Onam : The 10-day Harvest festival of Kerala

 In Hinduism

Onam is an annual Hindu festival with origins in the state of Kerala in India. It falls in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, which in Gregorian calendar overlaps with August–September. Onam is the official state festival of Kerala with public holidays that start four days from Onam Eve. In fact Onam celebrations last for ten days, Festivities of Onam continue for ten long days. Of all these days, most important ones are the first day, Atham and the last or tenth day, Thiru Onam. The event features vibrant colors and a long list of rituals, including intricate flower carpet, elaborately detailed outfits, banquet lunches and boat races. While women wear traditional saree like attire, men are most often seen in Dhotis. This is one of the festivals in India which is celebrated with zeal, zest and most number of cultural elements.

Origin and History

Onam, which is generally celebrated in August-September, is related to Kerala’s harvest festival and the festival of rain flowers. But most importantly, the festival commemorates the Vamana Avatar of Lord Vishnu and the homecoming of Mahabali, a legendary emperor in Indian History.

Enthralled Kerala populations celebrate this festival over a period of ten days and the first day marks laying off ‘Pookalam’ or floral carpet, a kind of Rangoli that is similar to floral designs and features yellow colored flowers. The second day marks the use of yellow and orange to the Pookalam and households are prepared for the third day. By the third day, newer designs of 4-5 colors are added to the floral carpet and the fourth day, which is widely considered as most auspicious day sees people opening markets for harvest sale and pookalam competitions. The fun does not end here and the fifth day sees Snake boat races, while the sixth day features people visiting their near and dear ones. The seventh day sees small Onam special buffet lunches, while the eighth day marks off major ritual of cleaning statues of Mahabali and Vamana. Shopping is the major activity. The eight-day witness extreme frenzy and is known as First Onam. The tenth day culminates the carnival and sees larger banquet buffets.

Mostly during the celebrations, women of Kerala wear Kasavu Sarees, which are white in color with gold thread, and the sari blouse colors generally correspond to the upper garment that their male partners wear. Women generally don’t wear shoes and young girls wear long, flair skirts with colorful blouses.

Onam Festival

More or less, the traditional dress of Kerala is the same for all women, featuring Mundu and Neriathu, which is a sari, white in color embroidered with golden border. While mundu is 5-6 meters of cloth draped on the lower body, neriyathi is a jacket style clothing over the blouse. The color of blouse varies. Cotton or south silk is majorly used for the sari and most often, the golden blouse can be accompanied with light orange color or with golden embroidery in circular, rectangular or diagonal designs. Young girls have to wear long skirts with golden border along with long blouses in varied colors. The dressing is accompanied by gold jewelry, which features long necklaces, which can reach close to the waist, along with smaller necklaces, earrings, headband and gajra, a hair accessory made of flowers.

Men, on the other hand, have to wear dhoti, which is white in color. Mostly their upper garment resembles the color of the blouse that their wife wears.


The 10-day Rituals

Day 1 – Atham day

Celebrations commence from the first day, Atham. The day is regarded holy and auspicious by the people of Kerala. People take early bath on the day and offer prayers in the local temple.

Notable feature of this day is that making of Pookkallam or the flower carpet starts from this day. Attha Poo is prepared in the front courtyard by girls of the house to welcome the spirit of King Mahabali in whose honour Onam is celebrated. Boys play a supporting role and help in gathering flowers. In the following days, more flowers are added to Pookalam. As a result Pookalam turns out to be of massive size on the final day.

Preparations for the Thiru Onam starts in a big way and everybody gets engaged to mark the festival in their own style. House cleaning starts on a massive scale and everything is made to look neat and tidy. There is also a set breakfast consisting of steamed bananas and fried pappadam (pappad). This remains the same till the day of Thiru Onam. A swing is also slung on a high branch of a tree. It is decorated with flowers and the youngsters take great delight in swinging and singing, that goes simultaneously.

Chithira – Day Two

On the second day of Onam, people add to the size of the Pookalam with different flowers.

Chodhi – Day Three

Size of the Attha Poo gets further increased with an addition of design with a different flowers.

Visakam – Day Four

Brisk activities in the market and households can be witnessed on the day of Visakam.

Anizham – Day Five

High point of the day is the grand boat race event called Vallamkali.

Thriketa – Day Six

People, who may be staying away from their homes, start coming to their homes as the main day approaches.

