Onam- The festival of God’s own country

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Waving a send-off to monsoons and inviting the harvest season, the Kerala festival, Onam, is celebrated by Malayali Hindus annually across the world. The most popular and the largest festival in the country is celebrated for 10 days. The date of Onam according to Panchangam is celebrated on the 22nd Thiruvonam in the Chingam month of the Malayalam calendar. This comes usually in August and September as per the Georgian calendar. 

Why is Onam celebrated?

The auspicious Onam festival is celebrated to honor the great king Mahabali. Keralites believe in the return of their beloved king Mahabali’s spirit to Kerala during the Onam, every year. This year, Onam 2021 commences from 12th August and lasts up to the 23rd of the same month. Women across the state wear a traditional white saree or cream-colored saree with a golden border, also known as Mundu or Neriyathu. Whereas men wear a white-colored dhoti with a Kasavu border and a shirt or kurta that compliments the dhoti. The traditional and celebration environments can be witnessed across Kerala from the first day of Onam itself. Do you know there is a mythological story behind the Onam or Thiruvonam festival celebrations?

The Story behind the festival

Mahabali, the grandson of Prahlada, was a strong and great king from the Asuran tribe. Despite being a demon king, he was kind-hearted, merciful and beloved by his people. This powerful and muscular man defeated all the Gods and took over the ruling of the three lokas. 

Fearing his popularity and power, Lord Vishnu attended the king in the avatar of Vamana while he was performing a yagna. Vamana demanded land for his 3 footsteps for which the king promised to fulfil. The first footstep covered the land (the Bhuloka) and the second foot occupied the entire sky (the Brahma Loka). When Vaman asked for space for his third footstep, Mahabali politely bent his head and asked him to step upon him. Vamana slowly stepped upon the king’s head and pushed him to the Pathala Loka. As a result, 

Lord Vishnu was very impressed with this act and granted a wish for Mahabali to attend his people once a year. This time every year is celebrated as the Onam festival. Keralites across the world, irrespective of their religion, celebrate the festival inviting their most loved and respected king Mahabali to Kerala. 

The Ritual of Thiruvonam

The 10 days festival celebrations include devotional prayers, cultural programs, floral designs also known as Pookkalam followed by boat races and dance performances. Onam is also known popularly as Thiruvonam or Sravana Mahotsav. Each day has a different name with a unique significance. There are post-Onam celebrations after the Onam day which sums up to the 10-day Onam festival. 

The grand celebration of Onam starts with Athachamayam at Tripunithura near Kochi. The place is filled with marching decorated elephants, presentations of different folk arts, music, drum beats and people in cultural dresses wearing masks. etc 

In history, the king of Kochi who is leading a giant military force attended his people along while travelling from his palace to Thrikkakara temple. The Malayalis follow this ritual in the remembrance of the king. The journey begins from Thripunithura to Vamana temple at Thrikkakara in Ernakulam district.

Pookkalam 

The beautiful decorations of flowers of different colors are an eye feast to watch. The ritual of making Pookkalam or floral designs generally starts on Atham day. The size of pookkalam is relatively smaller in size with one circular layer on the Atham day. The size of pookkalam gradually increases with each day up to the next 10 days. 

The delightful floral designs have little lamps placed in the middle of the floral rangoli art. They are spread over the floor like a mat at k, the entrances of each house and temple premises. All the women in the state perform this ritual by adding their personal touch in the design-making and decorations adding much beauty to the festival.

Dance

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Keralites perform various cultural dances during the occasion. The dances include Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thulai,  Onam Kali etc. Kathakali is the other popular dance of Kerala that is performed representing the popular legends from mythology. 

Thiruvathira Kali is a traditional dance where a group of women dances in a circle around a lamp. The Kummattikali is a dance performed by wearing color masks. There are other such cultural dances performed during the auspicious festival.

Pulikali

Also known as kaduvakali, the Pulikali is a tiger dance frequently witnessed during the festive season. People painted like tigers in black, red, and yellow dance to the beats of the drums. This dance is mainly seen in the district of Thrissur which attracts thousands of visitors to participate in this dance. 

The official celebrations as per government records begin from this day. The commercial capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, and Kochi are decorated with illuminating lights during these days. 

Vallamkali 

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Another enthralling event in Onam is Vallamkali or the snake boat race. Every year the race is held on the Pampa river and includes the Aranmula Uthrattathi boat race and Nehru Trophy Boat race. 

Onam Sadya 

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The celebrations followed by a delicious meal on a banana leaf completes the festival. With 10-13 traditional dishes made from seasonal vegetables being served on a banana leaf, the Onam Sadya is celebrated in the last two days of the 10-day Onam festival. People enjoy this appetizing and tasty food along with their family and acquaintances and keep themselves energized throughout the occasion. The dishes served to reach up to 30 in temples and hotels.  

Post-Onam rituals 

The major celebrations of Onam come to an end on the day of Thiruvonam. The following two days are celebrated as the third and fourth Onam. The third Onam is known as Avvittom which signifies the preparations of the king Mahabali spirit’s return to the heavens. The custom starts by taking the Onathappan statue, placed in the middle of Pookkalam for the past 10 days and immersing it in the rivers and sea.

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