Onam – when King Mahabali returns to meet his subjects

by Ayan iyengar

Come August 28th and the ten day Onam festival starts with a bang in Kerala. The festival celebrated with joy and gusto across the state and enjoyed to the hilt, Onam is not merely celebrating an occasion, it is tasting tradition and taking in the sights, watching a picture unfold and enjoying the scenes as they flash by, trying to enjoy every bit of it yet feeling that a lot more had been missed. Onam cannot be taken in one go. But the feel of Onam can have you coming back for more. Plan your trip, make your reservations, land there and just enjoy!

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Why is Onam celebrated?

Falling in the Malayali month of Chingam (August-September), considered the 1st month in their calendar, Onam is celebration of the rice harvest festival along with the Festival of Rain Flowers (Pookkalam). It is also the commemoration of Vamana avataram of Lord Vishnu and believed to be the homecoming of the benevolent Asura King Mahabali who was forced to go to the underworld, but returns every year to see the welfare of his beloved subjects. It is a festival with the maximum number of cultural elements, given different names and celebrated one after the other. Mahabali remains a popular figure for his benevolent rule and his statue is placed for worship too next to the flower carpet Pookkalam. The Govt. declares the first four days as holidays for everybody in the state to participate wholeheartedly. A lot many tourists also make their way to Kerala for the occasion hoping to take in the sights and also enjoy during this mass celebration.

Observing Onam

The beauty of the festival lies in its secular fabric. People of all religions, castes and communities celebrate the festival with equal joy and gusto. Onam creates an atmosphere of peace and brotherhood by way of various team sports, cultural programmes, onam-pookalamevents organised during the 10-day period that has one and all participating.

The Onam Celebrations start with Atham It is believed that King Mahabali starts preparing to come to earth on this day to meet his subjects. The Thrikkakara temple also starts its festivities on this day. A grand procession with elephants decorated, folk art presentations, music and dancing alongside make the Atthachamayam procession with about 50 floats and 100 tableaux at Thrippunithura near Kochi a spectacular event. In the olden days it was led by the Kochi Maharaja. After Independence things have changed and the general public is in charge. Pookalam, the flower carpet decoration starts on this day. The beauty of the Pookalam is that starting with a single small yellow flower Athapoo, it keeps growing every day with more flower varieties added till at the end you have a sizeable collection of varied colors. Statues of Mahabali and Vamana are kept near the entrance of each house on Atham.

On the second day Chithira, two more flowers are added to the Pookalam. Preparations begin on this day for Thiruvonam.

The third day is called Chodhi. Some more varities are added to the Pookalam so that the designs would get variety. New clothes and jewellery  are bought on this day.

1The fourth day called Vishakam is one of the most auspicious days in the ten days of the celebrations. Onam related activities kick start on this day. In olden times it was harvest sale and used to be the busiest day of the ten days. The preparations for Pookalam flower decoration is in progress from this day since there would be competitions in these flower arrangements also.

The fifth day Anizham you have the Snake Boat races (Vallam Kali) in several parts of the state. A mock drill is conducted for the Aranmula the famed boat race that would be held after Onam.

The sixth day Thriketa is when people start moving towards their native homes to celebrate with their loved ones. By now the Pookalam would have several varieties of flowers in the decorations.

The seventh day Moolam, the traditional Onam Sadya or the mini buffet would be prepared, especially in the temples. The masked leopard dance is also part of the festivities. Other traditional forms of dance like Kaikotti Kali are also performed. The Official celebrations or the govt. conducted activities start on this day and in the evening, you have heavy illumination on important buildings and temples in Thiruvananthapuram the capital city, Kochi and Kozhikode with a lot of fireworks display.

Pooradam or the eigth day of the Onam celebrations starts with the traditional ritual of cleaning of the small Mahabali and Vamana statues nd then taken in a procession around the house. Then it is installed in the center of the pookalamand smeared with rice-flour batter. This smearing is done by small children. This day onwards the statue is known as Onathappan. the Pookalam design also gets bigger and complex. Shopping is done on this day with Thiruvonam or the tenth day in mind.

The ninth day Uthradom is just before Thiruvonam and towards the end of the celebrations, so it is celebrated with gusto. There is shopping frenzy for fresh vegetables and fruits and other provisions for making the Onam Sadya. This is termed as Uthradappachil. This is also considered an auspicious day especially for these activities.

