If you have lived in South India, you are definitely aware of Onam, at least for the incredible food associated with it. This Hindu festival of the Malayali diaspora is replete with an enchanting mythology, a sumptuous feast, and a colorful celebration. Here are the traditions, food, and fun of Onam that make it so exciting:
Legend of Mahabali
Mahabali was the grandson of the Vishnu devout Prahlad, the son of Asura Hiranyakshipu. Like his grandfather, Mahabali was a worshiper of Vishnu. He was a celebrated warrior, and defeated the Devas to claim the throne for the Asuras. The defeated Gods sought refuge in Lord Vishnu, and asked him to destroy Mahabali. Vishnu refused to harm a devout follower, but chose to put Mahabali through a test of his devotion, instead.
Vishnu appeared in the form of a dwarf, Vamana, in Mahabali’s victory Yagna. As is customary, Mahabali offered a gift to the little Brahmin. Vamana asked for only three paces of land. Mahabali agreed. It was then that Vamana started growing large. In one step, he laid claim on all of earth, in another he claimed the skies. When there was nothing left to step on, Mahabali offered his own head for Vamana to tread. Thus, Vishnu won all the lost lands for the Devas. But, for Mahabali’s exceptional faith, he granted him a boon to return each year to his land. Onam is the celebration of Mahabali’s return to his lands.
The 10-Day Long Celebrations
Malayalis celebrate Onam in the Malayali month of Chingam, that corresponds to Aug-Sep of the Gregorian Calendar. The Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple in Kochi, believed to be Mahabali’s abode, is the focus of Onam celebrations across Kerala. They mark the first day, Atham, with the raising of the festive flag. The Athachamayam parade, featuring marching elephants, floats, music, and people, starts off the celebrations near Kochi.
The Pookkalam, a flower floor decor, akin to the north Indian Rangoli, is started on the first day. The design is a small circle of only yellow flowers on Atham. As the days progress, women add colorful rings of flowers to the design. Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakham, Anizham, Trikheta, Moolam, Poorardam, Uthradom, Thiruvonam, Avittom and Chatayam are the days that follow Atham.
The festival gains momentum through the days. People celebrate the main events on Thiruvonam, when Mahabali is believed to visit people’s homes.
Music and Dance
Onam is also a time for demonstrations of various folk and regional dance forms. In Thrissur, artists perform the Kummatikalli, a colorful masked dance, around decorated elephants. Artists also commonly perform Pulikali, or Tiger dance, and Theyyam, religious worship dance all around Kerala. The Thrikkara temple remains vibrant through the celebrations, lit up with fireworks, people, and frolic.
Vallamkalli: Famous Snake Boat Race of Kerala
When you think of Onam, you think of Kerala’s famous snake boat race. This event is most celebrated in the Pampa River, considered the Ganges of Kerala. It is a major tourist attraction, and people take the races very seriously. In fact, such is the fanaticism about this event, that the Malayali diaspora in Singapore hosts the races in the Jurong Lake, every Onam.
If there is one thing about Onam, that transcends regional barriers within the country, it is the Onam Sadya. This Thiruvonam feast is nine-course, and vegetarian. The elaborate feast, served on plantain leaf, is a raging favorite in the country. Many restaurants in South India, even outside Kerala, serve the Onam Sadya during the Onam week.
While the number of dishes might vary, a Sadya typically includes rice, Sambar, Parippu Curry (a lentil dish), Rasam, Pulissery (spiced yogurt and coconut curry), Aviyal (vegetables in fresh coconut paste), Thoran (chopped, sauteed vegetables, in coconut and mustard dressing), Puliyinji (Ginger and Tamarind Chutney), and Kichadi/Pachadi, Payasam, and Pradhaman (fruit, jaggery, and coconut pudding) for dessert.
The Onam Sadya is so sacrosanct in Kerala, that there is a famous saying, “Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam“, which loosely translated means, one should sell even their last belongings to have a majestic Onam feast. Let us be merry, then!
If you are planning to visit God’s Own Country, maybe you want to swing by the glorious Onam celebrations. Have a happy one!
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