham and tenth day, Thiruonam are most important of all. In some cases people celebrate twelve days long till chatayam (12th day).
Tradition of making flower carpet
Celebrations of Onam are marked by intricate floral carpets called Pookalam. More flowers of different colours are added to this pookalam on each passing day. Each day more and more elaborate designs are experimented to make the best. Girls take great delight in designing them in the front courtyards of their house. Boys take pleasure in helping them gather flowers.
Custom of respecting eldest person
A day prior to Onam is the ninth day of the festivities and is known as Utradam. On this day tenants and depends of Tarawads (traditional large joint family sharing a common kitchen and consisting of more than hundred people) give presents to Karanavar, the eldest member of the family. These presents are usually the produce of their farms consisting of vegetables, coconut oil, plantains etc. Village artisans also offer a specimen of their handicrafts to the Karanavar of Nayar Tarawads.
How it is celebrated
On the day of Thiruvonam, conical figures of King Bali in various forms are prepared from sticky clay and are painted red. These are decorated with a paste made of rice-flour and water and are placed in the front courtyard and other important places in the house. Some of these clay figures are in the shape of cone and others represent figures of Gods. Those in the shape of a cone are called, ‘Trikkakara Appan’. The tradition of making clay cones for Trikkara Appan suggests that festival originated at Trikkakara, a place 10 km from Cochin. Trikkara is also said to be the capital in the reign of legendary King Maveli.
Elaborate prayers ceremonies and poojas are also performed on this day. A senior member of the house plays the role of the priest and conducts the rituals. He wakes up early and prepares ata; Ata is prepared from rice flour and molasses for Nivedyam (offerings to God). Lamps are lit up in front of the deites and all members of the house join in for the ceremonies. Priest offers ata, flowers and water in the names of the God.
On the occasion of Onam people thank God for their best harvest and pray for the blessings in the coming year. A peculiar custom is followed after this, wherein male members make loud and rhythmic shouts of joys. The tradition is called, ‘Aarppu Vilikkukal’. This is called as the beginning of Onam.
On the day of Onam, the members of the house dress up in their best attire and offer prayers in the local temple. Most people wear new clothes on the day. There is also a tradition of distributing new clothes on day of Onam. In Tharawads (traditional large family consisting of more than hundred people), Karanavar, the eldest member of the family, gives new clothes as gifts, called Onapudava, to all family members and servants. Other members of the family exchange gifts amongst each other.
Like any other festivals, food is an important part of Onam Celebration. People of Kerala are extremely passionate about the enormous lunch called Onasaddya. The Onasaddhya (meal) will be served in a fresh banana leaf. The food served includes the traditional food of Kerala in which rice and sambar (a type of vegetable curry) is a main part along with the dessert Payassam, a type of sweet Pudding. Curries vary from 10 – 12 in number. According to the traditional format, there should be more than 101 curries. But now due to constrain of resources and time, the number of curries are reduced.
History of Onam
Onam has been a part of Malayalee culture for centuries. The earliest record of the festival that has been found belongs to the reign of Kulasekhara Perumal, the Chera ruler, around 800 AD. However, considering the rich tradition of the festival, there are great possibilities that the festival was celebrated before this period. Due to lack of physical evidences, it has been assumed that the festival started somewhere around 800 AD as the harvest festival of the state.
Legends of the festival
The festival of Onam is surrounded by many legends. The most popular among them are the legend of Mahabali and Vaman, the legend of Boat Palliodam and the legend of the Vanishing Boy.
Legend of King Mahabali
The origin of Onam is often related to a story of Mahabali, a demon King. It is believed that there once lived a wise and generous asura (demon) king, Mahabali. He was highly regarded by his subjects.
Gods felt challenged with the growing popularity of Mahabali. They seek the help from Lord Vishnu who was worshiped by King Mahabali. Lord Vishnu took the avatar of a poor and dwarf Brahmin called Vamana and came to the kingdom of Mahabali, just after his morning prayers, when the King gave boons to the Brahmin.
The disguised Lord Vishnu asked for as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King made a promise to do so. Suddenly, Vamana increased to a massive size. With his one step he covered the whole of the heaven and with the other he covered the whole of earth. He then asked for a place to keep his third step. King realised that the boy was not an ordinary Brahmin and asked Vamana to put his third step on his head. The boy did so, pushing Mahabali to the nether world, the patala (underworld).
Lord Vishnu was pleased with King Mahabali’s generosity and granted him a boon. Deeply attached with his people, the King said he would like to visit Kerala and his people every year. Lord Vishnu was pleased to grant the request. It is this home coming of King Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam every year.
Another version says the story with a different point of View. It says that, though, King Mahabali was a wise and judicious ruler, he was also very egoistic. He was a devout worshiper of Lord Vishnu and the Lord wanted to redeem his devotee of the sin.
Lord Vishnu took the avatar of a poor and dwarf Brahmin, called Vamana and asked for a piece of land from the King. The egoistic King said he may have as much land as he wanted. Vamana replied that he want only as much land as could be covered by his three steps. To this the King laughed and made a promised to do so.
