Onam is one of the most significant harvest festivals of Kerala and is an attraction for thousands of people outside and within the state. All the activities during this season are centered on worshipping, music, dance, sports, boat races and good food. This festival is celebrated in the Malayalam month Chingam (ending of August and beginning of September). Onam is a harvest festival and celebrates the reward of nature after a year of hard work. The merry making of the festival includes an elaborate procession of Trichur and amusing boat races on River Pampa. Women dress up in heavy jewelry and new saris and make complx and detailed designs of “rangolis” and “pookkalam”(with flowers) in front of their homes.
Onam is celebrated in the memory of King Mahabali. It was said that King Mahabali ruled Kerala a long time ago and looked after the welfare of the people. Thus Onam shows the blissful rule of the King and the freedom, which the people enjoyed under his rule. The people also believe that during Onam, the King returns to Kerala to pay a visit to his people.
The people in Kerala arrange for this festival by cleaning up their houses and decorating them. On the occasion of Onam, everybody in the family wears new clothes. Delicious sweets and dishes are prepared and served on the banana leaves. “Pookalam” a flower mat is visible outside every house. This mat is a symbol of welcoming King Mahabali. On the eve of Onam, traditional rituals are performed and the people celebrate the occasion with a grand feast. “Payasam” a sweet and tempting porridge is one of the favorite dessert served on the eve of Onam.
“Vallamkali” or a great boat race is an attractive feature of this festival. In this game hundreds of men row the boats to the beat of drums and cymbals. An interesting thing to note is that above each boat there is a scarlet silk umbrella and gold coins are hung from the umbrella. This event is extremely popular with various boats competing with each other in order to win the race.
Onam is celebrated not only by Hindus but also by Christians and Muslims. It is one such festival that unites all the people regardless of race and religion.
Onam is one of the most popular festivals of Kerala and like any Indian festival there are many legends and stories attached to it. Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala celebrate it with a special zeal as they attribute its origin to their community.Below are given some popular legends associated with Onam.
The Return Of Mahabali – Long time ago, there lived a kind yet mighty demon king Mahabali, who was the ruler of Kerala. His people were very happy under his rule. Afraid of his rising popularity, the ever-jealous gods approached Lord Vishnu with a request to put an end to his rule. Because of his charitable nature, Vishnu disguised himself as a Brahmin dwarf called Vaman and sought three steps of land from Mahabali. However, Vishnu then increased his size to cosmic proportions and covered the entire earth in one step and entire heaven in the second. When he asked Mahabali, where to place his third step, he humbly offered his head to the sacred deity. Pleased with his virtues, Vishnu made him the king of hell and granted him a boon that he could visit his kingdom once a year. Thus Onam is celebrated to welcome the legendary king returning annually to his earthy kingdom.
Palliodam Boat – Once some men were sailing on a boat called Palliodam, laden with food and it got stuck in the narrow turning of the river. The head oarsmen set out to seek help from the hut near the river. However when he reached the hut, he found a poor widow and her children weeping because of hunger and poverty. The benevolent man took some food from his boat and gave it to them. As soon as it was done, the boat could easily move with the main course of the river again. Since then it has become a custom to feed a poor person on the eve of Onam.
A Vanishing Boy – Once the head of Katoor Mana, the Nambuditi Brahmin family was bathing near Aranmulla in river Pampa. After praying to the Gods, he was waiting for a poor man to feed to complete his religious duties. While waiting he started praying to Lord Krishna and after sometime saw a poor boy in rags standing before him. The Brahmin affectionately gave him bath, dressed him and fed him well. However it is said that the boy disappeared after eating and could be found nowhere. Only once he spotted the boy near the Aranmulla temple, just to loose him again. Therefore the Brahmin concluded the boy to be god himself and since then Nambudiri Brahmins offer food to deity in Aranmulla temple on Onam every year.
Ten Days of Onam
The festival of Onam continues for ten days in the state of Kerala. In some regions of the state, festivities are restricted to four to six days only. However, the scholars say that the festivities have toned down a lot in the present time. In the earlier days, Onam was celebrated for a month and much more lavishly.Nevertheless, Onam is still celebrated with gaiety and joy on all the ten days of the festivities. There are some set rituals for each day and the people of Kerala dutifully follow them. The mood of people is upbeat all through the festival. Of all these days the first day Atham and the tenth day Thiruvonam are the most significant ones. Ninth day Uthradam is also considered to be extremely important from the point of view of the celebrations in several parts of Kerala.
