Kerala celebrates its yearly harvest festival under the name of Onam. It is the traditional festival of the state and is celebrated every year with great zeal and enthusiasm.
Onam is celebrated mainly by the Hindu population in Kerala. The celebration features a variety of cultural activities.
The source word for Onam is shravanan(in Sanskrit), which denotes one of the constellations. Onan is also known by several other names, like Shravan Mahotsav, thiru vonam, and thiru onam. The term thiru resembles Lord Vishnu. Therefore, Thiru Onam, or the festival of Onam, is related to the Hindu god Vishnu.
The Onam Festival occurs in the Malayali month of Chingam (August–September) and lasts for four to ten days. Chingam is considered to be the first month of the Malayalam calendar.
The festival of Onam is known for its beautifully decorated Pookalam, delicious Onasadya, beautiful Snake Boat Race, and special Kaikottikali dance. The first day, Atham, and the tenth day, Thiru Onam, are the most important.
Onam is a lively celebration with delicious feasts, traditional music and dances, exciting games, boat rides, and flowers. In 1961, Onam was declared Kerala’s Official Festival because of its popularity and display of the state’s rich culture.
The celebration remembers King Mahabali’s sacrifices and the pleasant times throughout his rule. Every year, people make great preparations to welcome the beloved king, known as “Onathappan.”
They try to please his soul by presenting happiness in his empire and wishing him well. Each of the ten days of Kerala’s harvest festival has importance and reflects the progress of Mahabali’s journey home.
Kerala’s rich cultural heritage is displayed in its best form and spirit during the ten-day celebration. The delicious dinner, Onasadya, prepared on Thiruonam, is the most important ritual of the Onam celebration.
Millions of tourists from around the world visit Kerala to celebrate Onam. The Indian government has taken note of this occasion. It strongly promotes Onam worldwide and conducts a “Tourist Week” for Kerala during the Onam festival.
The mythology behind the Onam celebration
Onam celebrates King Mahabali’s visit to his people. This 10-day celebration is a special occasion for all Malayalees, who celebrate the arrival of their king on this day.
The story goes that during the rule of the mighty asura (demon) king, Mahabali, Kerala saw its golden era. Prahalada’s grandson, Maha Bali, was a powerful, learned king who valued education.
Everybody in the state was happy and prosperous, and the king was well obeyed by his subjects. Apart from all his virtues, Mahabali had one shortcoming.
He was egoistic. The Gods used this fault in Mahabali’s character to end his rule, as they felt threatened by Mahabali’s growing popularity.
One day, while Maha Bali was doing a yagna, a short, young, radiant boy entered the yagna shala. As part of the custom, Maha Bali greeted this bright child and asked what he desired.
The small youngster requested three steps of land. To the dissatisfaction of his Guru Shukracharya, who warned him that the guest was none other than Lord Vishnu himself, Maha Bali accepted the child’s request immediately.
According to mythology, as soon as the three steps were granted, the young Vamana took the giant form known as Trivikrama and measured the entire earth with the first step of his foot.
Then, with the second step of his foot, he measured the full sky. These two levels included the whole of Mahabali’s empire, the earth, and the sky. Vamana then asked the king where he should place his third step.
The grandson of the Lord’s greatest devotee, Prahlada, King Maha Bali, happily presented his head for the third step in absolute devotion and surrender.
Recognizing his devotion, the Lord blessed him. He sent him to Pathala, promising to make him Indra in the next Manvanthara, and gave him the responsibility to guard the gates of Pathala by himself.
Vishnu gave Maha Bali permission to return to his kingdom from Pathala once a year at the request of his people. The Onam festival is held on this day. People make all efforts to celebrate the festival in a grand way and impress their dear king.
Maha Bali was a magnificent Asura king. He was proud since he owned all of the territories he could see and was thought to be invincible.
This Vamana avatar mythology is puranic, reflecting a more profound truth, a moral lesson based on historical or scientific happenings hidden inside a story.
Significance of the Onam festival.
Onam has been a part of the Malayalee culture for decades. Yes, Onam is a Malayali harvest festival, not a Hindu one. Onam celebrations can be traced back to the Sangam era.
