Onam the national festival of the Malayalees, is a festival quite unique to Kerala. Like all other traditional festivals, the promotion of amity and social cohesion is the aim of celebrating Onam.

The legend of Mahabali and Vamana lends a macabre backdrop to the festival. Bali was a king of Kerala who took the virtue of giving gifts to remarkable extremes. He was a good ruler, so the story goes. The land was plentiful and the people happy. This irked some of those superior beings who go under the appellations of Devas. Persuaded by them, Lord Vishnu took the diminutive form of Vamana, a brahmin kid. Vamana approached Bali and asked for three steps of land Bali granted his request against the explicit advice of his technical advisor, guru, a tradition the governments in Kerala have followed without fail ever since.

Vamana covered the heavens and the earth and all known land with two steps. Having run out of places to put his foot down,

Vamana placed his last step on the head of Bali and pushed him somewhere into the nether world. As a parting gift Maha Bali was granted permission to visit his old kingdom once a year. That is the time of Onam.

This poignant story has been interpreted in many ways. Some believe it symbolizes the Aryan conquest of Kerala. It also has a pathetic touch of nostalgia of a people who know nothing but hardship and oppression in daily life, have nothing much to hope about future and console themselves that things cannot have been so bad all the time.

Onam is the festive highlight of the first month of the Malayalam calendar. Chingam (August-September) the harvest season of Kerala. After the rain drenched Karkidakam with its privations, Chingam is a welcome month of plenty. This is celebrated with traditional malayalee fervour with family get-togethers and gifting each other clothes, called Ona-kkodi.

The Onam festival commences with ATHAM and lasts for a fortnight culminating on the Uthirittathi. The most important celebrations are on four days- Uthradam, Thiruvonam, Avittom and Chathayam. There will be mirth and jollity among all people especially among the younger folk during the entire Onam season. The climax of the festival is on Thiruvonam Day.

On that day every one takes bath and offers worship in the temples. Then the gayest apparel is put on. Then there is the grand feast which is called 'Onam Sadhya'. After the feasting, there will be sports and games, in which every one participates according to his inclination. People physically and mentally participate in the festival by singing and through various games. To the youngsters, Onam is the time for rejoicing. It is the time for getting together with friends, relatives and grand parents.

In Trichur, a vibrant procession with resplendently caparisoned elephants is taken out while at Cheruthuruthy, people gather to watch Kathakali performers enact scenes from epics and folk tales. Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. Performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance to the beats of instruments like udukku and thakil.

One of the highlights of traditional Onam festivities is the aththa-poo, an auspicious floral decoration that is made in the compound of the house. Usually circular in shape, it is often multi-tiered, and up to four or five meters across. It is decorated with leaves, flowers and petals of different kinds. A flower is dedicated to each day of Onam, and predominates the decorations.

This colourful flower decoration lasts for ten days from Atham day to the festive Thiruvonam day. Different flowers are used daily. On the next day of Onam, Thumba flowers along with leaves and stems are used to decorate this pookalam. This will remain untouched for the next 15 days. On the 15 day i.e. on the Ayilyam day the pooklam will again be decorated with various flowers. The next day, on Magam day this pooklam will get cut in the four corners with knife and that ends the pookalam decoration of that year.

Even now Pookalam (flower decorations) competitions are conducted through out Kerala on the day of Onam and the best Pookalam are rewarded with traditional prizes.

Onam is symbolized by icons that are literally earthy. Made of clay or mud, these conical objects are adorned with flowers and worshipped as Thrikkakara Appan, symbolizing the Vamana avatharam of Lord Vishnu, which is central to the Onam legend.

The festive lunch on Onam day is called as Onam sadhya. It is a grand feast indeed, even in the poor man's hut. Rice is the main item and along with it several sorts of curries or vegetable preparations including various kinds of puddings.

Traditionally a minimum of 21 dishes like, Aviyal, Curry Narenga, Injipuli, Injithair, Moru Curry, Pacchadi, Paysam, Pradhaman, Theeyal, Thoran, pappadam, eriseri, acchar, etc. are served for lunch.

At Aranmulla, where there is a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna, thousands of people gather on the banks of the river Pampa to witness the exciting snake boat races. Nearly 30 chundan vallams or snake boats participate in the festival. Singing traditional boat songs, the oarsmen, in white dhotis and turbans, splash their oars into the water to guide their boats to cruise along like a fish on the move.

The golden lace at the head of the boat, the flag and the ornamental umbrella at the center make it a spectacular show of pageantry too. Each snake boat belongs to a village along the banks of the river Pampa and is worshipped like a deity. Every year the boat is oiled mainly with fish oil, coconut shell, and carbon mixed with eggs to keep the wood strong and the boat slippery in the water. The village carpenter carries out annual repairs lovingly and people take pride in their boat, which represents their village and is named after it.

The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappaattu, or Onam songs, and rock one another on swings slung from high branches.

The festival is now officially a week long, a far cry from its gloriuos 28-day past in Kerala. From the time Onam was recognized as a national festival in 1961, governments in Kerala have celebrated Onam with great pomp. More pomp than the State can afford, at times. But the Onam, like tradition, is not what it used to be. Thala-pandu-Kali, and Kuttiyum-Kolum are now nearly extinct as forms of sport. Kayyam-kali, of course remains, and not just on Onam days. The entertainments now associated with Onam, like Puli-kali apparently are not even indigenous to Kerala.
Onam being celebrated in Tirupati also confirms the fact that Onam was popular in the southern region before becoming confined to Kerala after the 10th century AD.

Mangudy Marudanar, one of the noted poets of the Sangam Age, is said to have Commemoration Of A Glorious Past described the Onam celebrations in the Pandyan capital of Madurai in one of his poems. Onam has been around for a long time. Apparently it used to be celebrated during the Sangam period in the first few centuaries C.E.

Onam festivities have been recorded during the time Kulasekhara Perumals (800 C.E.). Those were the days when Onam used to be a full month long.

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8/20/2008 3:49 pm delete

Onam the national festival of kerala is just days away. Do you have plans to enjoy this onam in beautiful 'Gods Own Country'?. Indian Tour Planners has introduced a one day celebration package for this onam in kerala. This onam celebrationpackage is arranged at a beautiful resort located in poovar trivandrum. Visit the page to find out more.