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Home » Other Astrological Information » Events / Festivals » Onam



Onam is an annual harvest festival, celebrated mainly in the Indian state of Kerala. It is the foremost festival among the cultural repertoire of Malayalees and falls during the month of Chingam (August-September) the first month of the Malayalam calender and lasts for ten days. Though it is essentially a harvest festival of Malayalees, mythologically it is linked to Malayalee-Hindu folktales. Like some other religious festivals in India, Onam is celebrated by people across all castes and faiths.

Significance of Onam

Onam has been part of Malayalee psyche for centuries. There are records of Onam being celebrated during the Sangam Age. Onam festivities have been recorded during the time of Kulasekhara Perumals around A.D 800. It is believed that during those days the whole of Chingam was celebrated as Onam season. After the rain drenched month of Karkidakam with its privations, Chingam is a welcome month for people in the state of Kerala. The festival is the harbinger of spring - signaling the start of the harvest season. Onam epitomizes the newfound vigor and enthusiasm of the season, and is celebrated with traditional fevour with visit to temples, family get-togethers, gifting each other clothes called Onakkodi and lots of merry making.

Onam Legend

Kashyapa had two wives, Diti and Aditi, who were the parents of demons and demigods (Asuras and Devas) respectively. As the common practice in those days, for a King invading another kingdom to acquire additional territory, Indra, the king of demigods went on war with the king of Asuras. Mahabali, the King of Asuras defeated Indra and proceed to occupy Indra's territory. Kashyapa, who had gone to the Himalayas to do penance, on his return, found Aditi weeping over the defeat of her son, Indra. By divine insight, Kashyapa recognized the cause of grief. Kashyapa tried to console Aditi who was wailing in grief, saying that nothing happens in the world without God's will and people should go on doing their duties. Kashyapa asked Aditi to pray to Lord Narayana and taught her Payovrata ritual that has to be observed from the twelfth day of the bright half Kartika Sukla paksha Dwadasi. Since Aditi carried out the Vrata with a pious heart, Lord Narayana appeared before her and informed her that he would himself take birth in her womb and help Indra. Later, on the twelfth day of the bright half of the month of Bhadraprada, Aditi gave birth to a son of uncommon effulgence. That child, "Vamana Murti", demonstrated His divine powers by doing marvelous deeds even when He was a child.

Balichakravarthi (Bali, The Emperor) or Mahabali was the grandson of the devote Prahalada, the son of Hiranyakasipu. Bali, like Prahlada, too engaged in the glorification of God and in the spiritual and material up life of his subjects. Mahabali who was performing the sacrificial rite called Viswajith declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yagna. Bali wanted to propitiate the Gods so much that, with their blessings, he could extend his beneficent rule over the entire world. Lord Narayan, in the form of Vamana, utilized this opportunity to shower Grace on him.

Vamana came to the Yaga-shala. As he was approaching them, the sages assembled there perceived the extraordinary effulgence form of the young lad. Mahabali went forth to receive the Brahmin boy with all traditional honours and gave him an eminent seat befitting the status of a holy person. Bali told him 'Master! It is my good fortune that you have chosen to honour me with your presence. Whatever you desire, I am here ready to fulfil the same'. Vamana smiled and said: "You need not give me anything great. It is enough if you give me that extend of land covered by three footsteps of mine".

On hearing him, Bali's preceptor, Shukracharya, who could have vision of the future told Bali that the one, who had come to seed a gift from Bali was not an ordinary Brahmin but Lord Narayana Himself who had assumed this form. He advised Bali not to promise the lad anything. But Bali was a king who would never go back on his word and told his Guru that he would never break his promise. He was determined to give Vamana whatever he wanted since breaking one's word was a sin and he had to keep his pledge Shukracharya insisted that he should not fulfil the demand of Vamana as he had come to deprive Bali of all His possessions. He said that Vamana was not really in need of anything as everything was in his hands.

Bali, however, was determined to honour the word given to Vamana, begged pardon of his Guru for disregarding his advice. Earlier, while Bali was embarking on the war with Indra, he had prostrated at the feet of his preceptor, Shukracharya, and on his advice he performed the Vishwajit Yagna from which he secured very powerful weapons. It was only because of Shukracharya's help that he was able to conquer Indra. On this occasion, Bali was not prepared to heed the advice of the same preceptor. Shukracharya cursed Bali, saying: 'As you have not heeded your Guru's words, you will be reduced to ashes'. Bali was firm and replied: 'I am prepared to face any consequence but will not go back on my word'.

Saying so, he asked Vamana to measure the three feet of land as desired by him. All attempts of Shukracharya to dissuade Bali from offering the land desired by Vamana proved futile. Bali told his Guru: "Prana (life) and Maana (honour) are the two eyes of a person. Even if life goes, honour should be protected. Granting that the person that has come now is the Lord Himself, I should be the most fortunate one as the Lord, who gives everything to mankind, is seeking something from me." Vamana then came to his cosmic form, measured all the earth with one foot, the skies with the other, and stood there for the third foot of land. Mahabali immediately offered his head for the same purpose. Vamana placed his foot on his head and sent him to the netherworld.

Emperor Bali, the most benevolent ruler, was liberated by being sent to the netherworld by Lord Mahavishnu who incarnated as Vamana. Vamana grew and grew in size until he towered above the heavens. With one foot, he measured all of the earth. With the other, he claimed all of heaven. There was still one foot of territory that Bali owed him. Bali offered his head to be measured as the third step of land which Lord Vamana had asked for as alms. Honouring the great devotion and sense of sacrifice of Bali, the Lord granted him permission to visit his subjects once a year. Thus, Keralites celebrate Onam festival to commemorate the Advent of Lord Mahavishnu as Vamana Avatar and to rejoice the annual visit of Emperor Mahabali to meet his subjects.

