Onam is an ancient harvest festival of southern India, celebrated especially in Kerala, which still survives in modern times. It is celebrated in the memory of the cyclical nature of the agricultural year, thanksgiving and joy of a renewed abundant crop that drives away the clouds of famine and hunger.
Aligned with the lunar calendar, its date varies with the Gregorian calendar, which falls generally during August and September during the full Moon. The celebrations last for 10 days and are linked to several elements of the culture and tradition of Kerala. The rich cultural heritage of Kerala comes in its best shape and spirit during the ten days of festivities.
One of the oldest festivals in the world
Celebrated according to some sources for more than 1200 years, the festival of Onam is the largest annual event of Kerala. The entire population takes part in traditional rituals. Like many ancient festivals, Onam is associated with a legend, that of an Asura King Bali, also known as Mahabali or Maveli, who was treacherously condemned by Vishnu to imprisonment.
This sovereign reigned over Kerala in the distant past and is believed under him, the state experienced a golden age. In his kingdom, he ruled with peace and prosperity, free of diseases or deceit, where all men were equal, and there was no caste system, and Mahabali was deeply loved by his people.
Bali was the most generous of kings and was loved by all his subjects, who was gentle, educated and followed the principles of truth, fairness, and devotion, which he learned from his paternal grandfather Prahlada and the Deva kings themselves were jealous. Highly respected by the population, Bali was awarded the title of Chakravarthy, the King of kings. He even defeated Indra, the most powerful Deva King and the greatest warrior of his era, who also became jealous of him and sought revenge against Mahabali.
People went to the revered Deva Vishnu saying that Bali was then equivalent to Indra but since the world with two kings represents an imbalance, Vishnu trapped Bali. Indra and Vishnu indeed organized the plot to destabilize him and send him to jail with the help of Sukracharya, whom Bali trusted.
On the advice of the great seer Sukracharya, Bali pledged to officiate at the beginning of the month of Chingam, the first month of the year according to the Malayalam calendar, the most important sacrifices of the Ashvamedha, the horse sacrifice done in order to ensure the peace and prosperity in the earth. Here he promised that during the sacrificial period, he would try to meet any request received by his subjects.
Taking advantage of this statement, Vishnu sends a child named Vamana to defame him. Mahabali underestimates the child and swears to give whatever the child wants, but soon fails as the child starts demanding things which generally would have been wanted by adults only. Sukracharya, well knowing the plot, tried to persuade Mahabali to the request, as he was aware of the true nature of that little boy and communicated to the disciple the reason of his visit.
King Bali, determined to honor his promise, did not appear convincing. Before leaving this world, Mahabali proclaimed to the people that his mind will visit the people of Kerala, whom he dearly carried in his heart, and who also saw through the treachery. This is the origin of Onam festival, when people including children celebrate the festival in a grand way and show to their King that they are happy, celebrating with great pomp the return of King Mahabali.
Ten days of festivities
Earlier Onam was celebrated for a month, from mid-August to mid-September. Today, the festival lasts ten days, and each day is important. The festival culminates on the 10th day, with the other nine used to prepare it.
The first day is called the Atham, devoted to prayers, but also the cleaning of homes in background fills. The people of Kerala then begin the design of Pookalam, which are a sumptuous carpet of flowers measuring up to 5 meters in diameter, which are laid before the houses to accommodate the spirit of Mahabali. Their manufacture is an art: you must first draw beautiful and original designs. Needless to say, the plastic flowers are prohibited.
The idol statuettes are placed at the center of the flower carpet. Women are in charge of the preparation while men should harvest the flowers, although today the markets of Kerala by selling kilos. These crafts masterpieces must be ready for the last day of celebration. During the festival, several cities organize contests even the finest Pookalam.
Between the second and fourth day, families continue the preparations, as the crowd gathers in front of market stalls, and the women sing while preparing Pookalam with the atmosphere turn festive. On the fourth day, the city of Trichur welcomes Pulikali and Kathakali artists. The bodies painted like tigers, dance, play and recreate hunting scenes.
Vallamkali, or snake boat race is held on the fifth day on the river Pampa, in the famous backwaters of Kerala. This is the highlight festival in which thousands of spectators gather on the banks of Aranmula, to follow the competition, which is a hundred kilometers away from Cochin. Fifteen very slender boats, measuring about 45 meters long, compete, which look like snakes, hence their name. They are operated by a hundred rowers sheltered by umbrellas in bright colors. Spectators bet on crews and the atmosphere is electrifying.
On the sixth and seventh days, families gather together. On the eighth day, the devotees make clay statuettes representing Mahabali, which they decorate with flowers. Families gather on the ninth day of Onam to honor the elders, by offering farm products harvested during the year.
At day 10, the return of Mahabali
The tenth and final day Thiruvonam is the most anticipated. According to beliefs, the spirit of King Mahabali then comes to visit his beloved people. Early morning, the houses are cleaned, the temples are full of worshipers, while Pookalams are made in front of houses. The event most enjoyed during the day is undoubtedly the big meal called Onasadya or Onam Sadya, a lunch feast organized in honour of King Mahabali to show that his subjects are prosperous and happy. A local saying goes: Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam, or, everyone should prepare Onam Sadya, even at the cost of selling all the properties.
The meal consists of nine vegetarian dishes served in banana leaves. Traditionally, the Onasadya menu consisted of rice, chutney, curry, fruit etc. The layout of each ingredient on the leaves is the subject of special attention, and it is customary to sit on a mat on the floor and eat with hands. A drink made of boiled water with cumin and ginger is served, which has its own tangible benefits.
It is also on this day that is held throughout the state competitions called Onakalikal. Many of these games are traditional while the cards, dice, and chess are also present. We practice the Ambeyyal, a kind of archery where the arches are made of bamboo, the Attakalam, a show of force, and ball games. Women engage in specific dances and humming own songs at the festival.
Trichur, the cultural capital of Kerala hosts a procession of elephants, a popular show and followed by the population and visitors. Each elephant is elaborately adorned with silk and jewels. They march under the very eyes of the spectators. Finally, comes the favorite time for children: the distribution of gifts.
Onam marks the start of the first month of the Malayalam calendar and is customary for people to wear new clothes as a sign of renewal. The festival ends with an explosion of fireworks.