India - Onam Festival

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

Onam Festival

Onam is the festival which is confined to the people of Kerala, a state in South India. It falls around end of August or beginning of September. The festivities go on for ten days and mark the beginning of the Malayalam calendar.

It is a very ancient festival. There are records that it was celebrated even in AD 800. There is an interesting legend behind this festival and the Malayalese celebrate it with much fanfare.

Onam is the celebration of Mahabali’s yearly visit to his kingdom and also the advent of the Lord himself as Vamana on earth.

Legend behind Onam Festival: Mahabali, a devout king was conducting “Vishwajeeth”, a sacrificial rite, and had declared that he would donate anything that a person sought from him while the rituals were going on. Lord Vishnu went to the site in his incarnation as Vamana and asked him to donate him extend of land covered by his three footsteps.
When Mahabali requested Vamana to measure the extent of land that his three footsteps would cover, the Lord showed his cosmic form and measured the whole earth in his first footstep, the sky in the second and Mahabali’s head in the third. The lord was pleased with his generosity and allowed him to visit his subjects once a year, and this yearly visit is still celebrated by the malayalese people.

Onam celebration at present: Onam is celebrated in a very interesting way. Small earthen mounds resembling pyramids, representing Vamana and Mahabali are prepared. The front of the house is plastered with a layer of cow dung and the pyramids are placed there. Flower carpets, known as pookkalam are made to welcome the king and the lord. Generally young girls make the carpets which are of 1.5 in diameter and are star shaped or circular. A lamp is placed at the center of the carpet. There are competitions for the best pattern.

The houses are cleaned and decorated with flowers and lamps to receive the king and the lord. They are believed to visit every house. The town of Thiruvananthapuram is decked up and it looks as if the heavens have descended on earth. Each and every household prepares sumptuous meals and everyone is dressed in new clothes to make the occasion joyous and rich.

There is a lot of dancing and feasting. Keralites from all over the world try to be at home to welcome the king and the lord. On Thiruvonam day, which is the fourth day there is a grand feast at lunch time and people never miss it. Missing the lunch is a serious matter and a lot of importance is given to it. The poorest of all also manage to celebrate it in their own humble way.

Wearing a new dress on the grand feast day is the most important part of the festivities. The feast is served on banana leaves and is elaborate. There are at least four dishes along with pickles and papadams. A sweet dish called payasam is prepared from milk and sugar.

There are slight variations in the state in the manner of celebrations. In the town of Shornur, Kathakali dancers enact the legends in gorgeous costumes. At Thrissur an impressive procession of caparisoned elephants is taken out.
Rituals along with new clothes, music, dance, traditional cuisine, are important part of celebrations of this festival. Performers paint their bodies with bright yellow and black colors to look like tigers and dance to the beats of ancient instruments. Swings are placed and the young are found swinging on them.

The boat races are spectacular and innumerable competitions are held. The scene of 100 oarsmen rowing a long snake board in perfect harmony is enchanting. People from all faiths celebrate it together. If one is in Kerala during this time of the year it is impossible to remain unaffected by the festive mood and stay aloof.  


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