Onam, the National festival of Kerala is celebrated with joy of togetherness and enthusiasm in the month of Chingam, the first month of the Malayalam calendar. As it is the harvest season of the time, the magnificent beauty of Kerala can also be seen during the Onam celebration. After the month of deprivation, Karkkidakam (the last month in Malayalam calendar) the farmers are happy with a bountiful harvest and thus celebrate the festival to the hilt. The weather appears pleasant and the agrarian fields look more beautiful as they glow with golden paddy grains. It is also the boom time of fruits and flowers.
It is very difficult to trace the exact period when the Onam celebrations came into existence in God’s own country. There are some evidences in the written history of Kerala regarding the Onam festival, it says that Onam celebrations started during the Sangam Age and the record of celebrations found from the time of Kulasekhara Perumals (800 AD). During that period Onam celebrations continued for a month. The myths and legends of the Onam celebration is associated with the king Mahabali and the Vamana (the 5th incarnation/Avatara of Load Vishnu) of Hindhu Purana.
The legend of Onam
The legends regarding Onam celebrations are associated with the Hindu mythology, According to that; Kerala society was a heaven in its social and political panoramas under the efficient ruler Mahabali/ Maveli (the grandson of Prahlada). During that period all the people were treated equally. They were surrounded by much of happiness and maintained a peaceful life. There was neither anxiety nor sickness, and deaths of children were unheard. There were no lies, theft, deceit and false in speech. Measures and weight were right. All the people lived as one casteless race. So the Devas (Gods in Hindu Purana) considered the rise of the Asura king as a threat and approached lord Vishnu to destroy the king Mahabali from his kingdom.
Taking advantage of the Yagam (scarifies) and Mahabali’s declaration, Vishnu disguised as a Brahmin boy and came to the Yaga-shala. Mahabali received the Brahmin boy with all traditional honors. He asked Vamana (dwarf incarnation of lord Vishnu) what gift he desired. The king was ready to fulfill anything that he can. The desire of Vamana was to have the land equivalent to three paces of his feet. Shukracharya, the Guru (priest) of Mahabali realized that the Brahmin boy was not an ordinary person and he advised Mahabali not to promise anything to the Brahmin boy. But Mahabali was a king who would never go back from his determinations. So Mahabali decided to give the land that was asked by Vamana. Mahabali gladly said that even if Vishnu himself were to come to his sacrifice and ask for anything, he would deliver it.
Suddenly Vamana grew in size, until he towered above the heaven. With one footstep, he measured all of the earth. With the second, he claimed all of heaven. There was still one foot of territory that Mahabali owed him. Mahabali requested Vamana to place the final step on his head as the third step of land, for he had no other left. Vamana did so and in doing so, sent him down to Paatala (the heaven-like underworld). As a last gift, Mahabali permitted to visit Kerala once in a year during the Malayalam month of Chingam .Thus, the people of Kerala celebrate the Onam festival to commemorate the memory of the Great King Mahabali who would keep his promise to visit them every year.
The Onam Celebrations:
Onam festival commences from lunar asterism (a cluster of stars smaller than a constellation) Atham (Hastha) that appears ten days before Thiru- Onam (The main Day). Atham and Thiru- Onam are the most important days during the Onam celebrations. Rich cultural heritage of Kerala comes out in its best form and spirit during the ten days long festival.
1. Atham (The first day of Onam Celebrations) – It is believed that King Mahabali starts his preparations to descend from Paathala to Kerala on this day. The Onam celebrations across the State starts off with a grand procession at Thrippunithura near Kochi popularly known as Athachamayam. Before independence it was the Maharaja (King) of Kochin Royal family who headed the grand military procession in full ceremonial robes from his palace to the Thrikkakara temple. After independence, the public took over the function and started celebrating it as a major cultural possession. The traditional ritual of laying Pookalam (floral carpet) in the houses starts on this Atham day. The size of Pookkalam on Atham day is small and simple. Only one type of flower called Thumba poovu in local parlance is used on this day
2. Chithira on the second day is marked off when a second layer is added with the Thumbapoovu in the Pookalam design. On this day, the people start cleaning their houses and entire premises as a beginning for the Thiruvonam day.
3. Chodhi is celebrated on the third day. The Pookalam( floral design) grows in its size by adding one more new layer. In the third day the Pookalam having three different types of flowers. The day also marks the start of the shopping activities, from this day onwards people start buying new clothes and jewellary.
4. Vishakham is celebrated on the fourth day. Vishakham is considered to be one of the most auspicious days of Onam. On this day Pookkalam has four layers of flowers added to it. In older days, the markets open their harvest sale on this day, making one of the busiest days in the Onam celebration.
