Onam occupies unparalleled position at the top of the festival hierarchy in Kerala. At times, it even bests Christmas as Christmas is only celebrated by Christians but Onam has the distinction of being celebrated by people of all religions in Kerala and beyond. This inspite of the hindu roots that form the basis of Onam
Legend goes that the great demon (Asura) king, Mahabali ruled over the region of Kerala. Unlike his background, he was a very generous king and much loved by his subjects. Kerala enjoyed unprecedented prosperity under his reign. Threatened by the popularity of the demon king, the Gods asked for Lord Vishnu’s help who appeared before Mahabali in the form of a Brahmin (Vamana).
Vishnu asked for land from the king as far his 3 steps could go. With the first two steps he took over the whole of earth and heavens. For the third step, he stepped on the head of the king Mahabali and buried him deep into the earth. Before being buried, Mahabali took permission from Vishnu to visit his subjects once every year. Its this return of the king to his land that is celebrated as Onam.
This is just one part of the legend that is associated with Onam. There are many more. People dress up, tasty food is cooked for family and friends, fun and frolic abound in the state and for Malayalis all over the world. Today the festival has become totally commercial. Liquor flows like water, all the shops in the state have Onam sales going on. Gold and clothes sales skyrocket. Since Onam is considered an auspicious festival, a lot of new purchases or starting of new business or moving in to a new house takes place.
The festival transcends the borders of Kerala. Malayalis have been known to emigrate to different parts of the world for decades now. In fact the popular joke went something like this….
When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, there was a Malayali selling tea on a push cart.
Its this ingenuinity and hardwork of the Malayali that has taken the people from this region places. The whole of Middle East is today known as mini Kerala. Before emigration became a fashion, it was an in-thing in Kerala for decades. As the Malayali traveled, he took his customs, festivals with him. Today Onam is celebrated in a big way in the Middle East, Americas, South East Asia etc.
There is the traditional boat race, women put up colourful flower decorations in the verandah of the house, lots of vegetarian delicacies are prepared. The traditional food spread is called Onasadya. It comprises of avail, pappadam, eriserry, puliserry, olan, thoran, sambar, prathaman, payasam, upperi etc. The food is served on banana leaves.
The festival is spread over 10 days. The first and the tenth day are considered the most important. There are rituals to be performed over the 10 days. The following are the names of the 10 days of the festival
- Atham – First day is an important one and is considered holy and auspicious by the people of Kerala
- Chithira – Pookalam with different flowers are arranged
- Chodhi – Size of the Attha Poo gets further increased with an addition of design with a different flowers
- Visakam – Brisk activities in the market and households can be witnessed on the day of Visakam
- Anizham – The boat race event called Vallamkali is organized
- Thriketa – People, start coming back to their homes as the main day approaches
- Moolam – With just two days left for the festival now, enthusiasm grips the state of Kerala
- Pooradam – The day holds significance in Onam festivities. Devotees create clay idols in the shape of small pyramids
- Uthradam – It is a day prior to Thiruvonam. Some people begin festivities on a large scale on this day
- Thiruvonam – The biggest day of all, is the tenth day called Thiruvon
In 2012, Thiruvonam is celebrated on the 29th of August.