Kerala’s most important festival, Onam falls during the Malayalam month of Chingam (August – September). Its a time when Kerala decks up like a bride, people decorate their homes and workplaces, floral patterns are everywhere, streets are lined with streamers and banners, NRM (non resident Malayalees) try to return home and even the sharp political divides take a back seat.
Onam is also a harvest festival and it marks the homecoming of the mythical Asura king Mahabali who Malayalees consider as their king. In north India, asuras are not so much in favour! Vishnu’s avatar Vamana, also called Onatthappan, is also revered during this time by installing a clay figure next to the Pookalam or floral carpet.
While its roots lie in Hindu mythology, the festival is celebrated statewide, with people from different religious backgrounds joining in.
The festival is considered to be flagged off with Atthachamayam (Royal Parade on Atham Day) in Thripunithara, a suburb of Kochi. The colourful parade depicts all the elements of Kerala culture with more than 50 floats and 100 tableaux. The main centre of festival is at Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple within Kochi, believed to be the ancient capital of King Mahabali.
The traditional festival showcases the best of cultural traditions. A number of cultural shows such as Vallam Kali, Pulikali, Pookkalam, Onathappan, Thumbi Thullal, Onavillu, Kazhchakkula, Onapottan, Atthachamayam are on display during the ten day festival.
The most visible symbol are the floral carpet, known as Onapookkalam. Kerala is full of flowers during this time and often people go out of their way to create most ambitious patterns composed entirely of flowers. Indeed competitions are held for the best pookalams. When completed, a miniature pandal, hung with little festoons is erected over it. Traditionally, Atthapookalams (pookalam made on the Atham day) included flowers endemic to Kerala and the Dashapushpam (10-flowers), but nowadays all varieties of flowers are used. In the recent years, the floral designs have evolved from the traditional circular shape to unique designs depicting different cultural and social aspects of Kerala life.
Another very important aspect is the sadya or the traditional meal. The feast is served on plantain leaves and consists of about 26 dishes, preparation for which starts well before the actual day. The meal consists of banana chips, papadum, rice, thoran, mezhukkupuratti, kaalan, olan, avail, sambhar, dal served along with a small quantity of ghee, erisheri, rasam, pickles, both sweet and sour, two different types of buttermilk, a chutney powder prepared from grated coconut, payasam eaten either straight or mixed with a ripe small plantain.
Snake boat races are also part of the celebrations, though they may not be actually on the same days.
TEN DAYS OF ONAM
The 10 days are part of the traditional Onam celebrations and each day has its own importance in various rituals and traditions.
The first day of Onam Celebrations starts with Atham day in the Malayalam month of Chingam. It is believed that King Mahabali starts his preparations to descend from Pathala to Kerala on this day. The day also marks the start of festivities at Thrikkakara temple. Celebrations across the state start off with a grand procession at Thrippunithura near Kochi called Atthachamayam. The traditional ritual of laying Pookalam starts on Atham day. The size of pookkalam on this day is called as Athapoo and is small in size.
The second day is marked off when a second layer is added to pookkalam design with 2 different colours apart from yellow (mostly orange and creamy yellow).
The pookalam now will start growing in its size by adding new layers or designs with at least 4 to 5 different flowers. The day also marks the start of shopping activities. From this day onwards people start buying new clothes and jewellery.
Vishakam is considered to be one of the most auspicious days of Onam. In olden days, the markets open their harvest sale on this day, making one of the busiest days in the markets for public.
Anizham is one of the most important day in the Onam days as it kicks off the great Vallam Kali (Snake boat) at many parts of Kerala. A mock Vallam Kali is conducted on this day at Aranmula as a dress-rehearsal for the Aranmula boat race to be held after Onam.
Most of the schools and public offices give holiday from this day onwards and people start packing their bags to their native homes to celebrate the festival with their dear ones. The pookalam design will be very large by this time, with at least 5 to 6 new flowers types added to the original designs.
On the seventh day, the smaller versions of traditional Ona Sadya (Onam special buffet lunch) start in many places. Festivities include Puli Kali (Masked leopard dance) and traditional dance forms like Kaikotti Kali also performed in various functions.
The eighth day starts off with a major traditional ritual where the small statues of Mahabali and Vamana are taken around the house and then installed in the centre of the pookkalam smeared with a rice-flour batter. From this day onwards, the statue will be called Onathappan. Shopping is one of the major activities as the public will be making final purchases for the great Thiruvonam day.
Uthradam is known as ‘First Onam’ because it marks the day when King Mahabali descends onto Kerala. Uthradom is the ninth and the penultimate day of the festival of Onam. A last minute shopping called Uthradappachil happens as it is considered the most auspicious day for purchase of fresh vegetables and fruits along with other provisions for Thiruvonam.
The final day of Onam that culminates the 10 days of Onam Carnival. The day is known as Thiru-Onam (Sacred Onam Day) also known as ‘Second Onam’. The day marks the return of Mahabali to his Kerala. People clean their house, apply rice flour batter on the main entrance, take an early bath, wear new clothes and distribute alms to needy. The eldest female member of each family presents clothes to all the members of the family. Special prayers and masses are organized in temples, churches and mosques that highlight the secular nature of festival. The Pookkalam is prepared to welcome Mahabali. Displays of fireworks dominate the skyline. Onam Sadya feasts are prepared. The afternoon is marked with various traditional Onam games normally seen in rural areas and are organized by resident associations, clubs etc. in large cities.