After three months of heavy rains, the sky becomes a clear blue and the forests a deep green. The brooks and streams come alive, spitting forth-gentle white foam, the lakes and rivers overflow and lotuses and lilies are in full bloom. It is time to reap the harvest, to celebrate and to rejoice. The harvest festival of Onam corresponds with the Malayalam New Year, Chingam.
Onam is the most important harvest festival of Kerala and is an attraction for thousands of people within and outside the state. Ranging from four days to ten days, all the activities during this season are cantered around worshiping, music, dances, sports, boat races and good food. It is celebrated in the Malayalam month Chingam (ending of August and beginning of September). This year it falls on 15 September 2005. Onam is a harvest festival, and celebrates the bounty of nature after a year of hard labour. Elaborate procession of Trichur and spectacular snake boat races on River Pampa mark the merry-making nature of the festival. Women dress up in new saris and heavy jewellery and make elaborate and intricate designs of ’rangolis’ (with coloured rice paste) and ’Pookkalam’ (with flowers) in front of their homes.
Onam is a celebration of Ten days. People put flower mats in front of their houses, to welcome the King. There will be competition for the laying of flower mats; Keralites all over the world will be celebrating these ten days will pomp and gaiety. They will wear new dresses, will be visiting almost all temples which they can, they will be performing lot of dances like Thiruvathira kali Thumbi Tullal etc. to name a few and the most important thing is the grant lunch they will be having on the Thiuruvonam day. Which is also called the Fourth Onam. Whatever may happen they will not miss the Grant lunch. There is a saying in Malayalam that “Kanam Vittu Onam Unnanam” which means, “We should have the Thiruonam lunch even if we have to sell all our properties”. They give that much importance to the lunch on the Thiruonam day.
Onam is a celebration of Ten days. It comes in the month of “Chingam” according to Malayalam calendar. People put flower mats in front of their houses, to welcome the King. There will be competition for the laying of flower mats; Keralites all over the world will be celebrating these ten days will pomp and gaiety. They will wear new dresses, will be visiting almost all temples which they can, they will be performing lot of dances like Thiruvathira kali Thumbi Tullal etc. to name a few and the most important thing is the grant lunch they will be having on the Thiuruvonam day. Which is also called the Fourth Onam. Whatever may happen they will not miss the Grant lunch. There is a saying in Malayalam that “Kanam Vittu Onam Unnanam” which means, “We should have the Thiruonam lunch even if we have to sell all our properties”. They give that much importance to the lunch on the Thiruonam day.
Onam is a festival of festive celebrations. New clothes are bought on this day and people indulge themselves in dances and sports. The number of days of the festival range from four to ten days, depending on the region. The children and the youth join in the mirth of the season and set about collecting flowers early morning to decorate the yards of their houses for the ten days of the festival, starting from Atham to Thiruvonam. The native flower carpet known as ’Onapookalam’ is the highlight of these decorations and there are specifications of the type of flowers to be used on each day of the festival. Today the artistic and skillful decoration of the traditional ’pookkalams’ is being lost into obscurity.
On the day of Utradam, ninth day since the beginning of the festival, houses are well cleaned and decorated and gala feasts are arranged. Then the images of deities and cones made up of sticky clay painted red are placed there. They are known as ‘Trikkakara Appan’. These images are adorned with lines tastefully drawn with rice flour mixed with water and then they are worshiped. After the ’puja’, the male members raise loud rhythmic shouts of joy known as ’Aarppu Vilikkukal’.
The next day is the main day of Onam where new clothes are given as presents followed by a grand feast. On the ninth day, tenants of the family, dependents and hangers-on present the fruits of their labour, such as vegetables and coconut oil to ’Karanavar’, the eldest member of the Tarawad in a ritual called ’Onakazhcha’. In return, they are treated with a sumptuous feast on the main day of Onam. It is also customary for the village artisans to present the Karanavar of each Nayar Tarawad, a specimen of his handiwork in return of the presents of cloth or rice.