Onam celebrations were first observed around 800 BC, during the rule of Kulasekhara Perumal. Back then, the entire month of Chingam was supposed to be celebrated as the Onam season.
After the harsh monsoon month of Karkidakam, which brought many hardships, residents in Kerala look forward to the spring season in the month of Chingam.
By genuinely performing the rituals, one can remove hardships and barriers from their path to prosperity.
Onam displays the renewed energy and excitement that marks the start of the spring season. People celebrate this festival with traditional enthusiasm, involving activities like family gatherings, temple visits, gifting one another Onakkodi, and plenty of other fun activities.
Origin of the festival
The Maturaikkci, a Tamil poem from the Sangam period, contains the oldest recorded reference to Onam. It mentions Onam being celebrated at Madurai temples when sports and duels were performed, offerings were sent to the temples, and people dressed up and conducted feasts.
Onam celebrations, offerings to Vishnu, feasts, and community events are described in Periyazharwar’s 9th-century Pathikas and Pallads.
As mentioned in some 11th-century inscriptions, a group of people made a series of offerings to Lord Vishnu’s avatar, Vamana. The offerings were conducted over two days before Thiru Onam in the Thrikkakara Temple of Kochi.
Kerela’s Tiruvalla Temple has an inscription from the 12th century that refers to the festival of Onam. The inscription depicts how this Vishnu temple received contributions as offerings during the Onam festival.
Onam is described in a 16th-century European biography. It claims, among other things, that Onam is always celebrated in September and that the Malayali people paint their homes with flowers and daub them with cow dung, believing it to be auspicious because of its relationship with the goddess Lakshmi.
Where is Onam celebrated? Places associated with Onam celebrations
Trivandrum is one of the cities in Kerala and is a chief attraction during Onam. Various religious and cultural celebrations are conducted, and the festival is celebrated with the utmost joy and zeal. The buildings are decorated with lights, and unique dishes are prepared.
Palakkad is another city that has made its way onto the list of places to visit during the Onam festival. Onathallu is a specific type of event that is held during the Onam celebration.
It is essentially Kerala’s traditional wrestling sport, which is highly popular and performed in central and northern Kerala. In this sport, two players compete against one another, wrestle, and exchange blows to toss down the opponent. Whoever does so wins the game. Onathallu is played in the afternoon after Onam’s delicious meal.
Thrissur’s Swaraj Round is a must-see during the Onam celebrations. Hundreds of grown men wear tiger costumes and gather at the Swaraj Round during Onam to dance to the beat of traditional musical instruments.
It is one of the unique ways to celebrate the festival. Alleppey, also known as Alappuzha, is also a significant tourist attraction in Kerala during Onam. People get on houseboats and cruise through Kerala’s lovely backwaters, discovering the scenic villages surrounding it. Furthermore, delicious foods are also served.
Thrippunithura, in Ernakulam, is also famous for its Onam celebrations. The Layam Ground in Thrippunithura is one of the best places for cultural events during the 10-day Onam holiday, beginning with the famed Athachamayam Festival.
The event opens with a street parade where Kerala’s traditional art forms are displayed. During Onam, a popular form of worship called Theyyam is performed. It is usually practiced in the North Malabar area of Kerala and holds special significance.
However, the performers of Theyyam belong to the lower caste, and the locals consider Theyyam itself a god and seek blessings. Apart from this, Onapottan is another concept one can witness during Onam in Kannur.
When and how is Onam celebrated?
The start of the Onam celebrations
The principal activities for the festival begin in the state on the initial days. Pookalam marks the first day of the celebration with beautiful floral carpets.
The girls design a Pookalam in the garden of the house. Boys help in gathering flowers to help them. With each passing day, more flowers of different colors are added to this pookalam. Special prayers are also conducted in the temples for Atham.
Thiruvonam is the most important and exciting day of the Onam festivities. The celebrations begin as early as 4 a.m. People clean their homes, take early baths, put on new clothes, and pray elaborately to obtain God’s blessings.