Uthradom is also known as the First Onam and is supposed to mark the day when Mahabali sets foot on earth in Kerala. He is THIRUVONAM_2013_11supposed to tour the state for four days from then to bless his subjects. The day is marked with celebrations when you can see a lot of complex Pookkalams and sumptuous feasts prepared.

Thiruvonam is the tenth day and considered to be a sacred day since it was on this day that Mahabali was sent to the Nether World or Pathalam by Vamana. As per the boon he received, Mahabali returns to his subjects and blesses them. It is also known as the Second Onam. Besides this other important events also like birthdays of Vamana of Thrikkara temple, Shree Padmanabha Swamy of Thiruvananthapuram etc, are also celebrated. This day is celebrated with lot of gusto and fervor, being the last day of the Onam celebrations.

Celebrating Thiruvonam or the Tenth Day and after that

People wake up early, clean the house, apply rice flour batter on the main entrance to the house ( as a sign of welcome). Then taking a bath, wear new clothes and distribute alms to the needy. The eldest female member of the house presents new clothes to the rest of the members in the house. Since it is a multi-cultural festival enjoyed across the state by one and all, irrespective of TPM_096_trichur_pooram_kerala_DSC_00religion, even mosques and churches are spruced up for the occasion and special prayers are organized.  a special Pookkalam is prepared to welcome Mahabali.

Onam is supposed to conclude on the 10th day, but it continues for two more days after that. On the third day or first day after Thiruvonam, the Onathappan statue that had been placed in the centre is taken to a nearby river or lake and immersed. The pookalam that remains behind is then cleaned. On the fourth day or Chatayam, people dressed as lions and tigers move around showing their skills throughout the city or town. This Puli Kali signifies the end of the Onam Celebrations.In Thiruvananthapuram as a conclusion you have a mega dance festival.

Onam Sadya ( a multiple item meal)

The Onam Sadya or feast is an indispensable part of Thiruvonam. Every Keralite either attempts to prepare it at home (an arduous task) or has it at some place like a community meal or at hotels that specially serve this during Onam. The feast is served on plantain leaves and consists of about 26 dishes, tough at some hotels it could go to 30.

  • Banana chips                                                                                                             hqdefault
  • Special Papad
  • Various vegetable curries
  • Avial
  • Sambhar
  • Dal with a little ghee
  • Erisheri
  • Rasam
  • Pickles, both sweet and sour
  • Two different types of buttermilk
  • A chutney powder prepared from grated coconut
  • A series of dessert Payasam (a sweet dish made of milk, sugar, jaggery and other traditional Indian savories) eaten either straight or mixed with a ripe small plantain.
  • These are the items that generally constitute the Onam Sadya.

It is also said “One must have the Onam lunch even if one is forced to sell his property”, indicating how very tasty and sumptuous it could be.

The cultural aspect of Onam

The ten day festival is like an itinerary of various activities. There is on display very many traditional dance forms like Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal etc. Thiruvathirakali has women dressed in the traditional Kerala Kasavu and dancing in a 1380294686-payippad-boat-race-held-during-onam-festival_2796511circle with a lamp in the centre. Kummattikali is a colorful mask dance where dancers go with a procession of caparisoned elephants. Kathakali, the dance of Kerala is also seen at many stage shows.

At the Thrikkakara temple daily you would have Onam songs, other performances and music on percussion instruments. There is also Onam Sadya for roughly ten thousand people during these celebrations irrespective of religion, caste, creed.

The boat races are a treat to watch, and witnessed by thousands of tourists as well.

You have handloom fairs, weaving and pottery goods especially are sold much more than normal during this period.

Onam come once a year around this time. But the preparations for the festival is much before that since more than a festival it is an essential part of life in Kerala when the entire state gathers in a medley mix of enjoyment and gaiety along with the traditional observances that form the base for the celebration – the return of Mahabali.

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Onam is not a mere festival, it is a celebration that takes time to soak in yet ends in a flourish. People from all walks of life and from all over the state and visitors from across India and even from overseas, are just engulfed in the huge wave of enjoyment and gaiety, religious fervor and frolic, traditional observances and a taste of something different, that is spread over ten days, extended by two more days but is like they say – the experience of a lifetime. 

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