Festivals of India: Onam

The state festival of Kerala, Onam is holiday and a harvest festival which falls on the 22nd nakshatra Thiruvonam in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, which in Gregorian calendar overlaps with August–September. Legends say the festival is celebrated to commemorate King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam.

Onam is one of three major annual Hindu celebrations along with Vishu and Thiruvathira celebrated in Kerala and it is observed with numerous festivities. Onam celebrations in the state include Vallam Kali or boat races, Pulikali or tiger dances, Pookkalam or flower Rangoli, Onathappan or worship, Onam Kali or Tug of War, Thumbi Thullal which is a women’s dance, Kummattikali or the mask dance, Onathallu or martial arts, Onavillu which means music, Kazhchakkula or the plantain offerings, Onapottan or costumes, Atthachamayam or folk songs and dance, and other celebrations. It is the New Year day for Malayalis worldwide.

During the Onam, Hindus install an image of Thrikkakara Appan or Onatthappan who is Vishnu in the form of Vamana in their home. Many lamps are lit in temples during this celebration with a palmyra tree erected in front of temples and surrounded with a wooden balustrade and covered with dry palmyra leaves. It is then lit with a torch and burned to ashes to signify that King Mahabali went to Patala as a sacrifice. The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappaatt, or Onam songs, and swing one another on swings slung from high branches.

The state celebrates Onam in a grand scale with public holidays that start four days from Uthradom or the eve of Onam to Thiruvonam or the sacred day of Onam which falls today 31 August. Major festivities take place across 30 venues in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. It is also celebrated by the Malayali diaspora around the world. Though a Hindu festival, non-Hindu communities of Kerala participate in Onam celebrations considering it as a cultural festival and something unique to their state.

There are two common and popular legends to this festival. The first one is about the King Mahabali. According to the Hindu mythology, Mahabali was the great- great-grandson of a Brahmin sage named Kashyapa, the great-grandson of demonic dictator, Hiranyakashipu, and the grandson of Vishnu devotee Prahlada who came to power by defeating the gods and taking over the three worlds. According to Vaishnavism mythology, the defeated Devas approached Vishnu for help in their battle with Mahabali. Vishnu refused to join the gods in violence against Mahabali, because Mahabali was a good ruler and his own devotee. He, instead, decided to test Mahabali’s devotion at an opportune moment. Mahabali, after his victory over the gods, declared that he would perform a fire sacrifice or Yajna and grant anyone any request during the Yajna. Vishnu took on his fifth avatar, that of a dwarf boy called Vamana and approached Mahabali. The king offered anything to the boy; gold, cows, elephants, villages, food, whatever he wished. The boy said that one must not seek more than one needs, and all he needed was “three paces of land.” Mahabali agreed. Vamana started to grow and grew to an enormous size, and covered everything Mahabali ruled over in just two paces. For the third pace, Mahabali offered his head for Vishnu to step on, an act that Vishnu accepted as evidence of Mahabali’s devotion. Vishnu granted him a boon, by which Mahabali could visit again, once every year, the lands and people he previously ruled. This revisit marks the festival of Onam, as a reminder of the virtuous rule and his humility in keeping his promise before Vishnu. The last day of Mahabali’s stay is remembered with a nine-course vegetarian Onasadya feast.

An alternate legend behind Onam relates to Parashurama, an incarnation of Vishnu who is credited in Hindu mythology to have created the Western Ghats from the southern tip of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, all the way up to Maharashtra. According to this legend, Vishnu got upset with the kings and the warrior caste who were constantly at war and were arrogant over others. Vishnu took the avatar of Parashurama, or “Rama with an axe” and also known as Rama Jamadagyna, in the era of King Kaartavirya. This king persecuted and oppressed the people, the sages and the gods. One day, the king came to the hermitage of Parashurama and his mother Renuka, where while Parashurama was away, the king without permission took away the calf of their cow. When Parashurama returned, he felt the injustice of the king, called him to war, and killed the king and all his oppressive warriors. At the end, he threw the axe, and wherever it fell, the sea retreated, creating the land of Kerala and other coastal western parts of Indian subcontinent. Another version states that Parashurama brought Namboodiri Brahmins to southwestern parts of India, by creating a mini-Himalaya-like mountain range with his axe. The Onam festival, according to this legend, celebrates Parashurama’s creation of Kerala by marking those days as the new year. The legend and worship of Parashurama is attested in texts and epigraphs dated to about the 2nd century.

Not only Hindus, but Onam is also celebrated by Orthodox Christians and most Muslims. In churches, it is celebrated with with local rituals which start with the lighting of Nilavilakku, an arati that includes waving of flowers or the pushparati over the Bible, eating the Onam meal together with the Hindus as a form of communion of brothers and sisters of different faiths. These practices are seen by the Kerala Christians as a form of integration with Hindus, showing mutual respect and sharing a tradition which transcends religion.

The month of Chingam, when Onam is celebrated, is the first month according to the Malayalam Calendar. The celebrations mark the Malayalam New Year and are spread over ten days, and conclude with Thiruvonam. The ten days are sequentially known as Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradam and Thiruvonam. The first and the last day are particularly important in Kerala and to Malayalee communities worldwide.