A big and graceful pookalam is prepared to welcome King Mahabali’s spirit on this day. The delicious Onasadya lunch is the highlight of the Thiruvonam celebration.
The people of Kerala find great joy in preparing delicious traditional meals for Onasadya. While some people visit restaurants and hotels to enjoy the delicious Onasadya, others prefer cooking the meals at home. It is a supper containing all the traditional dishes.
The Malayalee people believe in the Malayalam proverb “Kanam Vittu Onam Unnanam,” which means “We should eat the Thiruonam meal even if we have to sell all our belongings.”Onasadya is always eaten by hand and consists of 25 to 30 components that balance the six primary flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent.
From the order in which the meals are given to the food themselves, the feast combines Ayurveda and indigenous wisdom that has been observed since the festival started.
The meal is served on a fresh plantain leaf, tapering end to the left. On the left of the leaf, two types of salted chips or upperi — made from banana and colocasia — and shakaraveratti (fried banana bits coated with jaggery) mark the beginning of a long list of dishes that are essential to the sadya or meal.
Chilies soaked in curd and dried are sometimes served with the upperi.
Following that, two types of papad, some salt, and a small variety of bananas, common in Kerala, are placed on the leaf. The sadya includes ginger pickle to promote digestion, mango pickle to be enjoyed with curd-based dishes, and lime pickle to cleanse the palate.
The side dishes are served before the rice is served. The avail, a semi-dry meal of mixed vegetables on a curd or coconut base, is perhaps the most important of these.
Activities performed during Onam
Onam is celebrated with a variety of activities across the state. Pulikali performers dress up as tigers and act out hunting scenes to entertain the audience.
Kummattikali performers dress in plaited grass and carry a large wooden mask. They go from house to house, collecting small gifts and entertaining children.
An elephant parade is conducted on the streets of Thrissur. The Kathakali artists perform the traditional kathakali dance at Cheruthuruthy.
On the day, women also perform the traditional clap dance, Kaikotikalli. In addition, Vallamkali, the famous snake boat race, is organized in various areas of the state to celebrate the day.
Sport and Games
People also take part in a variety of sports and games. These are referred to as Onakalikal. Some of them are rigorous games such as Talappanthukali and Kutukutu and combats such as Kayyankali and Attakalam. Onakalikal also includes archery.
Senior members enjoy themselves by playing indoor games such as cards and chess. There is also a swinging tradition on Onam. A decorated swing is swung from a high branch of a tree, and young men and ladies enjoy it while singing traditional songs.
Rituals of the Onam celebration
In the state of Kerala, the Onam Carnival lasts ten days. In some parts of the state, celebrations are limited to four to six days. Onam was previously celebrated for over a month and more extensively. Scholars argue that the festivities have calmed down significantly in recent years.
Nevertheless, Onam is celebrated with pleasure and joy for over ten days. Each day has its own set of rites and rituals, which the traditional people of Kerala faithfully observe. The people celebrate the festival with the utmost joy and enthusiasm, and the atmosphere in Kerala blooms with happiness and excitement.
The first day, Atham, and the tenth day, Thiruvonam, is the most important. The ninth day of Uthradam is also quite crucial in several districts of Kerala.
Day 1 of Onam-Atham.
The first day of the ten-day Onam celebration is known as Atham. Because Atham falls ten days before the asterism Onam or Thiru Onam, the traditional people of Kerala consider it holy and fortunate.
People take a bath early in the morning and pray at the local temple. Then they eat a special breakfast of steamed bananas and fried pappadam (pappad). This breakfast is served until the ninth and final day of Thiru Onam.
Pookalam, also known as Athapoo, is a beautiful flowery mat made by the ladies of the house in the garden. It is made to welcome the mythical King Mahabali during Onam. Each day, more flowers and fresh designs are added to this pookalam.
The choice of flower is also crucial, as a different flower is chosen each day for a specific God or Goddess.
On the day of Atham, a large parade called Athachamyam is also carried out. The parade is held to honor the royal custom of the former state of Kochi, when the King would journey to the Thripunithura Fort with his complete army.
