Onam Festival

 

Onam is the biggest festival of the year in Kerala. The purpose of the festival is to celebrate the end of the monsoons and to welcome the harvest season. This is a great festival to experience as it is marked by happiness, excitement, and enjoyment of people of all ages.

Onam is celebrated over 10 days during Kerala’s month of Chingam. During the festival, people will spend quality time with their family and have big parades and performances.

In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about Onam including when it is, how it is celebrated, where it is celebrated, and how you can join in the festivities.

Highlights

  • Onam is a 10-day festival that occurs at the beginning of the month of Chingam which usually falls between August and September.
  • Onam celebrates the homecoming of King Mahabali, the mythical ruler of ancient Kerala.
  • The Tripunithura Athachamayam Festival is held on the first day of Onam and features a street parade with various traditional art including music, dance, carnival floats, and decorated elephants.
  • Families will make floral decorations called pookkalam that are placed on the ground in front of their houses to welcome King Mahabali.
  • The main food eaten during the celebration is the Onam Sadhya, a vegetarian meal comprising of many traditional dishes served on a banana leaf.

Onam Festival

Onam is one of the most popular and significant festivals to take place in the South Indian state of Kerala. This holiday lasts for 10 days and celebrated between August and September to mark the end of the monsoons and to welcome the harvest season.

The festival also celebrates the homecoming of King Mahabali, the mythical ruler of ancient Kerala.

During these 10 days, there are processions, rituals, and performances being held all over the state. One main highlights of the festival is the pookkalam which is an intricate design made from flowers that is placed on the ground in front of homes to welcome King Mahabali.

During the festival, people often go shopping for new clothes and jewelry, visit their distant relatives, and exchange gifts.

The main food eaten during the celebration is the Onam Sadhya, a nine-course meal that traditionally includes several vegetarian dishes served on a banana leaf. The number of dishes included in the feast can reach up to 30.

When is Onam Festival?

Onam occurs at the beginning of the month of Chingam, the first month of the Malayalam calendar. This usually falls between August and September. The festivities of Onam last for 10 days in which the old and young participate with equal enthusiasm.

Upcoming Pongal dates:

2020: August 31st

2021: August 21st

2022: 8th September

How is Onam Festival Celebrated?

Onam is celebrated with many traditions over and families often participate in activities together and perform specific rituals.

Here are the main festival traditions for each day of Onam:

Day 1 -Atham

On Atham, Keralites will take an early bath, perform prayers, and begin creating their pookkalam or floral decorations placed on the ground in front of homes to welcome the king. Men gather the flowers and the women will use them to make the designs.

On this day, the pookkalam is often small in size and known as an Athapoo. The design is be very simple on the first day and only yellow flowers can be used. The size will keep increasing and the design will become more complex each day until the end of the festival.

The Tripunithura Athachamayam Festival is also held on this day in Tripunithura which is a historic area of Kochi. This celebration includes a street parade that showcases various traditional Keralan art forms such as music, dance, carnival floats, and decorated elephants.

Day 2 – Chithira

On the second day, two more layers of orange and yellow flowers are added to the pookkalam. People will also clean their houses and visit temples.

Day 3 – Chodhi

On Chodhi, another layer of flowers is added to the pookkalam and families will start buying new clothes and jewelry for each other. The markets will be crowded with people as they are busy completing their Onam shopping.

On this day, the women will wear a Kasavu Sari, a traditional Keralan dress, while the men will purchase a mundu, a garment worn around the waist. Young girls wear Pattu Pavadai, the traditional clothing that distinguishes young girls from married women.

Day 4 - Vishakam

Vishakam marks the beginning of the main festival feast known as Onam Sadhya. Onam Sadhya is a nine-course meal that comprises of 11 to 13 traditional dishes served on a banana leaf.

The number of dishes can go up to 26 or 30 in different families.

The markets will often hold their harvest sales during this period to attract customers which makes them some of Kerala’s busiest places during the festival.

Day 5 – Anizham

On this day, the traditional snake boat race known as Vallamkali is held. The Vallamkali takes place on the Pampa River in a grand procession which includes the Aranmula Uthrattathi Boat Race and Nehru Trophy Boat Race.

Day 6 – Thriketa

On the sixth day, people who have migrated to other regions will return to visit their ancestral homes to celebrate with their loved ones. They will also exchange gifts with one another.

Fresh flowers are also added to the pookkalam.

Day 7 – Moolam

On Moolam, families will visit each other and prepare a smaller version of the Sadya. Hindu temples will also start serving the Onasadya, a religious vegan meal.

Various traditional dance performances such as the Puli Kali take place.

