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       Onam …

        ~ A Walk through history and traditions. ~

   “  Time for petals on floor, children on swings,

   Tiger clad men with hunters behind them,
  People enjoying Onasadya with family and what all
     Let this Onam bring Joy and Prosperity to all…”


Life becomes a festival when gaiety and culture blend. Onam delivers the message of both. Onam is celebrated with great zeal and excitement by every Malayali all over the world.

The splendor and glitter of this festival of prosperity are simply marvelous.

Onam is the biggest and the most important festival in the Indian state of Kerala. It is a harvest festival that is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm all over the state by people of all communities.

With her fine clothes, her intoxicating fragrances, her lilting music and her charming dances, Onam held Kerala under her spell for years. This has brought the festival, the esteem of being called the State Festival of Kerala since 1961.

 The Myth

Onam is based on a story, rooted in the Hindu Mythology. According to a popular legend, the festival is celebrated to welcome King Mahabali, whose spirit was said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam

vamananMahabali was an Asura king- Asuras, being the traditional enemies of Gods -who ruled the land of Kerala. It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Bali. In the kingdom, there was no discrimination between people. There was neither crime, nor corruption. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease in the reign of King Bali and everybody was happy and content.The Devas –the Gods, felt challenged by Bali’s growing glory and fame. So they approached Lord Vishnu and sought his  help to destroy Bali. Lord Vishnu took the incarnation of a poor and dwarf Brahmin, called Vamana and came to the kingdom of Mahabali, when the King gave boons to the Brahmin.

The disguised Lord Vishnu asked for as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King made a promise to do so. Suddenly, Vamana increased to a massive size. With his one step he covered the whole of the sky and with the other he covered the whole of earth. He then asked for a place to put his third step. King realized that the boy was no ordinary Brahmin but the Lord Vishnu himself and asked Vamana to put his third step on his head.

As he was pushed down into Patala (a good colony of demons), King Bali made a last request. He requested to be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year to ensure that his people were still happy, well fed and content. Lord Vishnu was pleased to grant the request.

It is this homecoming of King Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam every year…

 When is Onam?

Onam Festival is celebrated in the beginning of the first month of Malayalam Calendar (Kolla Varsham) called Chingam. That is, the celebration takes place after the middle of August and before the middle of September.

Onam carnival continues for ten days, starting from the day of Atham and culminating on Thiruonam. Atham and Thiruonam are the most important days of Onam festivities. The day of Atham is decided by the position of stars.

It is on the day of Tiruonam, that the spirit of King Bali (also known as Maveli) visits Kerala. Therefore this day is marked by marvelous celebrations and festivities. Malayali’s celebrate the golden era they had during the reign of Maveli through Onam. To welcome their favorite ruler, people lay flower mats (Pookalam) in the front courtyard, prepare a grand meal (Onasadya), dance, play and make merry. All this is done to impress upon King Mahabali that his people are prosperous and happy. People sometimes wear the costume of Mahabali and visit houses for the remembrance of the king.

There is yet another cause for the celebrations of Onam. The other cause for celebrating Onam is because it is the time of the year when a good harvest has been gathered all over Kerala, resulting in plenitude and happiness. Either way Onam is the best time of the year for any Malayali no matter where he is.

Rituals and customs

The celebration of Onam contains a wide vista of very fascinating events. The usually calm and relaxed scenario of Kerala transforms into a world of fun and frolic. The religious and traditional folks follow the rituals and customs set by their ancestors long ago. However, the grandeur of the celebrations witness a year fold increase. Besides the rituals and traditions, this is a period when Kerala comes alive with elephant processions, classical and folk dance performances, music recitals, cultural programs, boat races and much more!


Celebrations commence from the first day, Atham. The day is regarded holy by the people of Kerala. People take early bath on the day and offer prayers in the temple.
An important feature of this day is the beginning of the making of  Pookalam or flower carpet.

It is called the Athapoo on the first day. Young girls prepare this flower carpet in the front courtyard with the flowers they gathered with the help of boys who play the supporting role as helpers. In the following days, more flowers are added to Pookalam. As a result Pookalam turns out to be of big in size by the final day.

The tenth day is the big day. It is called Thiruonam..

Kerala will be at its grand best on this day. Cultural extravaganza, music and feasts add colors of merriment and joy to the God’s Own Country. There are celebrations all around the state and everybody takes active participation in them; Onam has assumed a secular character and is celebrated by people of all religions and communities.

