by Sudha Mathew
The monsoon is over and it is time for Onam, celebrating Kerala’s biggest festival. Onam festival is rooted in history and tradition as it looks back at the dominant agrarian culture of the state and also marks the legendary King Mahabali’s homecoming. It has become a state-wide festival and public holiday, eagerly awaited by the people of Kerala known as Malayalis. Onam usually falls in August-September, known as the Malayali month of Chingam. Onam 2014 is on 7th of September. In this article I have traced the roots, customs and practices of the festival, for the benefit of those interested in knowing more about this joyous and colourful post-monsoon festival.
Onam has been an integral part of the Malayalee consciousness now for as long as 12 centuries. In fact the very first account of it hails from 800 A.D. i.e. the reign of Kulasekhara Perumal and its history is steeped in mythology. In fact, the history of Onam is twofold. On one hand it has always been celebrated to mark Kerala’s booming agrarian past and present, and on the other, the mythological part, marks the homecoming of King Mahabali. It is believed that Mahabali, the asura king of netherworld, who conquered both earth and heaven, even though a demon king was utterly pious and believed in looking after all his subjects. Due to his pious nature, Lord Vishnu in the form of Vamana asked for three paces of ground measured by his own foot. Upon receiving Mahabali’s word for granting the same, Vamana grew till by one stride he could cover the whole of earth and the whole of heaven by another. Since for his third stride Mahabali offered his own head to be stepped upon, Vamana granted him the rule of netherworld and his wish of visiting his earthly subjects once a year. Onam is supposed to mark this homecoming of the beloved king of Kerala, King Mahabali. Since his subjects want him to be reassured of their continued happiness, they celebrate the day with a feast and new clothes.
The festival lasts for 10 days beginning with Atham and ending with Thiruvonam.
The very first day or Atham sees the laying of Pookalam, the ornate flower carpets arranged intricately with flowers of varied colours. The young people in the family work together in gathering and arranging the flowers and the resultant floral carpets are one of the highlights of the season. The first day also marks the start of celebrations at Thrikkakara temple and the grand procession of Atthachamayam which include folk art presentations, music, dancing, and elephant processions. The following days are known as Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradom and Thiruvonam. All the days before the final day i.e. Thiruvonam, are preparation for the final celebration. So, from Chithira to Uthradom there preparatory practices like cleaning of Mahabali’s statues and taking them out on a procession, additions on the Pookalam, buying and gifting of new clothes, Puli Kali (the famous masked leopard/tiger dance) while Anizham usually marks the starting of Kerala’s famous boat races.
The final day of Thiruvonam witnesses the grandest of celebration with festivities starting at 4 am. People clean their houses, cleanse themselves, don on fresh clothes and seek blessings through elaborate prayers. Since this day is taken to be Mahabali’s homecoming day, the finest Pookalam is laid out on Thiruvonam. Further, each family witness its eldest female member present clothes to all other family members. Throughout the state, temples, churches and mosques also organize special prayers.
The other highlight of the final day is Onam Sadya or Onasadya. This is an elaborate lunch buffet comprising of atleast 11-13 different dishes. This lunch provision starts from the seventh day itself, but on a smaller scale. On the final day or Thiruvonam, people from all over the state partake in this tradition wholeheartedly. No matter what the economic capacity of a household, the feast is prepared in each house with enthusiasm.
The dishes usually featuring in the menu are Rice, Parippu, Rasam, Sambar, Kaalan, Olan, Koottukari, Erissery, Aviyal, Kichadi, Pachadi, Puliyinchi, Thoran, Jaggery and Banana Chips, Achaar, Pappadam and desserts like Prathaman and Payasams.
The traditional Onam Sadya can also be found at other places in India, especially those with specialized restaurants and houses, some of which are listed here.
But in order to experience the festival in its true form, one needs to visit Kerala at least once in their lifetime. The visit and stay are also extremely pocket friendly as it takes place in an off- season, which translates into the best air fare and hotel bargains. Two of the most wonderful accommodations during this time are
Both accommodations offer quality service at very competitive prices, especially during the off season. But what is most striking about them is their hospitability which sets them apart from others by a mile. During Onam, the locals welcome all visitors. But a stay at such charming villas and homestays make the visit just a little extra special with personal attention and insights into the most popular festival of Kerala.
Colors of Onam: Economic Times
Onam Celebrations: Indian Express
The Onam Meal, Sigsiv
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by Sudha Mathew