is the national festival of the people of Kerala. It is the festival of
flowers, which falls in 'Chingam' or Bhadrapada usually in August or September.
It is a harvest festival and goes for 4 colourful days with song and Kathakali
dances, feasting and boat races.
There is a legend behind Onam. In ancient times Kerala
was ruled by an asura King Mahabali who was very wise and greatly loved
by the people. Because of jealousy, the king of gods, Indra, hatched a
plot to oust Mahabali. To execute the scheme Vishnu disguised himself
as a Brahmin boy, Vamana, and went to the asura King. He asked as
much land as he could cover in three steps and King Mahabali agreed to
the request. Vamana immediately began to grow as big as the universe and
with two steps, he covered the earth, the heavens and the nether world.
He looked at Mahabali to place his third step and the King offered his
head for Vamana to place his foot. Vamana pushed Mahabali down to the
ground and before he disappeared Mahabali asked Vishnu for a boon to come
to the earth once a year to see his people and the request was granted.
The celebration of Onam is a tribute to Mahabali's sacrifice.
Onam celebrations which last ten days begin with a colourful reception
to King Mahabali. Mahabali is supposed to visit his kingdom on the 2nd
day, which is the most important day of the festival. Earthen mounds,
which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vishnu
are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards and beautifully decorated
with flowers. The legend is believed to have happened at Trikkakara, a
place 10km from Cochin on the Edapally- Pookattupadi road which according
to mythology was the legendary capital of King Mahabali. The Vamanamoorthy
temple here with the deity of 'Trikkakara Appan' or 'Vamanamurthy' is
Lord Vishnu himself in disguise.
There is another Vamana Temple in Thivikramangalam (Thamalam) near Thiruvananthapuram
on the banks of Karamana River called 'Thrivikramangalam Maha Vishnu Temple'.
Here Lord Mahavishnu idol is that of Vamana standing on top of the three
worlds which is nearly 6 ft tall. Along with the main Vamana Idol,
there are other deities (upa devathas) of Ganapathy, Ayyappan,
Siva and Nagaraja. Built in the 8th Century AD, the temple is governed
by the Travancore Devaswam Board and the annual temple festival (Utsavam)
is in March-April.
After traditional prayers and worship the head of the household presents new
clothes to the family and friends. There will be variety of entertainments like
dances, sports etc.
The festival lasts at least for four days. In many parts it goes beyond that
period and occupies 6-8 or even 10 days. It commences practically from the
asterism 'Atham' which comes on ten days before the asterism Onam or Thiru Onam. Atham
is enjoyed as a holy day. The younger generation keep up the mirth and jollity
foot on this day till the end of the festival. The elders join them
only on the last four days. The children of the village, assemble early morning
and set about collecting flowers to decorate the yards of their houses for the
ten days from Atham to Thiruvonam..
The chief decoration, 'onapookalam', consists of a carpet made out of the gathered
blossoms like Thumba (common leucas), Kakka poovu, Thechipoovu, mukkutti (little
tree plant), chemparathy (shoe flower), aripoo or Konginipoo (lantana), hanuman
kireedom (red pagoda plant), chethi (ixora) etc. The large flowers, and one or two
varieties of foliage of differing tints are pinched up into little pieces to
serve the decorator's purpose. There were specifications of the type of flowers
to be used on each of the ten days from 'Atham' to 'Thiruvonam'. This flower carpet is invariably made in the
centre of the clean strip of the yard in front of the house. It is a
beautiful work of art accomplished with a delicate touch and a highly artistic
sense of tone and blending. When the carpet is completed, a miniature pandal,
hung with little festoons used to be erected over it. Now the traditional 'pookkalams'
with flowers collected from the vicinities are becoming a thing of the past and
today in the cities several Pookkalam competitions are being floated during Onam.
The important part of the festival opened in some localities on Tiru Onam day
and in others on the day previous known as Utradam, 9th day from the Atham day. The houses
are well cleaned and made to look nice and spruce and food-stuffs for a
sumptuous feast are arranged. Even the poorest
of the poor manage to find something for himself to celebrate the national
festival in his own humble way.
The Onam celebrations open early in the morning of the Tiru Onam day,
at about 4 or 5 a.m. In front of the yard of the house, a portion is cleaned
and smeared with cow-dung. After this, Conical figures made of sticky
clay painted red are placed there. These images are of various forms.
Some represent figures of divinities, others are mere cones. The latter
are known as 'Trikkakara Appan'. The tradition is that the festival had
its origin at Trikkakara, a place 10km from Cochin which according to
mythology was the legendary capital of King Mahabali. The temple there
is the only temple in Kerala with the deity of 'Trikkakara Appan' or Vamana
murthy who is Lord Vishnu himself in disguise. These images are adorned
with lines tastefully drawn along and about with rice flour mixed with
water. They are kept only in the front yard, but also in all prominent
places commencing from inside the house and ending with the gate way outside.
Flowers are strewn all along and Pujas performed to the images every day
morning and evening. The first day Puja, is an elaborate one. One of the
inmates of the house act the part of a priest. He bathes in the morning
before dawn and prepares ata. Ata is a preparation of rice flour and molasses
for 'Nivedyam' - offering for the god. Lamps are lit in front of the image
and the Pujari proceeds his Puja in the presence of the family assembled
in the yards. The Ata is placed in front of the images and he offers it
to them. He strews flowers, pours water, shows certain signs with his
fingers, puts on a solemn air and closes the ceremony. After the dedication
of the images, the male members raise loud rhythmic shouts of joy.
This is known as 'Aarppu Vilikkukal'. By this, they proclaim to the outside
world that the great national festival of the Malayalis has commenced.
As the day dawns, the inmates of the house, bathe and worship
in the village temple. They put on their finest clothes. The most-distinguishing
feature of the Onam festival is the distribution of new clothes as presents. The
'Karanavar', the eldest member of the Tarawad gives these presents to the juniors,
the servants and the dependants of the family and others. The junior members
also sometimes give such presents to their relatives.
After the distribution of presents, then comes the feasting.
The most prominent place in the house is selected and all the members of the
family sit in row, with the Karanavar in the middle of the line. A bright
shining lighted brass lamp is placed in front of the Karanavar at a slight
distance. In front of the lamp, towards the west, a small plantain leaf is
spread with its point towards the lamp. Food is served in it. This is supposed
to be for the God Ganapathy to partake.
The tenants of the family, dependants and hangers-on
present themselves before the Karanavar the day previous to Tiru Onam
with the fruits of their labour, such as vegetables of divers sorts, coconut
oil, plantains, pumpkins, cucumbers, brinjal etc. This is called 'Onakazhcha'.
In return for this, the tenants have to be given a sumptuous feast on
one of the Onam days before the festival terminates. Every village artisan
will present the Karanavar of each Nayar Tarawad, a specimen of his handiwork.
These are graciously received and other presents of cloth or rice and
curry stuffs are given in return.