The Festive Spirit of Onam

Aug/18/2021 / by Rashmi Gopal Rao
Image courtesy of Rashmi Gopal Rao

A festival that transcends barriers and brings together various religious communities, Onam is a celebration quite like none other.  A symbol of abundance and prosperity, Onam is synonymous with camaraderie, colors and customs galore. Celebrated with great fervor in Kerala and Keralites all over the world, the festive vibe associated with Onam is more like a feeling and an emotion.  It holds a special place in the hearts of Malayalis irrespective of the faith they follow as it is an all-inclusive cultural festival rather than just a religious one.

Ode to King Mahabali

Legend has it that when Lord Vishnu took on the fifth avatar of Vamana he paid a visit to King Mahabali who hailed from the Asura tribe.  When the latter asked the Lord for a wish, He asked for “three pieces of land”.  The kind hearted Mahabali granted Lord Vishnu his wish after which Vamana grew in size and covered the earth and the sky with just two of his steps.  Mahabali offered his head for the third step which impressed Lord Vishnu.  Hence, he granted Mahabali a wish that he could return each year to his home in Kerala during Onam.  Thus, Onam marks the home coming of Kerala’s much loved Asura king Mahabali and is celebrated in a grand way.  It also a harvest festival and marks the celebration of the new harvest.

Ten-day long festivities

Celebrated in the month of Chingam which usually falls during the month of August or September, Onam is celebrated over a period of ten days starting from Atham which is the first day of the festival.  On this day people decorate their homes with the Pookalam which is a carpet of flowers akin to a rangoli or kolam.  Yellow flowers are considered particularly auspicious for the decoration.  A layer of flowers is added each day until the 10th day to mark each day of the festival.  The second day aka Chithira is marked by the cleaning of houses and buying of fresh provisions, vegetables and fruits for the festival.  On the third day Chodi, people buy new clothes, jewelry and gifts.  Vishakam or the fourth day is considered highly significant and auspicious and the preparations for the Onam sadhya begin on this day.  The fifth day, Anizham is reserved for the snake boat race, Vallamkali which is a rich tradition of the state since decades. 

From the sixth day or Thriketa, the festivities pick up pace with holidays starting and the pookalam looking much larger.  Moolam or the seventh day is when festivities like the traditional dance Kaikottikali and Puli Kali (Masked leopard dance) are conducted in many places.  On the eight-day Pooradam, little figurines of Mahabali and Vamana are placed in the center of the Pookalam.  It is on Uthradom or the ninth day that people start cooking traditional dishes and Mahabali is believed to enter the state on this day.  Thiruvonam is the final day when the celebrations reach a zenith with people decorating their houses with rangoli and flowers.  Rice flour batter is used to decorate the thresholds and people wear new clothes.  It is the day when people enjoy the Onam Sadhya feast.

Onam Sadhya

Arguably the most beloved part of Onam is the Sadhya which is an elaborate and delectable vegetarian meal served in a traditional manner and savoured on a banana leaf.  The fare consists of as many as 26 dishes and is literally the soul of the festival.  The dishes include papadam, pickles, curries, rice, rasam, sambhar and payasam.  The latter which is a dessert, is a creamy concoction of rice, nuts, coconut and jaggery.  Sometimes an elaborate sadhya can contain as many as 64 dishes!  The dishes are served in a particular order and each dish occupies a particular place on the banana leaf.