Onam is the harvest festival of Kerala. It is also called ‘ Thiruvonam’ and is celebrated enthusiastically every year, for 10 days between the months of August and September.It also marks the New Year for the Malayali Hindus.
The festival is celebrated to mark the homecoming of King Mahabali, who once ruled over Kerala. Legend says that Mahabali, who was a devotee of Vishnu and a great ruler, once defeated all the ‘Devas’ or Gods and took over the three Worlds. The Gods panicked and approached Lord Vishnu, seeking His help in defeating Mahabali and getting their Kingdoms back. But Vishnu refused to help, declaring that Mahabali was his devotee. To celebrate his victory, Mahabali performed a ‘yajna' and granted anybody who came, their wish.Vishnu wanted to test Mahabali’s devotion and went to attend the ‘Yajna’ in the form of a dwarf. When asked to express his wish, Lord Vishnu said he only wanted that much land which covered his 3 paces. Looking at the small legs of the dwarf, Mahabali laughed and agreed.
Having his wish granted, the Dwarf then started growing and growing and with just 2 paces, covered most of what Mahabali owned. When Mahabali realised there was nothing that the “boy’ could cover in his 3rd pace, he offered himself. When Vishnu put his foot on Mahabali’s head, the King was pushed deep inside the Earth. But seeing Mahabali’s generosity, Vishnu granted him the boon of returning to Earth, to his kingdom and his loyal subjects, once during a year.
The people of Kerala celebrate their King’s homecoming with gaiety. The first day of Onam is called ‘Atham’ and the last day is called ‘Thiruvonam’. The 10 day period is celebrated with many festivities, the most popular being the ‘Vallum kali’(Boat races), ‘Pulikali’ (Tiger dances), ‘Pookkalam’(Flower arrangement), ‘Kummati kali’( Mask dance) etc. The festivals start with a parade called ‘Athachamayam’ from ‘Thrippunithura’ new Kochi, which includes a grand procession of beautifully decorated elephants, folk dancers, masked people etc. During the era of the Kings, this procession was led by the King of Kochi.
The Onam feast called ‘Sadya’ is an important part of the festivities and almost every house hold tries to prepare it authentically, as the traditional 9-course vegetarian meal.
Wearing new clothes is, of course, part of the ritual. Onam shopping begins on ‘Chodhi’ and includes jewellery and clothes.
The Hindu Keralites install the image of ‘Onathappan’,(Vishnu in the form of Vamana), during Onam, in their homes and decorate their houses beautifully with flowers. When Onam ends, the image is immersed in a water body. People visit the local temples too, for blessings.
The Christian Keralites, too, celebrate Onam by placing flowers near the Bible and eating the Onam meal with the Hindus.
The Onam festival is so popular and since Kerala appears to be dressed up as a bride during these 10 days, the State Government has declared these days as ‘Tourism Week’ in Kerala.