Onam is an annual Hindu festival with origins in the state of Kerala in India. It falls in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, which in Gregorian calendar overlaps with August–September. The festival commemorates the Vamana avatar of Vishnu, the subsequent homecoming of the legendary Emperor Mahabali and mythologies of Hinduism related to Kashyapa and Parashurama.
Onam is a major annual event for Malayali people in and outside Kerala. It is a harvest festival, one of three major annual Hindu celebrations along with Vishu and Thiruvathira, and it is observed with numerous festivities. Onam celebrations include Vallam Kali (boat races), Pulikali (tiger dances), Pookkalam (flower arrangement), Onathappan (worship), Onam Kali, Tug of War, Thumbi Thullal (women's dance), Kummattikali (mask dance), Onathallu (martial arts), Onavillu (music), Kazhchakkula (plantain offerings), Onapottan (costumes), Atthachamayam (folk songs and dance), and other celebrations. It is the New Year day for Malayali Hindus.
Onam is the official state festival of Kerala with public holidays that start four days from Onam Eve (Uthradom). It is celebrated by Malayali diaspora around the world. Though a Hindu festival, non-Hindu communities of Kerala participate in Onam celebrations considering it as a cultural festival. However, some non-Hindus in Kerala denounce its celebration as a cultural event because they consider it as a religious festival.
Onam is an ancient Hindu festival of Kerala that celebrates rice harvest. The significance of the festival is in Hindu legends, of which two are more common.
According to the Hindu mythology, Mahabali was the great great grandson of a Brahmin sage named Kashyapa, the great grandson of demonic dictator Hiranyakashipu, and the grandson of Vishnu devotee Prahlada. This links the festival to the Puranic mythology of Prahlada of Holika fame in Hinduism, who is the son of demon dictator Hiranyakashyap. Prahlada, despite being born to a demonic Asura father who hated Vishnu, rebelled against his father's persecution of people and worshipped Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap tries to kill his son Prahlada, but is slained by Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar, Prahlada is saved.
Prahlada's grandson Mahabali came to power by defeating the gods (Devas) and taking over the three worlds. According to Vaishnavism mythology, the defeated Devas approached Vishnu for help in their battle with Mahabali. Vishnu refused to join the gods in violence against Mahabali, because Mahabali was a good ruler and his own devotee. He, instead, decided to test Mahabali's devotion at an opportune moment. Mahabali, after his victory over the gods, declared that he will perform Yajna (homa sacrifices) and grant anyone any request during the Yajna. Vishnu took the avatar of a dwarf boy called Vamana and approached Mahabali. The king offered anything to the boy – gold, cows, elephants, villages, food, whatever he wished. The boy said that one must not seek more than one needs, and all he needs is the property right over a piece of land that measures "three paces". Mahabali agreed.
The Vamana grew and covered everything Mahabali ruled over in just two paces. For the third pace, Mahabali offered himself, an act which Vishnu accepted as evidence of Mahabali's devotion. Vishnu granted him a boon, by which Mahabali could visit again, once every year, the lands and people he previously ruled. This revisit marks the festival of Onam, as a reminder of the virtuous rule and his humility in keeping his promise before Vishnu. The last day of Mahabali's stay is remembered with a nine-course vegetarian Onasadya feast.
According to Nanditha Krishna, a simpler form of this legend, one without Mahabali, is found in the Rigveda and the Vedic text Shatapatha Brahmana where a solar deity is described with powers of Vishnu. This story likely grew over time, and is in part allegorical, where Bali is a metaphor for thanksgiving offering after a bounty of rice harvest during monsoon, and Vishnu is the metaphor of the Kerala sun and summer that precedes the Onam. According to Roshen Dalal, the story of Mahabali is important to Onam in Kerala, but similar Mahabali legends are significant in the region of Balia in Uttar Pradesh, Bawan also in the same state, Bharuch in Gujarat, and Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. The story is significant not because Mahabali's rule ended, but it emphasizes the Hindu belief in cyclical nature of events, that no individual, no ruler and nothing lasts forever, except the virtues and self-understanding that overcomes all sorrow.
An alternate legend behind Onam relates to Parashurama, an incarnation of Vishnu who is credited in Hindu mythology to have founded the Western Ghats from the southern tip of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and up to Maharashtra. According to this legend, Vishnu got upset with the kings and the warrior caste who were constantly at war and were arrogant over others.
Vishnu took the avatar of Parashurama, or "Rama with an axe" and also known as Rama Jamadagyna, in the era of King Kaartavirya. This king persecuted and oppressed the people, the sages and the gods. One day, the king came to the hermitage of Parashurama and his mother Renuka, where while Parashurama was away, the king without permission took away the calf of their cow. When Parashurama returned, he felt the injustice of the king, called him to war, and killed the king and all his oppressive warriors. At the end, he threw the axe, and wherever it fell, the sea retreated, creating the land of Kerala and other coastal western parts of Indian subcontinent. Another version states that Parashurama brought Namboodri Brahmins to southwestern parts of India, by creating a mini-Himalaya like mountain range with his axe. The Onam festival, according to this legend, celebrates Parashurama's creation of Kerala by marking those days as the new year.
