Onam is the most popular and important festival in Kerala in India. The Thiruonam festival of Malayalis rises above all barriers of religion, caste, creed and financial status. It is believed that during the four days of Onam festival, the legendary Asura King Mahabali (Maveli) comes to visit his subjects. For a world divided in the name of religion, caste or creed, a festival like Onam literally spreads the message of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (universal brotherhood) — irrespective of their religion, Keralites celebrate Onam with equal enthusiasm.
The word ‘Onam’ or ‘Thiruvonam’is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Shravanam’(one among the 27 nakshatras). The word ‘Thiru’ is used to address places and activities associated with Lord Vishnu in South India. Thiruvonam is also believed to be the Nakshtra of Lord Vishnu, who appeared as Vamana to push Mahabali into the realm under the ground where all Asuras belong. After the banishment, Mahabali was given the special privilege to visit his subjects once a year.
Festival of Onam lasts from four to ten days. First day, Atham and tenth day, Thiruonam are most important of all.
Government of India has taken due notice of this vibrant and colorful festival. It promotes Onam internationally in a big way and celebrates ‘Tourist Week’ for Kerala during Onam celebrations. Thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit Kerala to be a part of Onam.
A Brief History of Onam
It is believed that Onam celebrations started during the Sangam Period. Record of celebrations can be found from the time of Kulasekhara Perumals (800 AD). At that time Onam celebrations continued for a month.
Onam is an ancient festival which still survives in modern times. 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. Onam is unique since Mahabali has been revered by the people of Kerala since prehistory.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 following song is often sung over Onam:
Maveli nadu vaneedum kalam,
amodhathode vasikkum kalam
kallavum illa chathiyumilla
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 races
Ten days of Onam
The first day of Onam Celebrations starts with Atham day in the Malayalam month of Chingam. It is believed that King Mahabali starts his preparations to descend from Pathala to Kerala on this day. Athachamyam a spectacular event which is now aggressively promoted as a tourist event. The traditional ritual of laying Pookalam (floral carpet) starts on Atham day.
The second day is marked off when a second layer is added to pookkalam design with 2 different colours apart from yellow (mostly orange and creamy yellow). On this day, people start cleaning the household to prepare for the Thiruvonam day.
The third day of Onam Celebrations.The pookalam now will start growing in its size by adding new layers or designs with at least 4 to 5 different flowers. The day also marks the start of shopping activities. Onam is associated with gifting new clothes, hence from this day onwards people start buying new clothes and jewellery.
The fourth day of Onam Celebrations.Vishakam is considered to be one of the most auspicious days of Onam. In olden days, the markets open their harvest sale on this day, making one of the busiest days in the markets for public. Today Vishakam marks the start of many Onam-related competitions like Pookalam competitions etc.
The fifth day of Onam Celebrations, Snake Boats get ready to race in the Aranmula Uthrattathi Vallamkali. Anizham is one of the most important day in the Onam days as it kicks off the great Vallam Kali (Snake boat) at many parts of Kerala. A mock Vallam Kali is conducted on this day at Aranmula as a dress-rehearsal for the famed Aranmula boat race which will be held after Onam.
The sixth day of Onam Celebrations. By the sixth day, the public frenzy starts building up. Most of the schools and public offices give holiday from this day onwards and people start packing their bags to their native homes to celebrate the festival with their dear ones. The pookalam design will be very large by this time, with at least 5 to 6 new flowers types added to the original designs.
The seventh day of Onam Celebrations. On the seventh day, the smaller versions of traditional Ona Sadya (Onam special buffet lunch) start in many places. Most of the temples offers special sadhyas on from this day. Festivities include Puli Kali (Masked leopard dance) and traditional dance forms like Kaikotti Kali also performed in various functions.
The eight day of Onam Celebrations. The day starts off with a major traditional ritual where the small statues of Mahabali and Vamana will be washed and cleaned and taken around the house in a procession. It will be later installed in the center of the pookkalam smeared with a rice-flour batter. The smearing is done by small children who are called Poorada unnikal. From this day onwards, the statue will be called Onathappan.
The ninth day of Onam Celebrations. Uthradom is the ninth and the penultimate day of the festival of Onam. It is considered as Onam eve and celebrated in a very big way. Uthradam is known as ‘First Onam’ because it marks the day when King Mahabali descends onto Kerala. Traditional myths say that the king will spend the next four days touring his erstwhile kingdom and blessing the subjects. Due to this, Uthradom is celebrated in a very pompous manner with larger pookkalams and celebrations in all households.
