Onam is the biggest festival celebrated in the beautiful southern state of India, Kerala. It not only is the biggest festival of Kerala, but is alsthe state festival of Kerala as well.

It is basically a harvest festival, and India being an agrarian nation, harvest festivals are always of extreme importance and celebrated alswith much fanfare. According tlegends, Onam marks and celebrates the return of the mighty king Mahabali at this time.

This festival is celebrated at the beginning of the month of Chingam, which is basically the first month according the Malayali calendar or the Kollavarsham. As per the Gregorian calendar, this festival is observed in the months of August September. In 2019, Onam starts from Sept 1st.

Legend of Onam

Onam is an ancient festival which has stood the test of time and has shown a remarkable influence of the modern times as well.  The festival actually celebrates the King Mahabali’s return this own kingdom from the Patal lok, or the underworld annually. The king was deeply revered by the people of his land and felt that it was the golden era of Kerala, where people lived happily and without any kind of oppression or class division.  It is believed that according tlegends, Mahabali, the king performing numerous Ashwamedha Yajna was about toverthrow King Indra from heaven. He had already taken over the other lokas, or other worlds. The gods in fear sought Lord Vishnu’s help check Mahabali’s progress. However, Lord Vishnu denied any wishes of killing Mahabali as he was an extremely benevolent king but agreed stop his progress.




Thus Vishnu took the incarnation of Vamana, and met Mahabali when he was about to perform his last Ashwamedha Yajna and asked for a dan or charity. Despite being warned by Shukracharya, the mentor of the Asuras, or demons King Mahabali, the ever magnanimous agreed Vamans demands. Vamana asked for three steps of land covered by his feet. The first feet covered both the lands and Vamana asked Mahabali where keep his last feet. King Mahabali offered his own head and thus he was sent Patal loka or the underworld, with the boon that he can come back see how his subject were every year.

Thus it is in the honor of King Mahabali that Onam is celebrated. Vamana deva , known as Thrikkakarappan is also worshipped during this festival.


Rituals of Onam

The rituals and celebration of Onam is spread over a period of 10 days. Out of these 10 days, the most important are the first day and the final or the tenth day. The 1st day is known as Atham and the last day is known as Thiru Onam or Thiruvonam.

On the first day a flower carpet which is known as Onapookkalam or Pookalam is spread out in front of every house. This is an ornate and beautiful flower carpet spread out in honor of the King Mahabali, welcome him. This is made of various flowers and is definitely a work of art. Earlier Pookalams made on the Atham were known as the Dashapushpam or made with 10 varieties of flowers. However now all kinds of flowers are used.  Mounds made of earth or soil are placed which represents Vishnu and Mahabali in the newly washed and cleaned courtyard of the houses. Various traditional rituals later there is a lavish food spread called Sadya served.

The Onam sadya is an indispensable part of the Onam festival and ritual .it is a lavish spread consisting of nothing less than 26 items and is served on Banana leaf. The traditional items consist of the following –

  • Chips, mostly Banana chips
  • Sharkaraveratti, which is fried pieced of jiggery coated banana
  • Pappadam
  • Vegetable preparations like Thoran
  • Mezhukkupuratti
  • Kaalan
  • Olan
  • Sambhar
  • Avial
  • Erisheri
  • Dal with dash of ghee or purified butter
  • Puliseri
  • Rasam
  • Moru which is water mixed with curd
  • Pickles of different types
  • Buttermilk of 2 different types
  • Payasam


Celebration of Onam

Onam is a joyous festival which is celebrated with lot of festivity which includes dance and music. The traditional dance forms of Kerala which include the Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal, Thiruvathira etc are all performed during this period. A dance comprising of all women called Thiruvathirakali is performed in a circle, keeping a lamp in center. This is a specila performance of Onam. The Kummattikali, or the colorful masked dance is performed in this period where the masked dancers visit houses performing the same. This is specially seen in the Thrissur area. The famous Kathakali dance is alsperformed during this period where various mythological characters are enacted by the colorful dancers. Famous venues for Kathakali are Valluvanad and Cheruthuruthy

The Pulikkali or the tiger plays are amongst the most important onam attractions. In this dance form, hundreds of people dressed as tigers dance tthe rhythm of resounding beats of Chenda and thakil. It takes a performer close t4 hours tdress for the part for the performance.

