Onam

Onam is an annual Harvest festival in the state of Kerala in India

Updated: June 18, 2020



Onam is an annual Harvest festival in the state of Kerala in India. Onam is celebrated at the beginning of the month of Chingam, the first month of the solar Malayalam calendar (Kollavarsham). It falls in August or September each year in Gregorian calendar.  


Significance of Onam:

Onam is an ancient Hindu festival of Kerala that celebrates rice harvest. The significance of the festival is in Hindu legends, of which two are more common. 

Mahabali legend:

According to legends, the festival is celebrated to commemorate King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam. According to the Hindu mythology, Mahabali was the great-grandson of demonic dictator, Hiranyakashipu, and the grandson of Vishnu devotee Prahlada. He came to power by defeating the gods (Devas) and taking over the three worlds. The defeated Devas then approached Vishnu for help in their battle with Mahabali. As Mahabali was a good ruler and his own devotee, Vishnu refused to help the gods in violence against Mahabali. After his victory over the gods, when Mahabali declared that he would perform a Yajna and grant anyone any request during the Yajna, Vishnu took the avatar of a dwarf boy called Vamana and approached Mahabali. The boy then asked for "three paces of land." for which Mahabali agreed. On granting his request, Vamana 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. Vishnu accepted as evidence of Mahabali's devotion and granted him a boon. According to this 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.

Parashurama legend:

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 and up to Maharashtra. The Onam festival celebrates Parashurama's creation of Kerala by marking those days as the new year. In the era of King Kaartavirya, Vishnu took the avatar of Parashurama, or "Rama with an axe". One day, the king came to the hermitage of Parashurama and took away the calf of his cow without permission when he is away.  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. The Onam festival, celebrates Parashurama's creation of Kerala by marking those days as the new year.

Origin of Onam:

The festival of Onam is particularly associated with Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara which is also known as Thrikkakara Temple situated in northeast of Ernakulam near Kochi. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is believed to have originated the festival at this temple.

Celebration of Onam:

Onam is a major annual event for Malayali people in and outside Kerala. It is a harvest festival, one of three major annual Hindu celebrations along with Vishu and Thiruvathira, and it is observed with numerous festivities. Onam celebrations include Vallam Kali (boat races), Pulikali (tiger dances), Pookkalam (flower arrangement), Onathappan (worship), Onam Kali, Tug of War, Thumbi Thullal (women's dance), Kummattikali (mask dance), Onathallu (martial arts), Onavillu (music), Kazhchakkula (plantain offerings), Onapottan (costumes), Atthachamayam (folk songs and dance), and other celebrations. Onam is the official state festival of Kerala with public holidays that start four days from Uthradom (Onam eve). Major festivities take places across 30 venues in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala. It is also celebrated by Malayali diaspora around the world.

The celebrations mark the Malayalam New Year, 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 elsewhere.

The Atham day is marked with the start of festivities at Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple (Kochi). This Vishnu temple is considered as the focal centre of Onam and the abode of Mahabali, 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 are celebrated by diverse range of activities ranging from boat races, cultural programs, sports competitions, dance events, martial arts, floral designs: 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.

The Onam sadya or feast is another essential part of Thiruvonam and almost every Keralite attempts to either make or attend one. 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 more dishes, including 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 and Pachadi (its sweet variant), Moru (buttermilk or curd mixed with water), Pickles both sweet and sour, and 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 ripe small plantain. The curries are served with rice, usually the 'Kerala Matta' parboiled rice preferred in Kerala. The two days following Thiruvonam are also celebrated as Third and Fourth Onam

On third Onam/Avvittom, preparations are undertaken for King Mahabali's departure. Onathappan statues are immersed in the sea or river, and pookalams are cleared and removed. On fourth Onam/Chatayam, post-Onam celebrations continue for the next couple of days with snake boat races, Pulikkali tiger play, and Kerala Tourism's Onam Week program. The festival is also celebrated by Christians and Muslims of Kerala. The celebration starts with the lighting of Nilavilakku, eating the Onam meal together with the Hindus. The significance of these practices are viewed by some Kerala Christians as a form of integration with Hindus, mutual respect and sharing a tradition.

Athachamayam:

The Onam celebrations starts with a grand procession at Thrippunithura near Kochi called Atthachamayam, also referred to as Thripunithura Athachamayam. 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. Now also the same tradition is followed by the parade featuring elephants marching, drum beats and other music, folk art forms, floats and colorfully dressed people with masks. The parade floats feature scenes from epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Some floats include themes from the Bible as well as current themes thereby highlighting unity and harmony. The procession ends at the Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara, Ernakulam district. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu in his Vamana (dwarf) avatar. The marchers offer a prayer after arrival at the temple.

Pookkalam:

The floral carpet, known as Onapookkalam or just Pookkalam, is made out of several varieties of flowers. These are usually decorated at entrances and temple premises like a flower mat. Lamps are arranged in the middle or edges.  A miniature pandal hung with little festoons is erected over it. The pookkalam is similar to Rangoli which is made of powders of various colors in North India. 

The traditional ritual of laying pookkalam (floral carpet) starts on Atham day. Only yellow flowers will be used on Atham with only one circular layer made and the design is kept simple. The pookkalam on this day is called Athapoo, and it is relatively small in size. The size of the pookkalam grows in size progressively with each day of the Onam festival. 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. But nowadays all varieties of flowers are used. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards which represent Mahabali and Vamana. These are placed 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. 

Music and dance:

Traditional dance forms including Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal, Onam Kali and others are done during Onam. 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, especially at  Valluvanad which is associated with the growth of Kathakali, and Cheruthuruthy, where Kerala Kalamandalam is located  with dancers enacting famous mythological legends.

Pulikali:

Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common dance form that 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. The ritual worship dance, Theyyam is also performed during Onam where Mahabali is played by the Onathar. Its variations include characters such as Oneswaran and Onapottan. 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 in Thrikkakara temple. Celebration also include Puli Kali (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. A mega-feast is conducted in Thrikkakara temple, which is open to the public and is attended by more than twenty thousand people. Most cities in Kerala, such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Thrissur, are lit up with lights and fabulous displays of fireworks.

Vallamkali:

The Vallamkali or the snake boat race is another event in which numerous oarsmen row huge snake-shaped boats. People comes from far and near to watch and cheer the snake boat race through the water. This event takes place on the Pampa River, which is considered as sacred and Kerala equivalent of Ganges River. Aranmula Uthrattadhi Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race are some of the popular race. A similar snake boat race is also held by the Malayali diaspora in Singapore annually during Onam at the Jurong Lake asa tribute to the traditional snake boat race.

Onam Sadya:

The Onasadya is one of the important part of celebration and is traditionally made with seasonal vegetables such as yam, cucumber, ash gourd and so on. The feast is served on plantain leaves and usually consists of nine courses. But many other dishes may be included such as 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, Erisheri, Molosyam, Rasam, Kaalan, Olan, Avial, Sambhar, Dal served along with a small quantity of ghee, Puliseri (also referred to as Velutha curry), Kichadi and Pachadi, Moru (buttermilk or curd mixed with water), Pickles both sweet and sour, and 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 ripe small plantain. The curries are served with rice, usually the 'Kerala Matta' parboiled rice preferred in Kerala.

Post Onam celebrations:

Although Onam celebrations ends by Thiruvonam, 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 nearby rivers or sea. The Pookkalam will be cleaned and removed after this ritual.

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