Day 8 – Pooradam

On the sixth day, people who have migrated to other regions will return to visit their ancestral homes to celebrate with their loved ones. They will also exchange gifts with one another.

Fresh flowers are also added to the pookkalam.

Day 9 – Uthradam

This the day of the festival is when the Onam preparations reach their peak. According to the legends, King Mahabali arrives in Kerala on this day. The day is celebrated by the cleaning of houses and participating in final Onam shopping.

Day 10 – Thiruvonam

Thiruvonam is the final day of the festival when rice flour batter is applied to the entrances of homes as a traditional welcome sign. People also wear their new clothes and make donations to the poor and needy.

The evening is celebrated with bright lights and fireworks. In some parts of Kerala, people will perform folk music and dances as well.

Where to Celebrate Onam Festival?

Although Onam is celebrated throughout Kerala, some cities have more festive celebrations than others.

Here are some of the best places to experience Onam.

Trivandrum

Trivandrum is one of the cities in Kerala to enjoy the celebration of Onam. The city is beautifully lit and decorated throughout the whole festival. Here you can go for a walk in the evening and be mesmerized by the lights that decorate the buildings, trees, and streets.

Palakkad

During the celebration of Onam, a special kind of event called Onathallu takes place in Palakkad. Onathallu is a type of wrestling that is practiced in central Kerala.

Here, two contestants will grapple each other and exchange blows. Whoever can toss down their opponent wins the game.

Ernakulam

Ernakulam is also a great place to visit during Onam. Located near Ernakulam is the Thrippunithura district which is where the popular Athachamayam Festival is held. This festival features a street parade with decorated elephants and floats, musicians, and various traditional Keralan art.

How Can You Celebrate Onam Festival as a Traveler?

Traditional dances are a huge part of Onam. Travelers can witness many kinds of dances being performed such as Thiruvathirakali, a popular dance performed by women around a standing lamp, and Kummattikali, a dance with heavily painted colorful masks.

Visitors can also participate in the Onam Sadhya which is available at temples, community centers, and certain hotels. The Sadhya is a vegetarian feast where the dishes are all served on a banana leaf. There are up to 30 dishes that you can choose from and they are served with rice, pickle, chips, and coconut chutney.

Finally, visitors can also check out the holiday boat games which consist of many kinds of boat races including paddled longboats, snake boats, and other traditional boats. Vachipaatu, or the boat song, is performed during the boat race to entertain the crowd and encourage the canoers.

Tips for Experiencing the Onam Festival

Onam is a busy travel time as many Indians will return to Kerala or travel across the country to visit their family. Because of this, it is a good idea to book your flights and accommodation in advance.

If you want to watch the parade and performances up close, you should be prepared to be in huge crowds. It is possible that other people will bump into you and may accidentally shove you.

It is also a good idea to allow yourself plenty of time if you are planning to get somewhere. The streets of Kerala will be very crowded due to the many performances and parades being held, which can lead to traffic jams.

Legends and Stories of Onam Festival

According to the legends, the sage Prahlada had a grandson named Mahabali who took over the three worlds of earth, heaven, and hell by defeating the gods. The gods were upset and asked Lord Vishnu to help them battle against Mahabali, but he refused because Mahabali was a good ruler and his devotee.

Mahabali performed a ritual promise after his victory over the gods and vowed to grant anyone any request. To test Mahabali's devotion, Lord Vishnu approached him disguised as a dwarf boy called Vamana.

Vamana told Mahabali that all he needed was the land he could cover in three steps. Mahabali agreed to grant it his wish. Vamana then grew to be a giant and covered all the land and water with one step and then the sky with another.

With his third step, Lord Vishnu trampled Mahabali down to hell and ended his rule of the three worlds.

Although he ended his reign, Lord Vishnu was pleased by Mahabali’s devotion and decided to grant the king’s wish to return to Kerala once a year in order to ensure that his people were still happy and well-fed. The yearly visit of Mahabali is celebrated with the festival of Onam.

History of Onam Festival

The festival has been a part of Keralan culture for centuries. The earliest record of the festival was during the reign of Kulasekhara Perumals around the year 800.

However, evidence suggests that Onam may have been celebrated as early as the 2nd century, though not in Kerala. Onam may have came to Kerala from a neighboring and some historians also believe that Onam may have come from outside the country.

Experience Onam Festival with Asia Highlights

Celebrating Onam is a great way to experience part of South India’s rich religious culture while also trying great food and exploring a beautiful state. If you want to plan your trip to celebrate Onam but would like some more advice about the festival, then Asia Highlights can help. At Asia Highlights, our experts will create the perfect trip for you that is tailor-made to only include what you want to see and experience.