Even in the absence of the King today, the tradition retains its grand charm. Athachamyam is a traditional celebration with an elephant parade, folk art exhibitions, music, and dance.
Day 2 of Onam-Chithira.
Chithira is the second day of Onam celebrations. There are no formal ceremonies for the day, although people pray to seek divine blessings.
The day is significant for females as they will add new flowers to Pookalam, which began on the day of Atham. They need to decorate the pookalam in the most beautiful way possible. The boys in the family will be in charge of arranging flowers for the girls.
Day 3 of Onam-Chodhi.
Chothi, or Chodi, is the third day of Onam’s ten-day celebration. The day is filled with activity and buzz. People shop in the markets to buy new garments and accessories for Onam. Gifts are often purchased for all household members, including the servants. Shopping for close relatives is also done.
Chothi has no defined rituals. On this day, specific flowers are also added to Pookalam. It should be noted that different flowers are placed in Pookalam on different days, as each flower is dedicated to a different God or Goddess. As a result, Pookalam grows in size with each passing day and gains new looks.
Day 4 of Onam-Visakam.
The fourth day of the Onam celebrations is known as Vishagam or Visakam. With only a few days remaining until the big day, the enthusiasm among Kerala residents can be seen. On Visakam, there is a lot of activity in the market and households.
Women who have to prepare the elaborate Onasadya meal on Thiruvonam get involved in the preliminary preparations on Visakam. The preparation of multiple pickles and pappadams (papad), among other things, begins now.
Girls create fresh designs for Pookalam using flowers of various colors and shapes. Pookalam designing competitions are also held in multiple places. These are immensely popular in Kerala and attract many designers and viewers.
Day 5 of Onam-Anizham.
The fifth day of Onam celebrations is known as Anizham. The big Snake Boat Race event, Vallamkali, is conducted on this day. This event is widely popular.
The competition takes place on the banks of the Pamba River in Aranmulla. A large number of domestic and foreign tourists gather to see the colorful scene of the event.
Vallamkali features a huge number of long snake-like boats called chundan vallams. Hundreds of rowers clothed in traditional dhoti and turban oar, each beautifully painted boat.
Boats oared to the beat of vanchipattu or boat songs. Vallamkali is primarily a team event because a single mistake by an oarsman can cause the boat to overturn.
Day 6 of Onam-Thriketa.
The sixth day of the Onam carnival is known as Triketta or Thriketa. By this time, the people of Kerala are filled with excitement and joy. Various cultural societies throughout the state organize cultural programs and social events.
People of different sectors, castes, and creeds attend these events, as Onam has evolved into a secular celebration.
There are no specific rituals for Triketta Day. It is a time for those who are away from their families for various reasons to return home; Onam is a time for family get-togethers, and no one loves to be apart from family and close ones.
The joys of celebration multiply when shared with family and close friends. On this pleasant note, Pookalam receives a new design and fresh flowers.
Day 7 of Onam-Moolam.
Moolam is the seventh day of the ten-day Onam festival. With only two days left of the festival, the state of Kerala is buzzing with excitement.
The bright colors of the festivities can be seen throughout the state’s markets, where shops are overfilled with items, and people try hard to have some space. There is the hustle and bustle everywhere as people rush to finish their final bit of shopping.
The spirit of excitement and contentment is even more visible on the faces of millions of Kerala residents. People get the impression that the time to meet their Onathappan has arrived.
On this day, pookalam is prepared in a new pattern using kondattam (gaiety) and the most beautiful flowers. King Mahabali is on his way, and there is joy all around.
Day 8 of Onam-Pooradam.
Pooradam is the eighth day of Onam’s ten-day celebration. The day is significant in Onam celebrations. Devotees make clay idols called Ma in the shape of small pyramids.
Each Ma is decorated with flowers. Because the idol is made on Pooradam, it is also known as Poorada Uttigal.
The size of the Attha Poo is increased on Pooradam due to the addition of a design with a different flower. People clean their houses to ensure that everything is neat when the Onathappan arrives.
