Onam: The Harvest Festival of Kerala

India is a land of diverse culture and religion and every state of the country celebrates a special festival of their own. The rich cultural heritage of the state of Kerala is presented at its best sprit during the ten day long festival Onam. This is one of the most important harvest festivals and is celebrated in the months of August –September with great joy and enthusiasm by people of all communities. The festival lasts for ten days and the first day Atham and the tenth day Thiruonam is the most important of all. The word Onam has originated from the Sanskrit word Shravanam, which refers to one of the 27 nakshatras.


Why Onam festival is celebrated?

There are two specific significances of this festival. One is that, it is the celebration of a harvest with the memory of the golden age of prosperity. During those days, this festival was celebrated for the whole month and after the rainy months; people welcomed the arrival of spring – the start of the harvest season. The festival epitomizes the newfound enthusiasm and vigor of the season and is celebrated with traditional fervor with family get together, visits to the temple, gifting of clothes and lots of entertainment. Secondly, it is celebrated in memory of the Mahabali legend, the mythical Asura King of ancient Kerala.

Onam Legends

Onam festival history in Kerala marks the homecoming of the mythical King Mahabali. Long time back Mahabali an Asura ruled Kerala and he was benevolent, wise and a judicious ruler who was loved by all. He became popular and his fame began to spread far and wide and soon the Gods began to fear his growing powers. Aditi the mother of Devas then pleaded Lord Vishnu to curtail his power. Vishnu transformed himself into a dwarf called Vamana. He then approached Mahabali and asked for alms. Pleased with his wisdom Mahabali granted him a wish. The Vamana asked only three paces of land and the king agreed. But Lord Vishnu in the guise of Vamana increased his stature and covered the sky and the stars with his first step. With the second, he straddled the netherworld. Mahabali realizing that his third step would destroy the earth offered his head and was pushed to the netherworld. Vishnu granted him a wish too, since he was closely attached to his people and kingdom. He was allowed to visit his land once a year. Kerala Onam festival is the celebration of the homecoming of King Mahabali. The myth says that since the king sacrificed himself to stand true to his words, he was rewarded for his sacrifice and people of Kerala remember him in the form of Onam festival.

Major attractions of the Onam festival in Kerala

Onam is the biggest cultural festival of Kerala and some major cities that celebrate the festival are Kottayam, Kochi, Thrissur, Trivandram and etc. The rich colors of Malayalam culture are beautifully portrayed in this festival

Onasadya: This is a grand meal that is prepared and is served on a banana leaf. With four to five vegetables, it is a nine course meal. Most families prepare nine to eleven dishes for the Onasadhya and restaurants offer about 30 dishes during this time.

Pookkalam: This is the making of designs with different types of flowers in front of the house gate. With each day passing by, a new layer of flower is added and many places hold competitions for pookalam.

Boat race: The snake boat race is another interesting event of the Onam harvest festival. About 100 boatmen compete in boat riding competition and the boats are beautifully decorated with different patterns. People from different parts of the country come to witness the race.

Onakalikal: This refers to the games played during the celebration. Talappanthukali is a game that is played with balls and men love to play it. Another game Ambeyaal is also played by men and women engage themselves in performing several traditional dances.

Folk dances: Another important attraction of the festival is the folk dance performed by women. Kaikottikali, a clap dance is performed and women sing songs in praise of the king. They also perform dances in circles and the form is called Thumbi Thullal.

Elephant procession: The elephant procession is also another most interesting event. The animal is decorated with ornaments of gold, flowers and other metals and is made to walk in a procession in Thrissur. The elephant dances and interacts with people.

The rituals that are performed during Onam

On the first day of the festival, people take an early bath and perform prayers and create floral decorations on the ground in front of their house. At Thrikkakara Temple, a special flag is hoisted and the ceremony begins with cultural, dance and music performances. The idol of Lord Vamana is decorated according to one of the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu in each of the 10 days of the celebration. Grand processions are also taken out and the main deity, Vamana is carried around the temple on an elephant followed by a group of elephants. Each day has some ceremonial significance and the temple authorities perform various rituals. Special dishes are also prepared and a grand feast called Ona Sadya is performed and thousands of people attend the feast on the main Onam day.

This year, the Onam festival will be celebrated on August 28th and the Government of Kerala conducts Tourism week celebrations to showcase Kerala’s beauty and culture.