30 August, 2020
This year, Onam, the traditional state festival of Kerala falls on 31st August. As has been the case with most other festivals, it is low key due to the Corona pandemic. This would have been one of the busiest tourist seasons in Kerala, otherwise. The monsoons have arrived, and with the advent on Onam, in the Malayalam month of Chingam, celebrations begin. Tourists arrive in hordes to partake in the Onam celebrations that last for ten days across the state. So, what is special about Onam that it is a state festival, which is celebrated by most people of the state, irrespective of caste, creed or religion?
Onam is a festival of the people of Kerala, which is said to have been formed when the great sage Parashurama threw his axe into the sea. Kerala emerged from the waters, and we now know it as God’s own country. This state has an important place in the history of our country as well. This is where the Portuguese first landed; Vasco Da Gama landed at Calicut, and then trade was established with Europe. There used to be a lot of trade happening with the Arabs as well. Kerala used to be an important trade centre with spices being the major commodity.
The story of Onam goes back to the Vedic times and is entwined in the Indian mythology of the ten Avatars of Lord Vishnu. King Mahabali, the noble king of Kerala was ruling his land and the people were very happy. Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlada, the noble son of the Asura king Hiranyakashipu who was killed by the Narasimha Avatar of Lord Vishnu. Mahabali was ruling over the three worlds, and yet was a noble king and so the god feared him and wanted to get back their kingdom.
Mahabali was about to perform a yajna to celebrate his victory over gods and had mentioned that he would grant anyone any request during the yajna. So, the gods sensed an opportunity to gain back their kingdom and sent Lord Vishnu in the Vamana Avatar to him. Vamana appears King Mahabali and asks him for granting him everything he can cover in three steps. Being noble, the king agrees; in his first and second step, Vamana who had grown in size, covers the whole universe and for the third step, King Mahabali offers his head.
With his step on King Mahabali’s head, the King and all asuras along with him, are banished to the paataal (Netherworld). However, Lord Vishnu, pleased with the king’s devotion, grants him a boon. He agrees to allow the king to visit his subjects once a year. This day on which the King Mahabali visits his people on earth is celebrated as Onam.
Onam falls on the tenth day of Chingam, called Thiruvonam. On this day, the people decorate their houses with flower carpets to welcome their king. They also wear new clothes, visit temples, and prepare a sumptuous feast with many dishes. The idea is to tell the king that his subjects are living happily and prosperously. So, there is a saying that says, kaanam vittum onam unnanam, roughly translated means that you need to celebrate Onam if it is by selling your last piece of property. Such is the importance they give to this day, and the love with which they remember their king.
Flower carpets in front of every house for the ten days starting with Atham and ending on Thiruvonam day is the main attraction for Onam. Flower carpets can be simple with everyday flowers from your garden, or grand ones were done using flowers brought from the market. There are also flower carpet competitions held in schools, colleges, and many other institutions and firms.
Women dressed in the traditional Kerala attire of ‘settu mundu’ also dance around the flower carpets to some slow tunes. The dance moves are very graceful, and simple and a sight to watch. The afternoon feast includes a lot of varieties and is called as the Onam sadya. It includes all traditional Kerala dishes like sambhar, pulisseri, kaalan, avail, olan, pachadi, kichadi, erissery, papadam, sharkarupperi, thoran, pickle, payasam, etc. It is eaten on a plantain leaf and the whole family sits cross-legged on the floor for having the feast.
The world-famous snake boat races are also a part of the celebrations, and this is now a part of the tourist attractions. It is called as Vallam Kali and there are typical songs sung during the race as well. In certain parts, you can also see the Pulikali, wherein people paint their bodies as tigers, and perform dances, going house to house. Many other traditional events like Onam Kali, Thumbi Thullal, Onathappan, Onathallu, etc., are also held in various parts. Onam is Kerala’s harvest festival, and though it is a Hindu festival, it is celebrated by all the people of Kerala, as it is about welcoming their king. This is why it is called as a state festival.
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