Atham-Day One – Atham is the first day of festivities in the ten-day-long Onam carnival. This day of Atham comes ten days before the asterism Onam or Thiru Onam. Hence Atham is regarded as holy and auspicious by the traditional people of Kerala.
Chithira-Day Two – Chithira is the second day of celebrations in the ten-day-long Onam festivities. There are not any marked rituals for this day but people offer their prayers to evoke the divine blessings.
Chodhi-Day Three – Third day of the ten day long festival of Onam is called Chothi or chodi. The day is marked by lots of activities. Frenzied shopping can be witnessed in all the market place as everybody buys new clothes and accessories for the grand festival of Onam.
Visakam-Day Four – Vishagam or Visakam is the fourth day of the Onam festivities. Since the number of days left for the big days are few now, the excitement becomes obvious among the people of Kerala. Brisk activities in the market and households can be witnessed on the day of Visakam.
Anizham-Day Five – Anizham is the fifth day of Onam celebration. A major attraction of this day is the grand Snake boat race event called Vallamkali, which takes place on the fifth day of Onam. This hugely popular competition happens on the banks of river Pamba at Aranmulla. A multitude of domestic and international tourists come to witness the colorful spectacle of the race.
Thriketa-Day Six – Thriketa is the sixth day of the carnival of Onam. A feeling of joy and happiness can be felt amongst the people of Kerala at this time. Cultural programmes and social gatherings are organized by various cultural societies all over the world. People of all caste and religion participate in these events, as the festival of Onam has become a secular festival.
Moolam-Day Seven – Moolam is the seventh day of the festival of Onam. With just two days left for the festival now, enthusiasm grips the state of Kerala. There is hustle-bustle everywhere as the excited people do their last bit of shopping. People get to feel that the time of meeting their Onathappan has just come.
Pooradam-Day Eight – Pooradam is the eighth day of the ten-day long carnival of Onam. On this day the devotees create clay idols called Ma. As the idol is created on the day of Pooradam, it is also called Poorada Uttigal. Each Ma is decorated with flowers.
Uthradam-Day Nine – On the day of Uthradam, the tenants and dependents of large traditional joint families bring the produce of their farms or the product of their toil to the Karanavar (eldest member of the Tarawad). These gifts from the tenants to the Karanvar are called Onakazhcha. Karanvar greets these people warmly and treats them with a sumptuous meal on Thiru Onam.
Thiruvonam-Day Ten – On this day the enchanting state of Kerala reverberates with the chants of Onaashmsakal, “To everyone, Onam Wishes”. According to the people, the spirit of legendry King Mahabali visits the state of Kerala.
At Aranmulla, there is a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna. Thousands of people gather on the banks of river Pamba to observe the exciting Snake boat races. Near about thirty chundan vallams or snake boats participate in the festival. These boats are steered by oarsmen dressed in the white dhotis and turbans. Along with the race, some traditional boat songs are also sung. The oarsmen splash their oars into the water to the rhythm of the songs. They guide their boats seemingly like a fish on move. A spectacular show of display on the boat includes a golden lace at the head of the boat, the flag and the ornamental umbrella at the center. Although it’s a highly competitive event, the festival is more a visual extravaganza.
Till date on the eve of Thiru Onam the boat Palliodam floats down from Katoormana to the accompaniment of blowing of music and drum beating. Torches are lit and snake boats accompany the procession. This colorful boat festival is held on Uthruttathi or on the fifth day after Thiru Onam.Each of the snake boat belongs to a village along the banks of the river Pamba and is worshipped like a deity. Only men are allowed to board or even touch the boat and that too just barefoot. Every year the boat is oiled mainly with fish oil, coconut shell and carbon mixed with eggs. This black mixture keeps the wood strong and the boat slippery in water. The village carpenter carries out annual repairs lovingly and people take pride in their boat, which represent their village and is named after it.
Custom demands that the Nambudiri Brahmin be at the main rudder oar about 12 feet long. There are four other main oarsmen who control the movement of the boat. And in just few minutes the boat can turn around by the twist of hand by the chief oarsmen. In the olden days the villagers used to sit in the boat in the order of their castes but today the order is changing though a certain pattern can still be distinguished. Everyone from the carpenter, the barber, the goldsmith, the blacksmith as well as the agricultural laborers-all have a place on the boat. And in close harmony, they pull their oars. In Trichur, a vibrant procession with dazzlingly caparisoned elephants is taken out.