At Aranmulla, where there is a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna, thousands of people gather on the banks of the river Pamba to witness the exciting Snake Boat races. Nearly 30 Chundan Vallams or snake boats participate in the festival. Owned by villages bordering the river from the hills to the low lying plains- a stretch of about 40 kilometres – these boats are steered by oarsmen dressed in white dhotis and turbans. Singing traditional boat songs, the oarsmen splash their oars into the water to the rhythm of the songs. They guide their boats to cruise along, seemingly like a fish on the move. The golden lace at the head of the boat, the flag and the ornamental umbrella at the centre make it a spectacular show of pageantry. Though ostensibly a competitive event, the festival is more a visual extravaganza.
To date on the eve of Thiru Onam, the boat Palliodam floats down from Katoormana to the accompaniment of blowing of conch shells, music and drum beating. Torches are lit and snake boats accompany the procession. The colorful boat festival is held on Uthruttathi or the fifth day after Thiru Onam.
Each snake boat belongs to a village along the banks of the river Pamba and is worshiped like a deity. Only men are allowed to board or even touch a boat and that just barefoot. Every year the boat is oiled mainly with fish oil, coconut shell, and carbon, mixed with eggs. The black mixture keeps the wood strong and the boat slippery in the water. Annual repairs are carried out lovingly by the village carpenter and people take pride in their boat, which represents their village and is named after it.
Tradition demands that the Nambudiri Brahmin be at the main rudder oar about 12 feet long. There are four main oarsmen who control the movement of the boat. And in minutes the boat can turn around just by the twist of the hand by the chief oarsman. In the old days the villagers used to sit in the boat in order of their castes but today the order is changing though a certain pattern can still be distinguished. Everyone- the carpenter, the barber, the goldsmith, the blacksmith as well as the agricultural labourers – all have a place on the boat. And in close harmony and magnificent synchronization they pull at the oars. In Trichur, a vibrant procession with resplendently caparisoned elephants is taken out.
A long time ago, an Asura (demon) king called Mahabali ruled Kerala. He was a wise, benevolent and judicious ruler and beloved of his subjects. Soon his fame as an able king began to spread far and wide, but when he extended his rule to the heavens and the netherworld, the gods felt challenged and began to fear his growing powers. Presuming that he might become over-powerful, Aditi, the mother of Devas pleaded with Lord Vishnu to curtail Mahabali’s powers.
Vishnu transformed himself into a dwarf called Vamana and approached Mahabali while he was performing a yajna and asked for alms. Pleased with the dwarf Brahmin’s wisdom, Mahabali granted him a wish. The Emperor’s preceptor, Sukracharya warned him against making the gift, for he realized that the seeker was no ordinary person. But the Emperor’s kingly ego was boosted to think that God had asked him for a favour. So he firmly declared that there is no greater sin than going back on one’s promise. He kept his word.
The Vamana asked for a simple gift – three paces of land – and the king agreed to it. Vishnu in the guise of Vamana then increased his stature and with the first step covered the sky, blotting out the stars, and with the second, straddled the netherworld. Realizing that Vamana’s third step will destroy the earth; Mahabali offered his head as the last step.
Vishnu’s fatal third step pushed him to the netherworld, but before banishing him to the underworld Vishnu granted him a boon. Since he was attached to his kingdom and his people, he was allowed to return once a year from exile. Onam is the celebration that marks the homecoming of King Mahabali. It is the day when a grateful Kerala pays a glorious tribute to the memory of this benign king who gave his all for his subjects.
Another legend has it that King Mahabali was a devout worshiper of Lord Vishnu. He was sincere, honest, just and a good ruler. But he had one weakness – ego. And to eradicate his pride and redeem his beloved devotee of this one sin, Vishnu came to earth in the form of a dwarf Brahmin named Vamana.
The king in his pride asked the Brahmin what he wanted for he could give anything. Vamana asked for three paces of land and the king agreed. To make Mahabali realise that he was a puny creature in front of God’s universal stature, Vishnu himself had taken Avatar of Vamana and was testing his ability.
Mahabali, who was a man of principles, realized God’s purpose and offered his head for Vamana’s footstep, as he was sent to another world. This fatal step proved a blessing in disguise for the good king – the foot salvaged and released him from the recurrent cycle of birth and death. That is why Onam is celebrated by wearing new clothes and resolving to lead a new life of truth, piety, love, and humility.