The legend and worship of Parashurama is attested in texts and epigraphs dated to about the 2nd century CE.
The festival is also celebrated by Christians of Kerala, in its churches. These traditions, according to Selvister Ponnumuthan, start with the lighting of Nilavilakku, an arati that includes waving of flowers (pushparati) over the Bible, eating the Onam meal together with the Hindus as a form of "communion of brothers and sisters of different faiths". The significance of these practices are viewed by some Kerala Christians as a form of integration with Hindus, mutual respect and sharing a tradition.
The festival has been declared as wrong and forbidden for Muslims (Haram) by Islamic preachers. Some Muslim Indian politicians light traditional vilakku (oil lamps), while others have refused to light these lamps at Onam events declaring it to be a Hindu tradition and against the teachings of Islam. Muslim daily newspapers and other publications have condemned Muslim ministers who participate in Onam traditions. However some Muslims observe Onam anyway, considering its celebrations and rituals as a cultural practice.
Onam falls in the month of Chingam, which is the first month according to the Malayalam Calendar. The celebrations mark the Malayalam New Year, are spread over ten days, and conclude with Thiruvonam. The ten days are sequentially known as Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradom and Thiruvonam. The first and the last day are particularly important in Kerala and to Malayalee communities elsewhere.
The Atham day is marked with the start of festivities at Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple (Kochi). This Vishnu temple is considered as the focal centre of Onam and the abode of Mahabali, with the raising of the festival flag. Parades are held, which are colourful and depict the elements of Kerala culture with floats and tableaux.
Other days have diverse range of celebrations and activities ranging from boat races, cultural programs, sports competitions, dance events, martial arts, floral designs - pookkalam, prayers, shopping, donating time or food for charity to spending time with family over feasts. Men and women wear traditional dress. The Kerala sari or Kasavu sari is particularly wore on this day.
The Onam celebrations across the state, starts off with a grand procession at Thrippunithura near Kochi called Atthachamayam, also referred to as Thripunithura Athachamayam. The parade features elephants marching, drum beats and other music, folk art forms, floats and colorfully dressed people with masks. In Kerala's history, the Kochi king used to head a grand military procession in full ceremonial robes from his palace to the Thrikkakara temple, meeting and greeting his people. In contemporary times, this a state supported event.
The parade floats traditionally feature scenes from epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Additionally, some floats include themes from the Bible as well as current themes thereby highlighting unity and harmony.
The procession path historically has been from Tripunithura to the Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara, Ernakulam district. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu in his Vamana (dwarf) avatar. After arrival at the temple, the marchers offer a prayer.
The floral carpet, known as Onapookkalam or just Pookkalam, is made out of the gathered blossoms with several varieties of flowers of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to design and decorate patterns on floor, particularly at entrances and temple premises like a flower mat. Lamps are arranged in the middle or edges. It is a work of religious art, typically the team initiative of girls and women, who accomplish it with a delicate touch and a personal artistic sense of tone and blending. When completed, a miniature pandal (umbrella) hung with little festoons is erected over it. The pookkalam is similar to Rangoli which is made of powders of various colors and is popular in North India.
The traditional ritual of laying pookkalam (floral carpet) starts on Atham day. The pookkalam on this day is called Athapoo, and it is relatively small in size. The size of the pookkalam grows in size progressively with each day of the Onam festival. Only yellow flowers will be used on Atham with only one circular layer made and the design is kept simple. Statues or figurines of Mahabali and Vamana are also installed at the entrance of each house on this day.
Traditionally, Atthapookalams included flowers endemic to Kerala and the Dashapushpam (10-flowers), but nowadays all varieties of flowers are used. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vamana are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house along with the Pookalam, and beautifully decorated with flowers. All over Kerala, Pookalam competitions are a common sight on Onam day.
Traditional dance forms including Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal, Onam Kali and others. Thiruvathira kali is a women's dance performed in a circle around a lamp. Kummattikali is a colourful-mask dance. In Thrissur, festivities includes a procession consisting of caparisoned elephants surrounded by Kummatikali dancers. The masked dancers go from house to house performing the colorful Kummattikali. Onam Kali is a form of dance where players arrange themselves in circles around a pole or tree or lamp, then dance and sing songs derived from the Ramayana and other epics.
Kathakali dance is also commonly performed during this time, with dancers enacting famous mythological legends. A famous venue for this is at Valluvanad which is associated with the growth of Kathakali, and Cheruthuruthy, where Kerala Kalamandalam is located.
Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. This dance showcases performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, who dance to the beats of instruments like Chenda and thakil. This folk art is mainly performed in the cultural district of Thrissur and thousands pour into the city to be a part of this art.
Performances of the ritual worship dance Theyyam are given during the Onam season. In this, Mahabali is played by the Onathar. Its variations include characters such as Oneswaran and Onapottan.
At the Thrikkakara temple, every day of the festival showcases one or more of these activities including Kathakali, Thiruvathira, Chakyar koothu, Ottam thullal, Patakam, Onam songs and percussion instrument shows. The Onasadya here is grand in scale, and is attended by over ten thousand people from all religions and faiths. Festivities include Puli Kali (masked leopard dance) and traditional dance forms like Kaikotti Kali which are performed in various functions. The official Government celebrations start on this day with heavy illuminations in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode along with fireworks.
Most cities in Kerala, such as the political, commercial and cultural capitals Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Thrissur, are lit up with lights and fabulous displays of fireworks. Sumptuous Onam Sadya feasts are prepared. In Thrikkakara temple, a mega-feast is conducted which is open to the public and is attended by more than twenty thousand people.
The Vallamkali (the snake boat race) is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Uthrattadhi Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Numerous oarsmen row huge snake-shaped boats. Men and women come from far and near to watch and cheer the snake boats race through the water. This event is particularly featured on the Pampa River, considered sacred and Kerala equivalent of Ganges River.
As a tribute to the traditional snake boat race, a similar snake boat race is also held by the Malayali diaspora in Singapore annually during Onam at the Jurong Lake.
The Onam sadya (feast) is another very indispensable part of Thiruvonam, and almost every Keralite attempts to either make or attend one. The Onasadya reflects the spirit of the season and is traditionally made with seasonal vegetables such as yam, cucumber, ash gourd and so on. The feast is served on plantain leaves and consists of nine courses, but may include over two dozen dishes, including (but not limited to): Chips (especially Banana chips), Sharkaraveratti (Fried pieces of banana coated with jaggery), Pappadam, various vegetable and soups such as Injipuli (also called PuliInji), Thoran, Mezhukkupuratti, Kaalan, Olan, Avial, Sambhar, Dal served along with a small quantity of ghee, Erisheri, Molosyam, Rasam, Puliseri (also referred to as Velutha curry), Kichadi (not to be confused with Khichdi) and Pachadi (its sweet variant), Moru (Curd with water), Pickles both sweet and sour, buttermilk, coconut chutney. The feast ends with a series of dessert called Payasam (a sweet dish made of milk, sugar, jaggery and other traditional Indian savories) eaten either straight or mixed with a ripe small plantain. The curries are served with rice, usually the 'Kerala Matta' parboiled rice preferred in Kerala.
In hotels and temples, the number of curries and dishes may go up to 30. The importance of the feast to the Kerala's Onam celebration culture is captured in the famous Malayalam proverb "Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam" which means "One must have the Onam lunch even selling his property, to have so". The Travancore-style Onasadya is renowned to be the most disciplined and tradition-bound.
Normally, the largest chunk of Onam celebrations end by Thiruvonam. However the two days following Thiruvonam are also celebrated as Third and Fourth Onam. The third Onam, called Avvittom marks the preparations for King Mahabali's return ascension to heavens. The main ritual of the day is to take the Onathappan statue which was placed in the middle of every pookkalam during the past 10 days and immerse it in nearby rivers or sea. The pookkalam will be cleaned and removed after this ritual.
People buy and wear new clothes for the occasion of Onam, and this tradition is called the Onakkodi.
During the Onam, Keralite Hindus install an image of Thrikkakara Appan or Onatthappan (Vishnu in the form of Vamana) in their home just as Hindus install images or murtis of Lord Ganesha on the Ganesha Chaturthi festival elsewhere.
Many lamps are lit in Hindu temples of Kerala during this celebration. A palmyra tree is erected in front of temples and surrounded with a wooden balustrade and covered with dry palmyra leaves. It is lit with a torch and burned to ashes to signify that King Mahabali went to Patala as a sacrifice.
The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappaatt, or Onam songs, and rock one another on swings slung from high branches.
Onam season is often associated with creativity as weavers and potters go for excess production to cater to increased demands for their products during the season, especially in North Kerala regions of Kannur and Kasargod. Handloom fairs are an integral part of the spirit of Onam festivities these days.
In some parts of Kerala, people indulge in various games and dances during and post-Thiruvonam. These are known as Onakkalikal. These include competitions such as Ox races (Maramadimatsaram), Uriyady, food-eating competitions, Pookalam competitions etc.
Onam is also celebrated by the worldwide Malayali diaspora. Celebrations are notable in the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and USA.
Onam — Most important festival of Kerala; held in Chingam (August–September)
Despite its Hindu associations, Onam is celebrated by all communities.