People also visit their friends and relatives, exchanging heartfelt holiday greetings. This is a busy period for last-minute purchases for people to ensure that their festival preparations are up to mark.
Day 9 of Onam-Uthradam.
Utradam, also known as Uthradam, is the ninth and last day of the Onam festival. There is joy all around as people prepare to welcome King Mahabali’s. In some parts of Kerala, the Onam celebrations begin with Utradam.
The day is observed as a public holiday. Some people also refer to Utradam as the first Onam and Thiru Onam as the second Onam.
On Utradam, tenants and dependents of Nayar Tarawads (traditional large joint families sharing a common kitchen) bring produce from their crops or labor to the Karanavar (eldest member of the Tarawad).
These presents from tenants to the Karanavar are known as Onakazhcha. Karanavar meets them kindly and treats them to a delicious lunch on Thiru Onam. Village artists often bring their handicrafts to the Karanavar and are generously rewarded.
Day 10 of Onam-Thiruvonam, or Thiru Onam.
On the tenth and most important day of the Onam carnival, the lovely state of Kerala blooms with the shouts of Onaashmsakal, “To everyone, Onam Wishes.” People believe that the spirit of the famous King Mahabali enters Kerala on Thiru Onam.
People clean their homes, take early baths, put on new clothes, and participate in special prayers organized in individual homes and afterward in local temples. Pookalam prepares to welcome Mahabali.
Clay mounds in the shape of pyramids depicting Lord Vishnu and Mahabali are made and kept in front of the Pookalam.
When is Onam 2022?
The Onam festival of 2022 will begin on August 30 (Tuesday). The month of Chingam, the first month of the Malayalee calendar, starts on this day.
The ninth day of Onam, Uthradam, will be celebrated on September 7, 2022 ( Wednesday), followed by Thiruvonam on September 8, 2022 (Thursday). September 9 (Friday) and September 10(Saturday) mark the concluding days of the festival.
The main rituals of the occasion will be performed on the Sacred Onam Day, Thiru Onam (September 8, 2022).
The Thiru Onam Nakshatra will start on September 7, 2022, at 4 p.m.
On September 8, 2022, Thiru Onam Nakshatra will end at 1:46 PM.
Onam is not only celebrated in Kerala but also in several other states and countries. People of all castes and creeds actively participate in the celebration. The Malayalee people in the UAE, the United States, and Singapore also observe Onam with utmost zeal.
Onam is considered the most cheerful and harmonious festival in south India. The delicious sweets made during the festival are famous worldwide.
Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Visakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradam, and Thiruonam are the primary days of the Onam celebration. However, Avittom and Chatayam are also included in the festival.
These days mark the end of the Onam celebration. Preparations are made for the departure of the mighty King Mahabali after his short yearly visit. The pookalam is cleared from the gardens.
The flowers are removed, and the clay statues of the King, popularly known as Onathappan, are immersed in the nearby water bodies. Vallamkali and Pulikali rituals continue to be organized in some places.
What is the unique and traditional meal served at the Onam festival?
The Onam sadhya, or Onasadya, is the traditional meal of the Onam celebration. Onam Sadhya is a native multi-course vegetarian feast eaten on a banana leaf and includes over 11–25 dishes.
Which part of the Onam festival is most important?
Thiruvonam is the most important day of Onam. Thiruvonam is thought to be the Nakshatra of Lord Vishnu, who pressed King Mahabali into the underworld with his foot.
How is Onam celebrated?
The Onam celebration brings together all of Kerala’s colors, history, culture, and religion. The festival’s main features are Pookalam flower carpets, banquet lunches, boat races, Puli Kali, and the Kaikottikkali dance.
What should we do during Onam?
Start creating and beautifully decorating the pookalam. Visit the temples on the first day. Clean your house on the second day. Start preparing the sadhya on the fourth day. Exchange gifts with your loved ones. Make preparations for the sadya meal on the ninth day. Take your entire family shopping.
What should we not do during Onam?
Avoid the consumption of wine and other intoxicants. Avoid getting involved in gambling and other corrupt practices. Non-vegetarian foods must be avoided during the ten days of Onam.