Moolam – Day Seven

With just two days left for the festival now, enthusiasm grips the state of Kerala

Pooradam – Day Eight

The day holds significance in Onam festivities. Devotees create clay idols in the shape of small pyramids

Rituals for the ninth day-Utradam

A day prior to Onam is the ninth day of the festivities and is known as Utradam. On this day tenants and depends of Tarawads (traditional large joint family sharing a common kitchen and consisting of more than hundred people) give presents to Karanavar, the eldest member of the family. These presents are usually the produce of their farms consisting of vegetables, coconut oil, plantains etc. This gift from the villagers to Karanavar on Onam are called ‘Onakazhcha’. A sumptuous treat is offered is offered by Karanavar in return for Onakazhcha. Village artisans also offer a specimen of their handicrafts to the Karanavar of Nayar Tarawads. They receive gracious rewards for this courtesy.

The Big Day – Thiru Onam

Onam Rituals Kerala appears in its grandiose best on this day. Cultural extravaganza, music and feasts add colours of merriment and joy to the God’s Own Country. There are celebrations all around the state and everybody takes active participation in them; Onam has assumed a secular character and is celebrated by people of all religions and communities.

Morning Rituals on Thiru Onam

People wake up as early as 4 am on the day of Onam. Day begins with cleaning of the house. In the earlier days, front courtyards were smeared with cow dungs. The custom is still followed in villages, where the houses are not cemented.

On the day of Thiruvonam conical figures in various forms are prepared from sticky clay and are painted red. These are decorated with a paste made of rice-flour and water and are placed in the front court yard and other important places in the house. Some of these clay figures are in the shape of cone and others represent figures of Gods. Those in the shape of a cone are called, ‘Trikkakara Appan’. The tradition of making clay cones for Trikkara Appan has its roots in mythology, which says that festival originated at Trikkakara, a place 10 km from Cochin. Trikkara is also said to be the capital in the reign of legendary King Maveli.

Elaborate prayers ceremonies and poojas are also performed on this day. A senior member of the house plays the role of the priest and conducts the rituals. He wakes up early and prepares ata; Ata is prepared from rice flour and molasses for Nivedyam (offerings to God). Lamps are lit up in front of the idols and all members of the house join in for the ceremonies. Priest offers ata, flowers and water in the names of the God. As Onam is also a harvest festival people thank God for the bountiful harvest and pray for the blessings in the coming year. A peculiar custom is followed after this, wherein male members make loud and rhythmic shouts of joys. The tradition is called, ‘Aarppu Vilikkukal’. This represents the beginning of Onam.

It is now the time for members of the house to dress up in their best attire and offer prayers in the local temple. Most people wear new clothes on the day. There is also a tradition of distributing new clothes on Onam. In Tharawads (traditional large family consisting of more than hundred people), Karanavar, the eldest member of the family, gives new clothes as gifts, called Onapudava, to all family members and servants. Other members of the family exchange gifts amongst each other.

The Big Feast – Onasadya

After completing the morning rituals, it is time for the family to get ready for the grand meal called Onasadya. The biggest and most prominent place in the house is selected to lay the meal which is traditionally served in a row on a mat laid on the floor.

Onam RitualsThe central place in the row is occupied by the eldest member of the family. In front of him is placed a lighted brass lamp at a distance. Towards the west of the lamp is placed a small plantain leaf on which the food is served. This is an offering made in the name of Lord Ganapathy.

Thereafter, the meal is served to all present. The elaborate meal consists of 11 to 13 strictly vegetarian dishes and is served on banana leaves. There is a fixed order of serving the meal and a set place to serve the various dishes on the leaf. A lot of preparation and hard work goes in making of the scrumptious Onasadya.

After the grand meal, it’s time for people to indulge in recreational activities and enjoy the festival. Men of strength and vigour go in for rigorous sports while senior and sober members pass time by playing indoor games like chess and cards. There is a set of traditional games to be played on Onam which are collectively called, Onakalikal. It includes ball games, combats, archery and Kutukutu (Kerala version of Kabaddi).

Women go in for dancing activities as there are specific dances like Kaikottikali and Thumbi Thullal for the festival of Onam. Women performing the graceful clap dance called Kaikotti kali in their traditional gold bordered mundu and neriyathu presents a splendid sight. Besides, there is also a tradition of playing on a decorated swing hung from a high branch. Onappaattu – Onam Songs, are also sung on the occasion.

Celebrations and cultural programmes are held all across the state to mark the festival of Onam in which a large number of people participate. Prominent amongst them are Vallamkali- the Snake Boat Race and entertaining events like Kummatti kali and Pulikali. The other highpoint of Onam is the dazzling display of fire works. The state of Kerala can be seen engulfed in light and spirit of merriment when people burst patassu or fire crackers.


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