Onam is just not another festival among the numerous festivals of India. Its relevance is huge and popularity immense. For the people of Kerala, it is the most important and biggest festival. And for the government of India, it is one good opportunity to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Kerala to international audience. Hence, Kerala Tourism Week is organised during Onam. Infact, a large number of foreign tourists plan their vacations in India around Onam so that they can be a part of the grand celebrations that mark this festival.
Why is Onam Celebrated?
So, what is that makes Onam such an important festival for the people of Kerala? The Harvest festival
- Well, India, as you know is by and large a country of villages. A large part of the population resides in villages and depends on agriculture for their livelihood. And Onam being a harvest festival is the time when farmers enjoy the fruit of their hard work, their harvest. Fields look their best when the winds gently blow and sun spreads its warm blessings over the crops yielded so laboriously by farmers.
The Legend of King Mahabali
- The significance of being the harvest festival apart, their is yet another reason for celebrating Onam and there is an interesting legend behind it. Let's first elaborate the legend before you. There was once a demon king, Mahabali, in Kerala, so popular amongst his subjects that he became a threat for gods. Together, the gods approached Lord Vishnu (who was held in high reverence by the demon king) and sought his assistance in the matter. Lord Vishnu assured them of a solution and sent them back.
Thereafter, the god disguised himself as a Brahmin dwarf and reached King Mahabali. The demon king, every morning after his customory worship, gave out gifts to Brahmins. Lord Vishnu asked him to grant as much of land as he could cover in his three little steps. The king willingly granted his wish. Suddenly, Mahabali witnessed the dwarf metamorph into a massive size. Soon, with the first step, the sky was conquered and with the second, the earth was taken. Lord Vishnu turned towards Mahabali to know where the third step be put. King Mahabali by now, had understood that he was face to face with no ordinary brahmin and thus offered his head for the third step. Lord Vishnu kept his third step on his head and pushed him to patala (nether).
The problem of gods ended but Lord Vishnu was impressed by the generosity of King Mahabali and hence asked Mahabali to seek a boon. The king who was so deeply attached with his subject sought god's permission to visit his people once every year. The god granted his wish and so Mahabali returns every year on Onam to visit his loved people who in turn make elaborate preparations to welcome their most popular king.
The above legend also has a slight variation. It is said that the popularity of the king had made him into an egoistic person and as such what Lord Vishnu did turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It released him from the cycle of life and birth. This is also reflected in the celebration of Onam where people wear new clothes discarding the old ones and pledge to lead a life that is directed towards humilty, piousness and honesty. When is Onam Celebrated?
The first month of Malayalam calandar is the time for Onam celebration. The month known as Chingam corresponds to August-September in Gregorian Calendar.
The festivities of Onam continues for ten days. The first day is known as Atham and the last day is known as Thiru Onam. These two days are the most important days of the festival.
This year Thiru Onam falls on 23rd of August.
The Celebrations of Ten Day Onam
Onam is grand in every sense. From individual houses to entire city, or for that matter entire state, the celebrations depict the kind of significance the festival commands in the society.
The First Day
- The first of the ten days, Atham marks the beginning of festival. Girls decorate their house courtyard with Pookalam, designer floral carpet
. People take bath and offer prayers in their local temples. Breakfast comprising of steamed bananas and fried pappadam (pappad) is served to the members of the family. This breakfast is served continuously for ten days of the festival.
, a grand procession is carried out at Thirpunithura and Piravam. The procession with caparisoned elephants, musical ensembles as well as folk artists performing their art skills reflects the glorious royalty of the time when king Mahabali ruled the region.
The Second, Third & Fourth Day
- Day two (Chithira)and three(Chodhi) of the festivals do not have any set activities. The pookalam is given more designs
and freshness. Shopping for gift items occupy a major part of the fourth day, Visakam.
The Fifth day
- Fifth day, Anizham has an extremely special event being organised. This is the internationally renowned the Grand Snake Boat Race event called Vallamkali
. The Snake boat race is organised on the banks of the river Pamba at Aranmulla
with thousands of audience cheering the oarsmen rowing to the rhythm of vanchipattu or boat songs. the event instills immense enthusiasm amongst the people and the excitement of the festivals climbs yet another level.