 What makes Onam an Onam!

One of the most marvelous aspects of Onam is the unfolding of  Kerala’s rich and incredible culture. We do not just see glimpses of this richness, but a whole series of amazing events in the ten-day-long carnival. Onasadhya, Pookalam idal, Vadam Vali, Vallamkali, Pulikali, Kaikottikali, Onathallu, Uriyadi, Oonjaalaatam and several other traditions can be seen during the Onam days.

  • Onasadhyaa .. Yum yum..


People in Kerala are extremely passionate about their Onasadhya or the Onam feast. It is a mouth-watering spread of nearly two-dozen items. The vegetarian feast usually is about 6-7 courses and the number vary from region to region. The dishes are served in particular order served in Vaazhayila.


Onam-Sadya-at-Ente-Keralam-1All members of the family wear their new clothes – Onakkodi  and attend the feast. It is considered a must to cook and eat the Onam lunch in one’s own residence, in front of a lighted lamp. Even if they cannot easily afford it, one must anyhow prepare the meal inclusive of all the 11-13 prescribed dishes. This has lead to the saying in Malayalam, “Kanam Vittu Onam Unnanam” which means, “We should have the Thiruonam lunch even if we have to sell all our properties”.

  • Pulikkali.. Play of the tigers.


 pulikali-thrissurThis is the most entertaining custom of Onam. The performers take the guise of tigers. They paint their bodies in patters of yellow, black and red. Literal meaning of Pulikali is the ‘play of the tigers’ hence the performance revolves around the theme of tiger hunting. They dance to the beats provided by Udukku and Takil. Among the men dressed as tigers there will be a man dressed as a hunter too. This Folk art is mainly practiced in the district Trissur and it attracts thousands of travelers each year.


This is one such event that continues to cheer and entertain the onlookers.

Kaikottikali… a  dance of the damsels. 


Kaikottikali or Thiruvathirakali is an extremely popular folk dance performed by the women of Kerala. It is a group dance that is mainly performed on the occasion of Onam and Thiruvathira (December-January). They dance in a circle around a lighted Vilakku or lamp by clapping hands and reciting songs. Women, both young and old submerge themselves in the spirit of Onam and dance with perfect ease and elegance.

Dress code of Kaikottikali is very impressive as women folk neatly dress themselves in a typical Kerala style. They wear gold bordered traditional two piece cloth called mundu and neriyathu. Women also beautifully tie their hair in a bun. A fragrant jasmine garland tied around the bun further increases the beautiful charm of the dancer.

Vallam  Kali

Vallam Kali include races of many kinds of traditional boats of Kerala. The race of Chundan Vallam (snake boat) is the major event in the Aranmula, Champakkulam, Alappuzha and Payippad districts of Kerala. Hence Vallam Kali is also known in English as Snake Boat Race and now in recent years has become a major tourist attraction. The Boat races bring out the sheer spirit and ecstasy of the participants and the onlookers alike, as the majestic race crafts called the ‘Chundans’ rip through the placid backwaters of Kerala .


Vallam Kali2

These spectacular  ‘water snakes’ are manned by over a hundred oarsmen who row to the beat of songs, accompanied by drums and cymbals. Thousand of people, on either bank cheer them on. It’s an incomparable sight and that is why every year, people from all over the world come to Kerala to watch the ‘Chundans’ during Onam.

Vallamkali is the most enchanting facet of the festival of Onam. Vallamkali has been going on for a good number of years and its popularity is soaring with each passing year. The credit for the success of Snake Boat Race can be given to Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru who was so enchanted by this colorful event that he instituted a trophy for the race. Now the race is famously known as ‘The Nehru Trophy Vallamkali’.


Onam is a festival which brings everyone closer. Be it your dear one or be it the people from various levels of life. It  is drafted in such a way that it creates harmony in the society.

 “When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people had equality.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Death of the children was never even heard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,

And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbor.
When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless race.”
(Translation of popular Onam Song: “Maaveli naadu vaanidum kalam..”)


We the Keralites celebrate Onam to commemorate a glorious past. All of us yearn for a time like that of King Mahabali, a time when prosperity, joy and love blended. May the spirit of Onam remain everywhere – in whatever you do, whatever you think and whatever you hope in your life.
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