5. Anizham is celebrated on the fifth day. On this day Pookalam becomes more beautiful with five layers of flowers. A mock boat race is conducted on this day at Aaranmula in Kerala as a dress-rehearsal for the famous Aaranmula boat race, which will be held after the Thiru Onam day.
6. Thriketta comes on the sixth day of Onam Celebrations. By the sixth day, the people start packing their bags to their native homes to celebrate the festival with their dear ones. Simultaneously the Pookalam design looks large and beautiful by this time with six layers of flowers.
7. Moolam is celebrated on the seventh day. The Pookalam will be larger with seven different types of flowers. On the seventh day the smaller versions of traditional Ona Sadhya (ceremonial lunch) starts in the various places of Kerala. From start of this day most of the temples offers special Sadhya (lunch) to the people. On Moolam day, the art forms such as Puli-Kali (Masked leopard dance) and traditional dance forms like Kaikotti Kali is performed in various places of Kerala.
8. Pooradam comes on the eight day of Onam Celebrations. The Pooradam day starts off with a major traditional ritual where the small wooden statues of Mahabali and Vamana is washed and cleaned and taken around the houses in a procession. This is later installed in the center of the Pookkalam smeared with a rice-flour batter. The smearing is done by small children who are called Poorada Unnikal respectively. From this day onwards, the statue is called Onathappan. The Pookkalam design from Pooradam day onwards gets much bigger and intricate in design.
9. Uthradam, the ninth day celebration of Onam. The significance of this day is the last minute extreme preparation called Uthradappachil and is considered the most auspicious day to purchase fresh vegetables and fruits for the Thiruvonam/Thiru Onam day. Traditional myths say that the king Mahabali spends the next four days touring his erstwhile kingdom and bless every one. Due to this, Uthradam is celebrated in a very pompous manner with larger Pookkalam having nine different types of beautiful flowers. The Uthradam lunch is generally grand. Women normally cut the first set of vegetables on this day that marks the celebrations of Thiruvonam in each household. The preparations for grand Thirvonam feast also starts during the evening of Uthradam day.
10. Thiruvonam comes on the tenth day of Onam Celebrations. It is the final day of Onam that culminates the 10 days of Onam festival. The day is known as Thiru-Onam/ Thiruvonam (Sacred Onam Day). The day marks the return of Mahabali to his fabled land (Kerala), as per the boon he received from Vamana to meet his Prajas (people) and bless them. This day is also considered auspicious being birthdays of several temple deities in Kerala like Vamana of Thrikkara temple, Sree Padmanabha Swamy of Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple, Thiruvananthapuram etc.
In the Thiruvonam day all the activities begins early morning. People clean their houses, apply rice flour batter on the main entrance with the floral design as a traditional welcome sign, take an early bath, wear new clothes and distribute alms to needy. The eldest female member of each family presents clothes to all the family members generally known as Onakkodi. Special prayers are organized in temples, churches and mosques that highlight the secular nature of Onam festival.
On the Thiruvonam day the family members gather together with much of happiness, in other words, this is the precious time for the people who are staying away from their family to coming back for this occasion. On the Thiruvonam day the elders are busy with the preparation of a grand Onam lunch, sharing special moments with their family members. The children are the happiest category during the Onam celebrations. They get new clothes, toys, sweets, coins etc. They are very busy with their own works, such as collecting flowers, designing Pookalam, playing with their buddies, taking banana chips and Pappadam from the kitchen- without getting sight from their parents.
After completing the morning rituals and preparations, it is time for the family to get ready for the grand lunch known as Onasadhya (Ceremonial feast). The widest and the prominent place in the house is selected to serve the grand lunch which is traditionally served in a row on a mat laid on the floor.
The central place in the row is occupied by the eldest member of the family. In front of him/ her lighted lamp is placed at a distance. Towards the west of the lamp is placed a small plantain leaf on which the food is served. This is an offering made in the name of Lord Ganapathy. Thereafter, Onasadhya is served for family members on the banana leaves. There is a fixed order of serving the meal and a specific place to serve the various dishes on the leaf.
The afternoon of the Thiru- Onam day is more significant with numerous traditional recreational games and number of arts forms such as Thiruvathirakali, Kummattikali, Pulikali. Onappattu, Vllam Kali, Ambeyyal (Archery) Kummatti kali Thumbi thullal, Aarattu (elephant possession) etc. On this special occasion of Thiruvonam day many temples conducts various traditional art forms such as Kadhakali, Ottam thullal etc.
In this manner Onam is not only a festive celebration of Kerala, it is also the festival of great cultural sequences and the symbol of the secular fabric of the Kerala society. The concept of Onam is filled in the bottom of heart of every Keralites with lots of nostalgia and solid expectations. People of all religions, castes and communities celebrate Onam with equal joy and verve.
- Not mere but in life-Dr.Anil Kumar(pdf)