Onam: Colors of Harvest Festival in Kerala

Onam is an ancient harvest festival of southern India. It still survives in modern times. The celebrations last for 10 days. Several elements of the culture and tradition of Kerala come alive. The rich cultural heritage of Kerala comes in its best spirit during the ten days of festivities.



One of the oldest festivals in the world

Celebrated since the middle ages, the festival of Onam is the largest annual event of Kerala. The entire population takes part in traditional rituals. Like many ancient festivals, Onam relates to a legend of an Asura King Bali. He was also known as Mahabali or Maveli. Vishnu dethroned and imprisoned him.


He reigned over Kerala in the distant past and under him, the state experienced a golden age. In his kingdom, he ruled with peace and prosperity, free of diseases or deceit. All men were equal, and there was no caste system. The people loved their king.

Bali was the most generous of kings. He was gentle, educated and followed the principles of truth, fairness, and devotion. He learned it from his paternal grandfather Prahlada. The Deva kings were jealous of this.

Bali got the title of Chakravarthy, the King of kings. He even defeated Indra, the most powerful Deva King and the greatest warrior of his era. Indra became jealous of him and sought revenge against Mahabali.

Indra and Vishnu organized the plot to destabilize him. They imprisoned him with the help of Sukracharya, whom Bali trusted. He promised that 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. He soon fails as the child starts demanding things which are not possible. King Bali, determined to honor his promise, did not appear convincing. The people also saw through the treachery later.



Ten days of festivities

Onam celebrations go 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 for the cleaning of homes. The idols are at the center of the flower carpet.

Between the second and fourth day, families continue the preparations. The women sing while preparing Pookalam. 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 on the fifth day on the river Pampa in the famous backwaters of Kerala. Hundreds of rowers operate them sheltered by umbrellas in bright colors. On the sixth and seventh days, families gather together. On the eighth day, the devotees make clay statuettes representing Mahabali. They decorate it with flowers. Families gather on the ninth day of Onam to honor the elders. They 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 comes to visit his beloved people. Women make Pookalams in front of houses. The Onam Sadya menu consists of rice, chutney, curry, fruit etc.

The meal consists of nine vegetarian dishes served in banana leaves. The layout of each ingredient on the leaves is the subject of special attention. It is customary to sit on a mat on the floor and eat with hands.



Onakalikal is on this day throughout the state. Many of these games are traditional while the cards, dice, and chess are also present. People take part in the Ambeyyal. It is a kind of archery where the arches are of bamboo. The Attakalam is a show of force. Women engage in specific dances and humming own songs at the festival.

Elephants adorned with silk and jewels march under the very eyes of the spectators. Onam marks the start of the first month of the Malayalam calendar. It is customary for people to wear new clothes as a sign of renewal. The festival ends with an explosion of fireworks.