Onam 2022: Tuesday, 30 August 2022 To Thursday, 8 September 2022

There is something about the state of Kerala – this long strip of land in the southernmost part of India has been blessed with immense natural beauty and an abundance of crops, including rice and coconut. Even though this land has plenty to celebrate, the number of festivals in the state is few – even though there are several smaller celebrations, the main two festivals are Vishu and Onam. While Vishu is the advent of the new year as per the Malayalam calendar, Onam is the harvest festival and this is one festival that is celebrated over a period of ten days!
Onam Festival

What is Onam?

Over the past few years, more and more people are becoming aware of Onam, because of the global presence of Malayalees – today, you will be able to find people from Kerala, in literally every corner of the world and that is why the Onam festival is celebrated in literally every part of the world these days.
Onam is basically the harvest festival of the state of Kerala and it is a state holiday, which means that everyone is encouraged to join in the celebrations. There are several cultural activities that are planned for these 10 days and everyone participates, including having special events at home. The festival starts on Atham and then culminates on Thiruvonam, which is a period of ten days – the festival falls in the Chingam month of the Malayalam calendar. These dates tend to come after August 15th and before September 15th.

What is the history behind Onam?

There is plenty of literature that suggests the celebration of Onam from ancient times and Onam celebration not being restricted only to Kerala, but also being celebrated in other parts of Southern India too.
  • One of the earliest references to the festival can be found in Maturaikkāñci, which is a poem from the Tamil Sangam era – the poem talks about the festival being celebrated with great aplomb in the temples of Madurai.
  • In the Thrikkakara temple of Kochi, there is an 11th-century inscription that talks about a series of offerings being made to Vamana, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, and how it was spread over days.
  • There is also mention of the Onam festival in a 16th-century memoir, where it talks about a celebration in September, where the local people of Kerala decorate their homes with flowers.

What are the stories associated with Onam?

There are mainly two stories that are associated with the Onam festival celebration and they are:
  • Mahabali and Vamana: As per Hindu mythology, Mahabali was the great great grandson of the famous sage Kashyapa, the great grandson of the demonic ruler, Hiranyakashipu, and the son of Prahalad, a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. Mahabali came to power after having defeated the gods and taken over all three worlds. All the defeated gods went to Vishnu asking for his help, but he refused violence, because Mahabali was a good ruler. However, he understood that Mahabali was becoming arrogant, so he took the form of a dwarf named Vamana. When he arrived at the court of Mahabali, he was offered whatever riches he wanted – villages, cows, food, whatever his heart desired. Vamana however, replied saying that one much never seek more than what he needs and asked for only “three paces of land”. The moment Mahabali agreed, the dwarf began to grow in size – in his first step, he covered all of the earth, and with his second step, he covered the heavens and netherworlds. There was no place for his third step, and Vamana looked at Mahabali – being a keeper of his promise, he offered his head as a place for the third step. As someone who loved his land and people, Mahabali asked for just one boon from Vamana – a chance to visit his kingdom once a year and it is at this time of his revisit that Onam is celebrated on.
  • Parasuraman: There is another story about Onam that is connected with yet another avatar of Lord Vishnu – when he was irritated by the constant wars that the kings and warrior clans were always involved in, he took the form of Parasuraman, in the times when Kaartavirya was king. One day, when he was not around, Kaartavirya took away the calf from their ashram. Feeling the injustice, Parasuraman declared war on the king, killing not only him but also all the other oppressive warriors. In a final fit of anger, he threw his axe and where it landed, the sea retreated to reveal land and that land is what we know as Kerala today.

What are the practices and rituals associated with Onam?

As per the Malayalam month, Chingam is the start of the new year and it is in this month that Onam falls. As per the Malayalam calendar, each day is associated with a star, and the 10 days of Onam start from Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradam and Thiruvonam is the last day and the grandest celebration of all. The first day, Atham is when the celebration and festivities start – there are special poojas and festivities in temples all over Kerala, the grandest being at Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple in Kochi when the kodiettam or flag hoisting is done. Over the course of ten days, there are several cultural and sports related activities that are conducted all over and there are generous feasts or sadyas as well.
  • Athachamayam – The first day of Onam is when the families start with the celebrations – the entire house is cleaned out the previous day and most people choose to start their day by visiting the temple. The Thrippunithura Athachamayam is one of the most famous (Thrippunithura is a small town near Kochi and is known for some of the most famous temples). In earlier times, the king of Kochi would head a grand procession in his ceremonial robes, starting from his palace in Thrippunithura, all the way to the Thrikkakara temple. There are plenty of floats on display, where scenes from Mahabharata and Ramayana are showcased.
  • Pookalam – This is perhaps one of the most important parts of the Onam celebration and its starts on Atham day – on this day a small floral rangoli is made in the front of the house and as the days progress, more circles or layers are added to the rangoli and eventually on Uthradam and Thiruvonam days, the pookalams are truly elaborate. In the olden days, the flowers and leaves for the pookalam would be foraged from the home garden or nearby areas, but these days, people buy the flowers. Outside India, several people choose to buy acrylic rangolis and display those, because getting hands on fresh flowers might not be possible. They also use designer brass diyas to decorate the pookalam. Another important addition to the pookalam is a structure known as the Maveli (a colloquial name for Mahabali) – this is normally made using wood or clay and has three pyramid like cones that are also decorated and are meant to signify the king.
  • Music and dance - Onam holidays are about celebration and having a fun time, which is why there are plenty of dances like Thiruvathira kali, which is done predominantly by only women, around a large lit lamp. Kummatikali is done by the men, in which they wear colourful outfits, masks, or smear paint on their body and faces. Perhaps one of the most popular dances of Onam is Pulikali, in which men adorn themselves in the colours of tigers and leopards. the stripes and spots of these large cats are painted into the bodies and men will wear associating masks too. The dance processions are taken out onto the streets and there is generally also one dancer dressed up like a hunter and many a time, someone dressed as King Mahabali himself!
  • Onasadya – One of the most prominent aspects of the Onam festival is the Onasadya, an elaborate meal that is served on a banana leaf. The meal is almost always completely vegetarian and has everything from banana chips and bananas to pickles, papadams, and several dishes, avial, pachidi, kichadi, olan, thoran and erissery. There is also rice, sambar, and often multiple types of payasam. People get dressed up in brand new clothes or Onakodi and enjoy an elaborate lunch with their loved ones.

When Mahabali was given permission to return to Kerala for one day in the year, the people of Kerala took it upon themselves to ensure that their beloved king saw how prosperous they were. This is why they take the time to decorate their homes, with wall hangings and flowers and they also choose this time of the year to give Onam gifts. Because it is the time after the harvest, there is generally money, which means that people are able to celebrate in style.
If you too are looking to make your Onam stylish this year, you might want to come to come to eCraftIndia, where you can find the best gift for Onam and every other festival!