Onam in Kerala

Onam (Malayalam: ഓണം) is a traditional Hindu harvest festival celebrated in the state of Kerala in India. Onam is the most popular festival of Kerala (a southern coastal state of India). This is a Hindu festival, celebrated with a great enthusiasm throughout Kerala for a period of ten days. Every year this festival falls on the Malayalam month of Chingam – between August and September and also known as the harvest festival of Kerala.

Onam is one of the most ancient Hindu festivals which is still celebrated with a great devotion. Onam marks the homecoming of King Mahabali, a legendary king, who ruled Kerala in ancient times. That period was believed to be the golden age of Kerala, people were happy, free from harm and complete harmony and prosperity was there.

Onam is an ancient festival which still survives in modern times. It is one of the rarest festivals which is celebrated by a complete State, irrespective of religion, caste and creed. Kerala’s rice harvest festival and the Festival of Rain Flowers, which fall in the month of Chingam, celebrates the Asura King Mahabali’s annual visit from Patala (the underworld).

Onam is unique since Mahabali (locally known as Maveli) has been revered by the people of Kerala. The King is so much attached to his kingdom that it is believed that he comes annually from the nether world to see his people living happily. It is in honour of King Mahabali that Onam is celebrated.

The deity Vamana, also called Thrikkakarappan is also revered during this time by installing a clay figure next to the floral carpet (Pookalam). The birthday of Sri Padmanabhan, the presiding Deity of Thiruvananthapuram, is on the Thiruvonam day in the month of Chingam. Thiruonam day is the most important day of Onam.

Rituals and activities:

Onam festival

The celebrations begin within a fortnight of the Malayalam New Year and go on for ten days. All over the state of Kerala, festive rituals, traditional cuisine, dance and music mark this harvest festival. The ten-day Onam festival is considered to be flagged off with Atthachamayam (Royal Parade on Atham Day) in Thripunithara (a suburb of Kochi City). The parade is colourful and depicts all the elements of Kerala culture with more than 50 floats and 100 tableaux. The main centre of festival is at Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple within Kochi City, believed to be the ancient capital of King Mahabali. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vamana and is directly linked to the mythological background of Onam.

The ten days of Onam are celebrated with great fanfare, by Malayalees. Of all these days, most important 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.

Music and dance:

Pulikali (Tiger dance) in Thrissur

Thiruvathira Kali during Onam in Kerala. Pulikali (Tiger dance) in Thrissur.

Traditional dance forms including Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal etc. are performed as part of celebrations all over Kerala at this time.
Thiruvathirakali is a women’s dance performed in a circle around a lamp, and is given special importance during Onam. Kummattikali is a famous and colourful-mask dance.
In Thrissur, festivities includes a procession consisting of caparisoned elephants surrounded by Kummatikali dancers. The masked dancers go from house to house performing the colorful Kummattikali.

Kathakali dance is also commonly performed during this time, with dancers enacting famous mythological legends. A famous venue for this is at Valluvanad which is associated with the growth of Kathakali and Cheruthuruthy, where Kerala Kalamandalam is located.

Boat race:
The Vallamkali (the snake boat race) is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Uthrattadhi Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. About 100 oarsmen row huge and graceful snake boats and men and women come from far and near to watch the snake boats skim through the water. As a tribute to the traditional snake boat race, a similar snake boat race is also held by the Malayali diaspora in Singapore annually during Onam at the Jurong Lake.

 

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