The ritual worship dance Theyyam is alsperformed at this time, where Mahabali is played by the Onathar.

The Thrikkakara temple is abuzz with activities during this period and showcases various dance forms every day. Onam songs along with the beat of percussion are played here and the Sadya presented here is famous.

The Boat Race is another magnificent attraction of this joyous celebration. The Vallamkali or the snake boat race is intrinsically connected with the Onam Celebrations. The most well known boat race is the Aranmula Boat Race which is the oldest boat race. These boat races are mainly found in Kottayam, Payippad, Aranmula and Karuvatta. The long snake boats are called Chundans. There are alsother variations such as the small and fast Odi  or the Veppus.  The huge boats are oared by almost 100 men and thousands gather at the shores tcheer and watch these races.

The tradition of buying new clothes is called Onakkodi and it is adhered tas a mark of respect tthe vanquished King whcomes for a visit.

Apart from these festivities, lamps are lit in all the temples during the period of the festivities. In interior and rural areas, swings are erected in front of the houses and Onam songs which are known as Onappaatt are sung , while swinging in the make shift swings.


The ten Days of Onam

    • Atham – Atham is the first day of the festival. It is said tbe the day when the King Mahabali starts his preparation in Patala tvisit Kerala. The Thrikkakara temple alsstarts its preparations from this day. The Onam festivities start with a procession called the Athachamyam. The laying of the floral carpet decorations or the pookkalam alsstarts on this day. Idols of Mahabali and Vamana are alsinstalled in all the houses on this day.


    • Chithira – the second day when people start cleaning up their houses for the Thiruvonam. A second layer of floral decoration on this day is added the existing one.


    • Chodhi – this is the third day on which the pookkalam starts increasing with additional designs. The newer designs are done with almost 4 t5 of different types of flowers. From this day people start shopping for new clothes or jewelleries.


    • Vishakam –  the fourth day and according traditions , one of the most auspicious days of the  Onam. Various Pookkalam competitions kickstart from this day.


    • Anizham – the fifth day which kick starts the snake boat races in many parts of Kerala.


    • Thriketa – the festivities starts getting denser from this day onwards with the institutions declaring holiday from this day. The Pookkalam also grows in size and shape on this day.


    • Moolam – this is the seventh day of the festival. In various temples a smaller version of Onam Sadya starts from this day. Pulikkal and various other dance performances begin from this day onwards. Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode starts being all lit up from this day along with spectacular display of fireworks.


    • Pooradam – the eighth day sees the idols of Mahabali and Vamana given a ritual bath and taken from house after house for viewing. These idols are later kept in the center of the pookkalam and small children called Poorada unnikal smears rice batter flour of the idols. The pookkalam designs are again added and keep getting more elaborate.


    • Uthradom – this is the penultimate day of the 10 day long festival. According tlegends King Mahabali steps intKerala on this day and will spend the next 4 days visiting his subjects and seeing how they are. The women start cutting the first vegetable for the Thiruvonam which will be held the next day in each household.


    • Thiruvonam – the last and the most important festival day. This day is also known by the name thiru-onam or the sacred onam day. This is the day when Mahabali is said to have been sent Patal loka by the Vamana Avatar. This day is considered to be extremely auspicious as it is also the birth anniversary of Sree Padmanabha Swamy of Thiruvananthapuram  the Vamana Avatar etc. devotees on this day clean their houses early in the morning. Take a ritual bath , then apply a batter of rice flour on the main entrance of the house. Then the devotees wear their new clothes and gives alms and charity the needy people.  Special prayers are organized in the temples for this special day.



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