“Maveli Naadu vanidum Kalam, Manushyar ellarum onnu pole”, a song handed down over centuries from the golden era of Kerala when King Mahabali ruled Kerala. The song conveys that during the rule of King Mahabali, all men lived together as one in absolute harmony. Onam, a festival celebrated with great joy and merriment, marks the yearly return of the great ruler King Mahabali who sacrificed himself for the love of his subjects and kingdom.

The Legend

One version of the legend has it that the Asura or the Demon King Mahabali was a wise, compassionate and judicious ruler venerated by all his subjects. The land flourished in unity, harmony and abundance under him. As his fame and prowess began spreading beyond his land into that of the heaven and hell, the gods felt threatened and feared his emerging power.

Aditi, the mother of Devas pleaded with Lord Vishnu to curtail Mahabali’s powers; presupposing that he will become overly powerful. Heeding to her words, Lord Vishnu transformed himself into a dwarf called Vamana and approached Mahabali during a yajna (a ritual sacrifice) and asked for alms in the form of  land; being a generous and charitable king he granted the Brahmin his wish without hesitation in spite of being warned by his court advisor Shukracharya.

The king was taken aback by surprise when vamana asked only for three footsteps of land. As soon the king granted the boon, Lord Vishnu, in the guise of Vamana increased his stature taking shape of his cosmic form and with his first step covered the sky, blotting out the stars, and with the second step, he encompassed hell. Realizing that Vamana’s third step will destroy the earth; Mahabali offered his head as the last step which pushed him into the netherworld. But before banishing him to the underworld, Vishnu granted him a boon allowing him to return to his beloved land once in a year.

Onam marks this homecoming of King Mahabali back into his dearly loved land. On this day, the whole of Kerala honors the memory of this benevolent king and celebrates prosperity and communal harmony.

Celebrating Onam

The ‘God’s Own Country’ comes alive in a plethora of colors during this secular festival in the Malayalam month of Chingam which falls in August-September. The ten days of festivity begins with the ‘Atham’ and ends with ‘Thiruvonam’.

The day one, Atham, starts with a pooja in Thrikkakara temple, Cochin known to be the dwelling place of King Mahabali. All the temples celebrate onam with a lot of pomp and merriment. Each house in Kerala put up the statues of Mahabali and Vamana at the entrance of their homes accompanied by the floral arrangement called the pookalam having yellow flowers on the first day. It is also accompanied by the processions called the ‘Athachamayam’.

On day two, Chithira, in addition to the preparation of the home for the Thiruvonam, another layer of flowers get added to the pookalam whose colors are usually orange or creamy yellow.  

The day three, Chodhi, sees a massive increase in the colors of the floral arrangement. The day marks the beginning of the shopping by the household members for new and fresh items ranging from clothes to household items for themselves as well as gifts for friends and relatives.

The day four, Vishakam, marked the commencement of the harvest sale in the yester years . In the recent times, vishakam signifies the launch of many onam related activities like the pookalam competitions.

On day five, Anizham, the snake boat races, known as vallam kali, kick start in the backwaters of God’s Own Country. Of the numerous races carried out during this season, the most famed one is the Aranmula Uthrattathi Vallamkali (snake boat race). The authentic snake boats of Aranmula are known as the palliyodams.

On day six, Thriketa, different members of the family travel across the lengths and breadths of the world to reach back their homes to be part of this great festival. This also adds up to the holiday fever of festivities and gaiety. The pookalam also doubles in size with an increase in the variety of flowers.

The day seven, Moolam, is celebrated with the leopard mask dance known as Puli Kali, and other classical dances such as Kaikotti Kali. The Onam Sadya begins on this day with temples offering sadhya to the masses on this day.

On day eight, Pooradamsmall statues of Mahabali and Vamana are cleansed and smeared with a rice-flour batter and carried around the house in a procession, to be later installed at the center of the pookkalam. The smearing is performed by small children known as the ‘Poorada unnikal’. Henceforth the statue would be known as the ‘Onathappan’.

The day nine, Uthradom, the eve of the Thiruvonam, is famous for the final shopping frenzy for the items required for the final day which is called the ‘uthradapaachil”. It is known to be the most auspicious day for the purchase of vegetables and food provisions for the Thiruvonam day.

The tenth and last day, Thiruvonam, also the most important day of onam, is said to be the day that king Mahabali was sent to patala or hell by Vamana. The eldest female family member offers gifts to the other members of the family. Prayers are offered in temples, mosques and churches on this day and a sumptuous meal called the Thiruvona-Sadya is arranged for friends and family.

Thiruvona Sadya is a vegetarian feast or banquet. This multi course meal is traditionally served on a banana leaf. The sadya has steamed rice as the main ingredient served along with many side dishes collectively called Kootan which include curries like Parippu,Sambar, Rasam, Pulisseri and others like Kaalan, Avial, Thoran, Olan, Pachadi, Mango pickle, Naranga curry, as well as Papadum,Banana, plain Yogurt or Buttermilk, and plantain chips. The traditional dessert called Payasam served at the end of the meal is of many kinds and usually three or more are served. The ‘Kootan’ are made with different vegetables and have different flavours; some say the reason for including so many dishes in the Sadya is to ensure that the diners will like at least two or three dishes. The dishes are served on specific places on the banana leaf in specific order. For example, the pickles are served on the top left corner and the banana on the bottom left corner and so on.

During this time of the year, most cities in Kerala are lit up with lights and magnificent firework displays. Numerous onam games are also played in both the rural and urban areas apart from the countless other cultural and entertainment programs such as the thiruvathirakkali, pulikali, uriyadi (pot breaking) and so on.

This time of the year is declared as the Tourism week in Kerala as this is the best time to visit the state.