The Atham day is marked with the start of festivities at the Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple in Kochi. This Vishnu temple is considered as the focal centre of Onam and the abode of Mahabali and festivities start with the raising of the festival flag. Parades are held, which are colourful and depict the elements of Kerala culture with floats and tableaux. Other days have diverse range of celebrations and activities ranging from boat races, cultural programs, sports competitions, dance events, martial arts, floral Rangoli called pookkalam, prayers, shopping, donating time or food for charity to spending time with family over feasts. Men and women wear traditional dress. The Kerala sari or Kasavu sari is particularly wore on this day.

Onam starts off every year with a grand parade called Athachamayam at Thrippunithura near Kochi, also referred to as the Thripunithura Athachamayam. The parade features elephants marching, drum beats and other music, folk art forms, floats and colorfully dressed people with masks. In Kerala’s history, the Kochi king used to head a grand military procession in full ceremonial robes from his palace to the Thrikkakara temple, meeting and greeting his people. In contemporary times, this a state-supported event. The procession path historically has been from Tripunithura to the Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara in Ernakulam district. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu in his Vamana or dwarf avatar. After arrival at the temple, the marchers offer a prayer.

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 like a flower mat. Lamps are arranged in the middle or edges. It is a work of religious art, typically the team initiative of girls and women, who accomplish it with a delicate touch and a personal artistic sense of tone and blending. When completed, a miniature pandal or an umbrella hung with little festoons is erected over it. The pookkalam is similar to Rangoli which is made of powders of various colors and is popular in North India. Kerala during Onam is transformed into aflower garden with pookolams found in every home and public space to celebrate the festival. The traditional ritual of laying the pookkalam starts on Atham day and the pookkalam on this day is called Athapoo which is relatively small in size. The size of the pookkalam grows in size progressively with each day of the Onam festival. Only yellow flowers will be used on Atham with only one circular layer made and the design is kept simple. 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, but nowadays all varieties of flowers are used. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vamana are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house along with the Pookalam, and beautifully decorated with flowers. All over Kerala, Pookalam competitions are a common sight on Onam day.

Traditional dance forms including Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal, Onam Kali and others are performed during this period. Thiruvathira Kali is a women’s dance performed in a circle around a lamp. Kummattikali is a colourful-mask dance. In Thrissur, festivities include a procession consisting of caparisoned elephants surrounded by Kummatikali dancers. The masked dancers go from house to house performing the colorful Kummattikali. Onam Kali is a form of dance where players arrange themselves in circles around a pole or tree or lamp, then dance and sing songs derived from the Ramayana and other epics. Kathakali dance is also commonly performed during this time, with dancers enacting famous mythological legends. Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. This dance showcases performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, who dance to the beats of instruments like Chenda and Thakil. This folk art is mainly performed in the cultural district of Thrissur and thousands pour into the city to be a part of this art. Performances of the ritual worship dance, Theyyam, are given during the Onam season.

At the Thrikkakara temple, every day of the festival showcases one or more of these activities including Kathakali, Thiruvathira, Chakyar Koothu, Ottam Thullal, Patakam, Onam songs, and percussion instrument shows. The Onasadya here is grand in scale, and is attended by over ten thousand people from all religions and faiths. Festivities include Puli Kali or the masked leopard dance and traditional dance forms like Kaikotti Kali which are performed in various functions. The official Government celebrations start on this day with heavy illuminations in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode along with fireworks. Most cities in Kerala, are lit up with lights and fabulous displays of fireworks. Sumptuous Onam Sadya feasts are prepared. In the Thrikkakara temple, a mega-feast is conducted, which is open to the public and is attended by more than twenty thousand people.

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The Vallamkali or the snake boat race is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Uthrattadhi Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Numerous oarsmen row huge snake-shaped boats and people come from far and near to watch and cheer the snake boat race through the water. This event is particularly featured on the Pampa River, considered sacred and Kerala equivalent to the Ganges River.

What’s a festival without food? A Sadya is the traditional nine or more course vegetarian meal served on banana leaf and the Onam festival is marked with a special feast lunch on last day and includes rice and a sweet at the end. The Onasadya reflects the spirit of the season and is traditionally made with seasonal vegetables such as yam, cucumber, ash gourd and so on. The feast is served on plantain leaves and consists of nine courses, but may include over two dozen dishes. The feast ends with a series of dessert called Payasam eaten either straight or mixed with ripe small plantain. 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 by selling one’s property, if need be.” The Travancore-style Onasadya is renowned to be the most disciplined and tradition-bound.

Normally, the largest chunk of Onam celebrations ends by Thiruvonam. However, the two days following Thiruvonam are also celebrated as third and fourth Onam. The third Onam, called Avvittom marks the preparations for King Mahabali’s return ascension to heavens. The main ritual of the day is to take the Onathappan statue which was placed in the middle of every Pookkalam during the past 10 days and immerse it in a nearby river or the sea. The Pookkalam will be cleaned and removed after this ritual.

To everyone celebrating Onam, here’s wishing you a very Happy Onam. May the colour and lights of Onam fill your home with happiness and joy.

Aishwaryathintheyum, Samridhiyudaeyum ThiruvONAM Aashamsikkunnu. Ellavarkkum Ente Hridayam Nirannja Onashamsagal!

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