During Onam, the feast and festive mood of the people, dressed in their best, is considered reminiscent of the prosperous and truthful life of the subjects during Bali's flawless reign. People wear new clothes (Vastra) during Onam. The 'Vastra' also stands for heart. Thus the significance of wearing new clothes is about making the heart new by removing all bad thoughts and feelings. People forgetting their sectarian outlooks, join together to welcome the auspicious 'Thiruvonam' day. This is the only festival that is celebrated by the Thomas Christians of Kerala along with Hindus. Onam is celebrated with great fanfare every year and concludes with a well known fire works show.

The Temple

It is said that a temple was erected around the location where this incident took place. This temple stands over a large area in Thikkara, Ernakulam, in Kerala. Onam is celebrated here with great fanfare every year, and concludes with a well-known fireworks show. The legend of Onam may also be reflective of the beginning of Brahmins dominations in Kerala and the fall of native residents (Mahabali) of Kerala of those times. It may be possible that during this period the Aryans from North through present day Tamil Nadu & Karanataka were making inroads into Kerala.

Onam can also be considered as a thanksgiving. Maha Bali represents the Indus Valley Civilization. It was a primitive communist society. Spoken a Dravidian dialect related to Tamil. Had a religion similar to Pasupata Saivism, the Saivaits smear ashes on their foreheads to remind them that all worldly things end up as a handfull of ashes, and therefore acquiring private property is a futile excercise. It is to this scenario that came the Aryan invasion represented by Vamana. Being intellectual giants the Aryans could override the native inhabitants and establish themselves here. They have adopted what was impeccable in the native philosophy and attached them to their scriptures (Vedas) as Vedanta. After possible elapse of eight millennia, one cannot distinguish between Aryan and Dravidian traditions. India is a combination of Dravidian, Aryan, Budhist, Jain, Christian, Islamic and other traditions. Onam can be considered as a thanksgiving to the original inhabitants of India by the present day citizens.

Thiruvathira Kali

Onam 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 this 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 celebrated with focus on different cultural aspects in each place. Atachamayam- a cultural procession takes place in the royal town of tripunithura near Ernakulam-Kochi, on the Atham day of Chingam, which also marks the beginning of Onam celebrations. At the Vamanamoorthy temple in Thikkara, the annual temple festival coincides with Onam. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vamana and is directly linked to the mythological background of Onam. At Shornur, Kathakali dancers in gorgeous costumes enact the legends. A strikingly impressive procession of caparisoned elephants is taken out at Tjrossir.

The celebrations begin within a fortnight of the Malayalam New Year and go on for ten days. The last day called the Thiruvonam is the most important. All over the state, rituals along with new clothes, traditional cuisine, dance, and music mark this harvest festival. In Thrissur, a vibrant procession with resplendently caparisoned elephants is taken out while at Cheruthurumuthy, people gather to watch Kathakali performers enact scenes from epics and folk tales. Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. Performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and thakil.

The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappaattu, or Onam songs, and rock one another on swings slung from high branches.

Ten Day Celebrations

The ten-day celebrations of Onam start on Atham day. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vishnu are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house and beautifully decorated with flowers. Known as the Onapookkalam or Onam Pookalam, it is a carpet made out of the gathered blossoms with one or two varieties of foliage of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to serve the decorator's purpose. The Onapookkalam is a beautiful art work accomplished with a delicate touch and a highly artistic sense of tone and blending. North Indians would recall the Pookkalam to that of their color powder arrangement called "Rangoli". When completed, a miniature pandal, hung with little festoons is erected over it. Onam Pookkalam Competitions by local regional associations are pretty common.

The important part of the festival opens in some localities on Thiruvonam day and in others on the previous day known as Utradam. On Thiruvonam day, King Mahabali is believed to visit every Malayalee home and meet his people. Houses are cleaned and decorated with flowers and traditional lamps. A fabulous display of fireworks turns the capital Thiruvananthapuram into a veritable fairyland. Sumptuous feasts are prepared in every household. The eldest member of each family presents clothes to all the members of the family. Even the poorest of the poor manage to find something for himself to celebrate the national festival in his own humble way.

Onam Day Activities

The most important things about Onam are the onakkodi, the new dress worn on this day and onam sadhya, a feast which is quite elaborate. This is usually a feast served on banana leaves and serves rice along with at least an array of 4 dishes. Traditional pickels and papadam are also served. Desert - is usually 'payasam' a sweet dish made of milk, sugar and other traditional Indian savories. During Onam, people create a multi-colored floral decoration on the ground in the front of their home called a pookkalam. Young children especially girls are often entrusted with the task of gathering and laying out the flowers in elaborate patterns. Competitions are held on onam day to create this floral design. It is usually 1.5m in Diameter and circular or star shaped. A lamp is usually placed as part of the design.

The Vallamkali (the snake boat race) is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. About 100 oarsmen row huge and graceful snake boats and men and women come from far and near to watch the snake boats skim through the water. This festival is also important because of its secular character. Whatever might be the origin of Onam, today it is celebrated with equal fervor by the Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and hence it cannot be regarded as a Hindu festival in its strict sense.

Onam on various years

Onam falls on the following days in the respective years:

2014: September 7
2013: September 16
2012: August 29
2010: August 23
2009: Septembe 2
2008: September 13 Saturday
2007: August 27 Monday
2006: September 5 Tuesday

Other related information

All Dates and Times on this website are as per Indian Standard Time (IST) unless otherwise explicity specified.
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