The Sixth & Seventh Day
- By sixth (Thriketa) and seventh (Moolam) day, Keralaites staying away from their family, in other parts of India or even abroad start pouring in to be a part of the mega event on the tenth day. Day eight & Nine
- Day eight (Pooradam) is when the devotees begin to create clay pyramid shaped idols which is called Ma or Poorada Uttigal
. The idol is decorated with flowers and worshipped.
Uthradam, the ninth day sees the festivities climbing a new high. Infact, for many Onam begins on the ninth day itself. This is the day of giving gifts and meeting other people warmly. The Utradam tenants and dependents of Nayar Tarawads (traditional large joint families with a single kitchen) gift their farm products to the eldest member of the family and are in turn feasted with sumptuous meal.
Other people of the village also gift their work of art and are rewarded for the same.
The Tenth Day
- Finally the tenth day ends the long wait and Thiruonam arrives with enthusiasm, happiness as well as devotion dominating the atmosphere. People take bath and wear new clothes. Prayers are offered at individual houses as well as the local temples. Pookalam, which is made anew every day till now takes its biggest and most elaborate form as girls prepare the most beautiful of all the pookalam.
In the afternoon, Onasadya, the grand lunch with eleven to thirteen compulsory dishes
is served before the family members. Various cultural events are organised
throughout the state to mark the events. The sky looks wonderful with numerous firecrackers
Few rituals are carried out on the eleventh and the twelfth day also but majorly, the event culminates with Thiruonam itself.
More Celebrations That Mark the Onam FestivalKerala Tourism Week
- With so much of significance attached to the festival, the state government now organises Kerala Tourism week during Onam. Thiruvanantpuram
, the capital city of Kerala >comes alive with lots of cultural activitie
s being organised at Kanakakunnu Palace and selected premises of the city. The streets of the city illuminated and colourful processions are taken out with folk performers from every part of Kerala presenting their art form.
- Apart from the Vallamkali Snake Boat Race,yet another boat event
is organised at Aranmula and is known as Aranmula Uthrittathi. The event is based on the legend which has Lord Krishna crossing the river. People believe that Lord Krishna is present in every boat so the race part of the event is not included in this.
Elephant procession In Trichur, a grand procession is taken out
with well caprisoned elephants accompanied by music, dance and merriment. It is a huge treat to watch this majestic animal walk in such a large number in all their grandeur.
-Move a little towards a north from Trichur and you will reach the village of Cheruthuruthy
which is well known for its Kathakali dance training centre. Here, the best artists of the Kathakali dance form gather to perform
for a large number of people. The dance depict scenes from epics and folk tales.
- Pulikali/Kaduvakali performance are highly entertaining and a major drawer of crowds. In this dance form, artists paint their body like a tiger and present scenes of tiger hunting goats and tigers being hunted by humans
. Thrissur and Palghat are famous for this type of dance form.
- Kummattikali is yet another dance form that entertains people, specially children. This dance form is seen mostly in the South Malabar region. Artists of this art form wear colourful wooden mask and perform on mythological and folk themes.
- Since Pookalams form such an integral part of the festival, it is but quiet obvious that events are organised around it. Athapoovu Competitions sees creative people coming in large number and participating in Pookalams making competitions all over the state.
Kaikotti kali / Thiruvathirakali and Thumbi Thullal
- Kaikotti kali Thiruvathirakali and Thumbi Thullal are two dance forms that are performed by the women folks.
Clap dance is performed in both these dance form. In the first, women dance around a pookalam with lighted bronze lamp in between, while in the second the lead performer sits in the centre and initiates the dance.
- Onakalikal, a term used for the various games played
on the occasion of Onam is also significant. The various games include Talappanthukali, Kutukutu and combats like Kayyankali and Attakalam. Archery and indoor games like cards and chess are also part of Onakalikal. Sporting events are also organised throughout the state.