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Onam Festival, Kerala
7 September 2014

Kerala's rice harvest festival and the Festival of Rain Flowers, which fall on the month of Chingam, celebrates the Asura King Mahabali's annual visit from Patala (the underworld). Onam as this festival is called, is unique since Mahabali has been revered by the people of Kerala since prehistoric days. The bygone King is significantly attached to his kingdom and is believed that he comes annually from the astral world to see his people living happily. It is in honour and reverence of King Mahabali that Onam is celebrated. Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlada (son of Hiranyakashyapa who was slain by Vishnu in his Narasimha Avatara). Prahlada, despite being an Asura, had great faith in Vishnu. Mahabali had become a devotee of Lord Vishnu as a child.

Onam Festival falls during the Malayalam month of Chingam (Aug - Sep) and marks the commemoration of Vamanaavatara of Vishnu and the subsequent homecoming of mythical King Mahabali. The deity Vamana, also known as Onapattam too is revered during this time by installing a clay figure next to the floral carpet (Pookalam). Onam is reminiscent of Kerala's agrarian past, and is considered to be a harvest festival for the peasants. The birthday of Sri Padmanabhan, the presiding Deity of Thiruvananthapuram, is on the Thiruvonam day in the month of Chingam.

The ten days of Onam are celebrated with great fanfare and gusto by all Malayalees. Of these ten days, most significant ones are the first day, Atham, and the tenth and final day, Thiru-Onam (Thiruvonam). The rich cultural heritage of Kerala comes out in its best form and spirit during the festival. All the households are seen bubbling and bustling with energy, a sight reserved during Onam days. As per mythology, King Mahabali decided to leave for the nether world, failing to keep his promise given to Lord Vishnu who came in the guise of Vaamana. The ten days of mega celebration are namely Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradom, and Thiruvonam.

As for the delicacies of Onam one would wish it to never end. Payasam (the traditional Kerala dessert), the show-stopper among the Onasadya (the sumptuous feast) is itself of plentiful variety. It is very interesting to watch how kids make every festival theirown. Children dart in the neighborhood in search of flowers to make floral carpets (pookkalam) that adorn their courtyards. Traditional forms of art and games throb the rustic ambience of villages. The inevitable swing is a unique feature of this festivity. There are many Onam special programs conducted across Kerala including Kerala Tourism sponsored programs within the state.

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 if one is forced to sell his property”.

Activities begin early in the morning. The local people clean their homes, apply rice flour batter on the main entrance (a traditional welcome sign), take an early bath, wear new clothes and distribute alms to the poor and needy. The eldest female member in each family presents clothes to all the members within the family. Special prayers and Masses are organized in temples, churches and mosques that highlight the secular nature of festival. The Pookkalam is prepared to welcome Mahabali.

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. The afternoon is marked with various traditional Onam games normally seen in rural areas and are organized by resident associations, clubs etc. in large cities. In some parts of Kerala, people indulge in various games and dances (Onakkalikal and Kathakali) during and post Thiruvonam. These include Thiruvathirakali, Kummattikali, Pulikali, etc.

The main ritual of the day is to take the Onathappan statue which was placed in the middle of every Pookalam during the past 10 days and immerse it in nearby rivers or sea. The pookkalam is cleaned and removed after this. This day very important, as the famous Puli-kali is held in the city of Thrissur, wherein men dressed as lions and tigers parade through the city in large numbers. The Puli-Kali also marks the end of traditional Onam celebrations.

Mahabali's rule is considered as the golden era of Kerala. The following song is often sung over Onam:

“Mavelinaduvaneedumkalam,
manusharellarumonnupole
amodhathodevasikkumkalam
apathangarkkumottillathanum
kallavumillachathiyumilla
ellolamillapolivachanam
kallapparayumcherunazhiyum
kallatharangalmattonnumilla
adhikalvyadhikalonnumilla
balamaranangalkelppanilla”

(Translation)

“When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people were equal.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Deaths of children were unheard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbor.
When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless race”

Here’s an opportunity to experience a great festival that marks the supreme and ethereal joy of Mahabali’s omnipresence.