Onam Festival – The Harbinger of Joy


Onam Festival-01

If our beloved nation, India is famous for anything, it is the wide variety of festivals celebrated. Each region or state in India has its own set of beliefs and customs, which give rise to their region-specific festivals. These festivals have their identity and have secured a close and emotional place in the hearts of millions of people. Having said that, it isn’t tough to deduce that festivals are celebrated all over India with an unusual amount of zeal and enthusiasm. The morning of a festival day is certainly different from any other regular morning (for the better, mind you). For instance, in Maharashtra, the festival of Gudi Padwa is celebrated every year with renewed energy and pride amongst the people.

Why is the Festival Onam celebrated?

Why is the Festival Onam celebrated
Image – Wikimedia

Another splendid example of a famous festival in India is Onam. Onam is a beautiful festival celebrated in the southwestern state of Kerala. It is celebrated every year, this year falling from 22 August to 2 September. Onam reserves the spot for the most important and most awaited festival amongst the Keralite people and is also officially declared the state festival of Kerala. Due to its high regard and cultural importance, public holidays are declared for every citizen for their duration. Moreover, the festival is also known as a ‘harvest festival’, and it marks the commencement of a new year, famously termed as Kolla Varsham. This beloved festival is here to stay with its people for 10 days; its arrival day is known as Attam and the day of departure is Thiru Onam or Thiruvonam. Onam contains several other festivities and traditions which are observed reverently by people across all communities and regions in Kerala.

An actor dressed as Mahabali-Wikimedia

After reading what Onam is all about, I am sure that a particular question must have popped up in your mind: How did Onam originate? Well, according to several historians, this spectacular festival has been around for quite some time now. The first information or reference that scholars found regarding Onam was through a poem known as Maturaikkanci. According to Hindu mythology, Onam is celebrated each year to honor the great demon-king, Mahabali. Mahabali the king associated with Onam was the grandson of Prahlad (the famous devotee of Lord Vishnu and son of Hiranyakashyap), who managed to secure victory over the Gods, thus being the Lord of all three worlds. While one might think that the demon king must have been cruel and terrible, he was extremely kind and humble towards his subjects.

Onam and King Mahabali
Image – Wikimedia

The Gods, seeing this, pleaded with Lord Vishnu to end Mahabali. Conveniently, after gaining control of the world, Mahabali declared that he would grant any request from any person during a yajna (sacrifice) that he will soon perform. Lord Vishnu seized this opportunity and went in the guise of a dwarf monk, called Vamana. After asking the monk what he desired, the monk replied that all he needed was three paces of land. After having his wish granted, Vamana grew in size to an enormous extent and overshadowed all of Mahabali’s lands in simply two paces. Before he could move on to the third pace, the king offered his head to Vamana. Vishnu considered this as an act of devotion and granted a boon to Mahabali, stating that he can visit his lands every year once. Therefore, Onam is essentially the great king visiting his lands and a tribute to the virtuousness and humility of Mahabali.

How Onam festival is celebrated?

Women performing Thiruvathira Kali-Flickr

The 10-day festivities of Onam are extremely diverse and devotional. Devotees spend days offering food to the Lord, visiting temples, decorating their households, and wearing traditional dresses of Kerala. The women of the house wear the beautiful white and gold saree known as Kasavu. They indulge in dancing, drawing attractive rangolis, and preparing Sadya (traditional food consumed during Onam).

Tradition Food Served during Onam

Image – Premshree Pillai/Flickr

This annual feast, comprising of a variety of delicious dishes of Kerala cuisine is sure to make any person salivate. The Sadya has 26 dishes in it and is traditionally a 9-course meal, served on tender banana leaves. Some of the dishes include Kootu curry, Olan, Kalan, Parippu Payasam, and the much-loved Rasam. A sweat’s work, but all worth it, I assure you!

Significance of Pookalam in Onam

Onam Pookalam-Wikimedia

Also distinctive is the flower rangoli known as Pookkalam, which is made by the women of the households. They make use of several different types of flowers and lamps to create beautiful patterns on the entrances of temples and houses. These special rangolis are made to welcome the demon-king Mahabali and pay their respects to him.

Cultural Activities During Onam Festival

Onam-Boat race

Next in line is the Vallamkali, the famous snake boat race of Kerala which resonates loudly with Onam. In this, several men and women row massive boats which are shaped to resemble a snake. Particularly done on the Pampa River, tourists from afar come to Kerala during this time to witness the extraordinary races.

Onam-Tiger dance
Thrissur Pulikkali-Wikimedia

Undoubtedly, any festival is incomplete without including dance in it, and that is especially true in the case of Onam. Numerous alluring art forms of Kerala are performed during Onam, including Thiruvathira, Pulikali, Onam Kali, Thumbi Thullal, and many others. The Pulikali is most commonly seen during Onam – here, the dancers paint their bodies in red, black, and yellow colors to resemble a tiger. This ‘tiger dance’ is performed with a high level of energy and synchronization, and is extremely fun to watch as spectators. Another huge and awaited part of the Onam festivities is the Elephant procession. While they may seem unimportant, these processions are highly celebrated in Kerala. Colossal elephants are trained and beautifully decorated with ornaments and flowers. They are then paraded on the streets and make friendly gestures with the people. The Elephants dance and are the main attraction of the festivities. This tradition marks the cordial relationship between animals and humans and educates people about treating animals kindly.

Elephant procession during Onam
Image – Saurabh Chatterjee/Flickr

An extremely incredible festival, Onam teaches us truthfulness, integrity, peace, and love. The value of family and harboring positive relationships with our loved ones is of true importance, as is indicated by the various festivities celebrated throughout Onam. Bringing people closer, festivals such as Onam are truly the perfect essence of Indian culture and heritage.

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