Onam – The Festival of Rejoice
Onam is a harvest festival that is typically celebrated in the Indian state of Kerala, and by the Malayali community around the world. According to the Malayalam calendar, the festival is celebrated on the 22nd star, Thiruvonam, in the month of ‘Chingam’ which, as per the Gregorian calendar overlaps with months of August and September. This year, the festival is celebrated on 31 August.
Onam is the official state festival of Kerala since 1960. It is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm all over the state by Malayalees regardless of religion, caste or creed.
Legend goes that once upon a time, the Dravidian king Mahabali (Maveli) ruled Kerala, his reign marked by joy, equality and prosperity in the society. The gods in heavens, turned jealous, and Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu, turned up at his door disguised as a brahmin, requesting three foot-steps worth of land. When the king conceded, Vamana grew in size, occupying heaven and earth in two steps. With no space left, Mahabali bowed, offering his head to place the third step. Vamana stamped him down to the netherworld, just before Mahabali extracted a promise that he be allowed to return once a year to visit his subjects. Onam, a 10-day harvest festival, celebrates the symbolic return of their ruler.
Onam celebrations are synonymous with the ‘Vallam Kali’ (the boat races), ‘Pulikali’ (the tiger dances), ‘Pookkalam’ (Floor drawing art in flowers), ‘Onathappa’‘ (the worship), ‘Onakkali’, ‘Thumbi Thullal’ (women’s dances), ‘Kummattikali’ (mask dances), ‘Onathallu’ (martial arts), ‘Onavillu’ (music), ‘Kazhchakkula’ (plantain offerings), and ‘Atthachamayam’ (folk songs and dances), among others.
The first Onam also known as ‘Uthraadam’, is the Onam eve. Many believe this to be the day when King Mahabali returns to the state of Kerala. On the second day, also referred to as Thiruvonam, it is believed that he pays a visit to people’s houses. In the consequent days, post-Onam celebrations continue, with the above mentioned cultural programmes.
For the Malayali community, the main attraction is undoubtedly the traditional Onam sadhya, which is a feast enjoyed by non-Malayalees, too. It is prepared with a few specific ingredients namely some seasonal vegetables, Mango and Lime pickle, Banana chips, Tamarind and Ginger chutney, Rice, Pachadi (a blend of coconut, curd, pineapple and chillies), moru (buttermilk), Avial (a dish with potatoes, banana, carrots, beans, drumstick and raw mango), Rasam (a tangy watery dish) and Pappadam. It is served on a banana leaf.
This year, the Onam festival
is celebrated without much festivities owing to the restrictions
imposed due to Covid-19. Apart from calling off the usual week-long
Onam celebrations of the government, strict restrictions are imposed
on Onam celebrations by groups too. Cancellation of Onam
celebrations across the state has also badly hit the livelihood of
many traditional art performers also.