Onam brings alive the spirit of Kerala

via V.N. Gopalakrishnan, Mumbai published on September 3, 2011

Onam, the colourful and picturesque festival represents the spirit of Kerala transcending the Malayalees the world over to an idyllic state of leisure, games, dance, music and sumptuous feasts. It transports each Malayali to his/her home in Kerala. Onam is the biggest harvest festival and is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm irrespective of castes and communities. This year Onam falls on September 9.


The word Onam or Thiruvonam is said to have derived from the Sanskrit word Shravanam. Thiruonam is one among the 27 nakshatras or constellations. The word ‘Thiru’ is used to address places and activities associated with Lord Vishnu. Thiruvonam is also believed to be the nakshtra of Vishnu. Onam is normally celebrated at the beginning of Chingam, the first month of Kollavarsham of the Malayalam calendar. This corresponds with August-September according to the Gregorian calendar. It is also believed that Onam celebrations started during the Sangam era. This year, Thiruonam falls on September 2.


During the harvest season, fields look brilliant and glow with golden paddy grains. It is also the boom time for fruits and flowers. After Karkidakam, the month of deprivation, farmers are happy with a bountiful harvest and celebrate the festival to the hilt. Onam festival continues for ten days, starting from the day of Atham and culminating on Thiruonam. Atham is decided by the position of stars and is regarded as auspicious.


The festival marks the homecoming of legendary King Mahabali. He is also popularly called Maveli and Onathappan. Mahabali is the son of Virochana and grandson of Prahlad, the devout son of demon King Hiranyakashipu. Mahabali also belonged to the Asura (demon) dynasty but was an ardent worshipper of Lord Vishnu. He was greatly respected and was considered to be wise, judicious and extremely generous. Everybody was happy and the rich and poor were equally treated. There was neither crime, nor corruption prevalent in his kingdom. It is said that people did not even lock their doors, as there were no thieves. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease in his kingdom. It is believed that on the Thiruonam day, Lord Vishnu took his fifth avatar as Vamana and sent him to the nether world. Onam celebrations are marked in Trikkakara near Aluva said to be the capital of King Mahabali. A temple with a deity of Trikkakara Appan or  Vamanamurthy who is Lord Vishnu himself in disguise is also located at this place.



 People of Kerala believe that on the Thiruonam day King Mahabali visits his subjects and hence the day is marked by feast and festivities. To welcome their revered King, people lay flower mats (Pookalam) and prepare a grand feast (Onasadya). It is a nine course meal consisting of 11 to 13 essential dishes and served on banana leaves. In traditional large families called Tharawads, the Karanavar or the eldest member gives Onapudava or new clothes as gifts to all family members including servants. Other members of the family exchange gifts among each other.


Another feature of Onam is Vallamkali or the snake boat race.  A large number of big and decorated boats called Chundan Vallams participate with hundreds of oarsmen for the race. A land abounding in navigable rivers, it is no wonder that Kerala has developed a boating tradition. The long boats embellished with festoons and silk umbrellas present a charming spectacle in the backwaters of Punnamada near Alappuzha. The rhythmic rise and fall of the oars as oarsmen row in unison and provided by the songs and music of the drum is an eye-catching spectacle. The annual boat race on the day of Uthrittathi at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district and the Vallasadhya or the feast for the participants is a significant event..

Athachamayam is a grand procession that marks the beginning of Onam and is celebrated at Tripunithura. The event recalls a royal tradition when Maharajas of erstwhile Kochi state travelled to the Tripunithura Fort with their entire entourage as part of a custom. A procession of decorated elephants is carried out in Trissur, the cultural capital of Kerala. It is a magnificent sight to watch the bejeweled elephants in their full majesty and grandeur.

Pulikkali or Kaduvakali is another entertaining performance wherein the performers take the guise of tigers. They paint their bodies yellow with patterns of black and red. Scenes of tiger hunting goats and tigers being hunted by humans are beautifully depicted through this folk art. Kummattikali is another recreational folk dance performed during Onam. Clad in plaited grass and a colourful wooden mask, performers entertain the people by enacting mythological and folk themes.

Kaikottikali is an elegant clap dance performed on the occasion of Onam. In this, women sing songs praising the legendary King Mahabali and dance around the Pookalam. Thumbi Thullal is another folk dance performed by a group of women who sit in the formation of circle. The lead performer sits inside the circle who initiates the song which is taken by other singers.

Onam not only keeps alive the memories of a bygone era of peace and prosperitybut also brings the families scattered in distant placesto an annual get-together reflecting the strong family bondage.

(The author is a Mumbai-based Freelance journalist and social activist and can be contacted on [email protected])

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