Onam is a 10-day Hindu harvest festival celebrating the homecoming of King Mahabali, a benevolent ruler who was sent to the underworld by Lord Vishnu. While Onam is observed by Malayalis and Keralites worldwide, it stands as the official festival of Kerala, characterised by cultural events, rituals, and a grand feast. In this blog post, we delve into five facets of Onam, shedding light on what makes it a uniquely vibrant festival.
Onam: Kerala's Colourful 10-Day Festival
General Knowledge • 28 Aug, 2023 • 1,628 Views
By: Anand Swami
The Legend of Mahabali and Vamana
The genesis of Onam traces back to the legend of Mahabali and Vamana, as cited in various Hindu scriptures. Mahabali, a generous and just king, reigned over Kerala and the three worlds. His prowess made the gods envious, leading them to dispatch Vishnu in the guise of a dwarf Brahmin named Vamana. Vamana asked Mahabali for a piece of land measuring three feet. Once granted, Vamana expanded to cover both the earth and sky in two steps. For the third step, a devoted Mahabali offered his head, prompting Vamana to push him into the underworld. However, Vamana permitted Mahabali an annual visit to his kingdom. This cherished return is celebrated as Onam.
The Date and Time of Onam
Onam's timing is anchored in the Malayalam calendar, adhering to the solar cycle. It's commemorated during the 22nd nakshatra, Thiruvonam, in the month of Chingam, which typically aligns with August-September on the Gregorian calendar. Spanning 10 days, Onam commences on Atham and culminates on Thiruvonam. The pinnacle of the festival is Thiruvonam, marking Mahabali's symbolic return to Kerala. Notably, the exact date shifts yearly based on astronomical determinations.
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The Significance of Onam
Onam venerates Kerala’s harvest, culture, and enduring spirit. It’s a period to convey gratitude to nature for its generous yields and to laud Mahabali's exemplary reign. The festival is a kaleidoscope of Kerala's traditions, encapsulating music, dance, art, cuisine, sports, and games. Onam transcends religious and regional divides, uniting individuals under a shared Malayali identity.
Rituals and Practices of Onam
Onam’s tapestry is rich with rituals and customs observed throughout its 10-day course:
- Pookkalam: Daily creation of floral designs outside homes, which expand from a simple circle on Atham to a grand display by Thiruvonam.
- Sadya: A lavish vegetarian banquet spread on banana leaves, featuring dishes like rice, sambar, avial, and payasam, amongst others.
- Vallamkali: A renowned boat race on Kerala’s rivers, with ornately adorned boats and rhythmic chants.
- Thiruvathirakali: A dance by women, performed around a lamp or floral centrepiece.
- Pulikali: A captivating folk dance featuring men masquerading as tigers and leopards.
- Onakkodi: The tradition of donning new attire for Onam.
Cultural Events of Onam
Onam also hosts an array of cultural events:
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- Onam Kali: A communal game with participants moving in coordinated patterns.
- Onathappan: Clay pyramids symbolising Vishnu, Mahabali, and Prahlada are centred amidst the pookkalam.
- Onavillu: A wooden musical instrument adorned with divine illustrations.
- Athachamayam: A vibrant procession signifying Onam's onset, flaunting Kerala’s diverse art forms.
- Thumbi Thullal & Kaikottikali: Traditional dances performed by women, celebrating Onam's spirit.
Onam embodies the cultural wealth and heritage of Kerala. This festival respects its past, revels in the present, and aspires for a brighter future. It unites individuals from diverse backgrounds, fostering unity and kinship. Radiating joy and gratitude, Onam is indeed an event everyone should partake in at least once in their lives.
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