The tenth day of Onam Celebrations The final day of Onam that culminates the 10 days of Onam Carnival. The day is known as Thiru-Onam (Sacred Onam Day) also known as ‘Second Onam’. Myth says that this was the day Mahabali was sent to the Pathalam by Vamana. The day marks the return of Mahabali to his fabled land (Kerala), as per the boon he received from Vamana to meet his subjects and bless them.
Apart from this myth, this day is considered auspicious being birthdays of several temple deities like Vamana of Thrikkara temple, Sree Padmanabha Swamy of Thiruvananthapuram etc.
Of all these days the first day Atham and the tenth day Thiruvonam are the most significant ones. Ninth day Uthradam is also considered to be extremely important from the point of view of celebrations in several parts of Kerala and each day has its own importance in various rituals and traditions.
There are several legends associated with this mega festival of kerala. Lets know about these stories.
Legend of King Mahabali
Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlada (son of Hiranyakashyapa who was slain by Vishnu in his Narasimha Avatar).
Mahabali gradually became a powerful ruler of all the realms – heaven and earth, with the able guidance of his guru Shukracharya. The Devas (gods) saw the rise of the Asura king as a threat. Envious of Mahabali’s prosperity, the gods approached Vishnu and asked for his help, to which Vishnu agreed.
Lord Vishnu took the avatar of a dwarf Brahmin, called Vamana and came to the kingdom of Mahabali just after his morning prayers, when the King gave boons to the Brahmin.
Taking advantage of the Yagam, Vamana came to the Yaga-shala. Mahabali received the Brahmin boy with all traditional honours and courtesies. He asked Vamana what gift he desired, and said he was ready to fulfill anything.
Vamana smiled and said: “I do not ask for anything great. All I need is land equivalent to three paces of my feet”.
On hearing this, Mahabali’s perceptive guru, Shukracharya, told Mahabali that the boy was no ordinary Brahmin, but Lord Vishnu Himself. He advised Mahabali not to promise the lad anything. But Mahabali was a king who would never go back on his word, considering it sinful to do so. Mahabali considered everyone who came to him for help as god himself and never refused them anything.
Mahabali told his Guru: “Prana (life) and Maana (honour) are like the two eyes of a person. Even if life goes, honour should be protected. Knowing that the person that has come now is the Lord Himself, I should be the most fortunate one as the Lord, who gives everything to mankind, is seeking something from me.” Mahabali gladly said that even if Vishnu himself were to come to his sacrifice and ask for anything, he would deliver it.
Mahabali, determined to honour his promise, begged the pardon of his Guru for disregarding his advice, and resumed his promise to Vamana.
Suddenly, Vamana increased to a massive size. With his one step he covered the whole of the sky and with the other he covered the whole of earth. He then asked for a place to put his third step. King realised that the boy was no ordinary Brahmin and asked Vamana to to put his third step on his head.
The boy did so, pushing Mahabali in the nether world, the patala. Lord Vishnu was pleased with King Mahabali generosity and granted him a boon. Deeply attached with his people, the King said he would like to visit Kerala and his people every year. Lord Vishnu was pleased to grant the request.
It is this homecoming of King Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam every year.
Parasuram Recovered Kerala
Parasurama recovered Kerala from the sea-bed by throwing his battle-axe. The axe travelled from Gokarnam in north to Kanyakumari in the South. This is how Kerala was discovered.
Lord Padmanabha’s Birthday
Thiruvonam is celebrated as the birth of Lord Padmanabha. In padmanabha temple in Thiruvananthapuram is a world famous temple. The idol is in the form of Lord reclining on the Holy Serpent Anantha.The temple holds dual importance:
It is considered as one of the seven Parasurama Kshetras.
It is one of 108 Divya Desams i.e. the main abodes of Lord Vishnu.
The Onam message
The festival carries the message of basic goodness of the man, who is selfless in his deeds towards fellow human beings. It is also about a dream — a dream about peace and serenity in the world; economic well-being and resource sharing; love and brotherhood; high ethics and morals; and human justice and conservation of nature.
People dream of prosperity for most of their lives. But once it’s achieved, they crave spirituality and morals.