The Brahmin boy increased in cosmic proportions. With his one step he covered the whole of heaven and with the other, the whole of the earth. King Mahabali realised that the boy was God himself who came on a purpose and offered his head to place his third step. He was then pushed to the nether world, Patala. It proved to be a blessing for the King as it released him from the cycle of life and death. This is why Onam is celebrated by wearing new clothes. People resolve to lead a new life of honesty, piousness, love, and humility.
The Legend of Boat Palliodam
The story says that the spiritual head namely Bhattathiripad and his men were travelling in the boat called Palliodam which was laden with foodstuffs. All of a sudden the boat got stuck in the bend of the river. The oarsmen tried to move it but were unsuccessful. The spiritual head, Bhattathiripad who was boarding the same boat Palliodam, thought that it was a bad omen. He came to river bank to seek help of some local people. At a distance he saw a hut where a dim light was glowing. He decided to visit the hut and ask for help. When Bhattathiripad went close to the hut he saw a poor widow weeping and her children sleeping next to her. The woman told Bhattathiripad that her children slept hungry and she has no food for them. Bhattathiripad was moved by her pathetic state. He asked his men to bring food from the boat. When the family became happy with the food, boat Palliodam could be easily manoeuvred to the main course of river again. It is in the memory of this; tradition of feasting one needy person on the day of Onam became popular.
The Legend of Vanishing Boy
Near Aranmulla in Kerala, the head of a Nambudiri family namely Katoor Mana, was performing a ritual bath in the river. He offered his prayers and waited to feed a poor man to complete his ritual. He waited for long but nobody came. Tired of waiting, the Brahmin closed his eyes and began to pray to Lord Krishna. As soon he opened his eyes, he saw a small boy in tatters before him. The devout Brahmin gave a bath to the boy, a set of clothes and a sumptuous meal.
To the surprise of the Brahmin the boy vanished as soon as he finished his meal. He looked for the boy and spotted him near Aranmulla Temple. But, the boy disappeared again.
The Brahmin came to the conclusion that he was no ordinary boy and was God himself. From then on the Brahmin brought food to Aranmulla Temple every year during Onam.
There are number of recreational activities perfomed during the time of Onam. These are performed as a part of the Onam festival. Though there are number of modern recreational activities these traditional activities are still prevalent in the Kerala as the indispensible part of Onam. They include Pulikali ,Kummattikali, Kaikotikalli, Vallamkali, Talappanthukali, Kutukutu, Kayyankali etc.
In Pulikali performers, disguise themselves as Tigers. They paint themselves in the guise of a tiger and enact hunting scenes to entertain people. Kummattikali artists wear an attire of plaited grass and big wooden mask. They move from house to house collecting small gifts and amuse children.
At Thrissur, processions accompanied by elephants present a regal view as elephants are inevitable for all the festivals. Women perform their graceful traditional clap dance called Kaikotikalli on the day and enthral the audience. This is usually performed on the Onam day after the Lunch.
The rigorous sports like Talappanthukali, a game played in group with a ball and a group of people. Kutukutu and combats like Kayyankali, are among the important games played during the time of Onam. Archery is also a part of Onakalikal (Onam games). Senior members have their share of fun by playing indoor games like cards and chess. There is also a tradition of swinging on Onam. A decorated swing is swung on a high branch and young men and women take the pleasure on it while singing traditional songs.
Vallamkali or the Snake Boat Race is the most enchanting facet of the festival of Onam. It is a competitive sport where the fastest boat between a known starting and finishing points will be considered as the winner. To make sure that everything goes smooth, arrangements start days before the event. The boats are launched a day before for the grand race. Lord Vishnu and Mahabali are also worshipped by a priest to invoke blessings for the boat and the boatmen. Each boat comprises of 150 men, among which 25 men are singers and 125 are the actual oarsmen. The most remarkable feature of the Snake Boat Race is the depiction of the great team spirit. It also displays the importance of being united and to be in harmony with nature. The boats are tastefully decorated with green and scarlet silk umbrellas. The number of umbrellas attached to a boat holds significance as it signifies the affluence of the family to which they belong.
Importance as State festival
Popularity and presentation of rich culture of the state during the carnival made Onam the State Festival of Kerala in 1961. Elaborate feasts, folk songs, elegant dances, energetic games, elephants, boats and flowers all are a part of the dynamic festival of Onam.
Government of India has taken due notice of this vibrant and colourful festival. It promotes Onam internationally in a big way and celebrates as ‘Tourist Week’ for Kerala during Onam celebrations. Thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit Kerala to become a part of the festival. The event is promoted as a major tourist attraction of the state of Kerala and draws a large number of domestic and international tourists.
Onam is the festival of peace and harmony not only with the fellow beings but also with the nature. Onam is celebrated in such a way that all the elements of the nature take part in it. It is also about the sharing of resources with the fellow beings and gives a message of truthfulness and compassion towards all the things which we do in our day today life. Some of the Onam games are furious but it shows a respectful attitude towards the opponent. It also shows the team spirit and unity of the people taking part in each of the things.