Onam is the state festival of Kerala and is celebrated on a large scale throughout the state. This ten day long festival that begins with Atham and ends with Thiruonam is marked with a variety of rituals and traditions. Onam also encompasses a wide variety of programs, dances, feasts and songs.
The traditional and most religious people of Kerala systematically and devoutly follows the rituals, traditions and customs that are set by their ancestors.
Rituals for the Atham
Considered as the most auspicious day of Onam, Atham marks the beginning of Onam. On this first day of Onam, people take bath early in the morning and go to a local temple to offer prayers and seek blessings.
Atham also marks the beginning of making Pookalam (floral carpets) in the front-yards of houses. Atthapoo designs are put up in front of houses to welcome the spirit of king Mahabali which is said to visits Kerala during Onam. Girls enthusiastically create Pookalam designs and boys help them in gathering flowers. During the rest of the festival, additional flowers are added to this Pookalam design and by the end of Onam, it is a massive, complicated design articulated with bright colors and a variety of flowers.
Intense planning, preparations and discussions take place for the celebration of Thiruonam and everyone is engaged to celebrate it in their own special way. Massive house cleaning is undertaken to make everything neat and tidy. There is a set breakfast of steamed bananas and friend papad for all the ten days of Onam.
Rituals for the Ninth Day – Utradam
Utradam is the ninth day of Onam. On this day, all the young and dependent members of family give presents and gifts to the eldest member. This usually takes place in a traditional large family with more than a hundred people living together and sharing one common kitchen. The presents constitute of farm produce such as vegetables, coconut oil etc. These presents are also given to ‘Karanvar’ (village chief) from the villagers and are called ‘Onakazhcha’. In return for Onakazhcha, a magnificent feast is then offered by Karanavar to the villagers. The villagers sometimes also offer their handicrafts and exclusive specimens to Karanvar and receive gracious and expensive rewards.
The Big Day – Thiru Onam
Kerala is in its grandiose best on Thiruonam. Cultural programs, musical performances and feasts further add to the joy and merriment of Onam. People from all communities and religions participate with vigor and enthusiasm and celebrations take place all over the state
Morning Rituals during Onam Festival
The day begins early with people waking up as early as 4 am to clean the house and to start the preparations. Conical figures are made from clay in various forms and then painted red. They are further decorated with a paste made from mixing rice flour and water. These shapes are placed in front-yards and other places in the house. Some of these figures are idols of various deities. The cone shaped figures are known as ‘Trikkakara Appan’. The clay cones are said to have originated in Trikkakara, Cochin which was said to be the capital during King Mahabali’s reign.
Ceremonies and elaborate poojas (prayers) are performed on this day. The senior member of the house guides as a priest in conducting the rituals. He has to wake up early in the morning to prepare Ata from mixing rice flour and molasses to cook Nivedyam (offerings to God). All members of the house come together for performing the ceremonies. The senior member offers, Ata, water and flowers to the God and seeks blessings for the harvest of this year. The male members of the family them make loud and rhythmic shouts which represent the beginning of Onam. This is a very peculiar custom of Onam called ‘Aarppu Vilikkukul’.
After this, all the members of the house dress in new clothes and best attire to offer prayers at the local temple. There is a tradition to distribute new clothes to family members on Onam. In large families of more than a hundred people, the eldest member of the family gives new clothes, Onapuduva, to all members of the family as well as the servants.
The Big Feast – Onam Sadhya
After completing the prayer ceremonies and exchanging of gifts and presents, the family members prepare the grand meal called Onam Sadhya or onasadya. The meal is traditionally served on a mat laid out on the floor and for this the most prominent space in the house is selected.
The eldest member of the family sits in the center of the row and a lighted brass lamp is placed in front of him at some distance. A small plantain leaf is placed to the west of the lamp and the meal is placed on it. This offering is made to Lord Ganapathy.
Food is then served to everybody. Onam sadhya consists of 11 to 13 mandatory dishes which are strictly vegetarian. The food is served on banana leaves as they are considered auspicious. There is a set place of each food item on the leaf and food items are served in a fixed order.
Time for Fun: Onam Games
People indulge in fun and recreational activities to enjoy the festival after the grand feast. Young men participate in rigorous sports and sporting events and senior members of family play indoor games like cards and chess. The traditional games of Onam include kutukutu, archery, combats, ball games and are collectively called Onakalikal.
Time for Fun: Onam Dance
Women perform different traditional dances like Thumbi Thullal and Kaikottikali. Attired in traditional gold bordered sarees with jewelry, women perform an elegant clap dance called Kaikottikali. There is a tradition to rope swings on a high branch and women swing on them while singing Onam songs.
People participate in large numbers in the celebrations and cultural programs that are held across the state of Kerala. Vallamkali boat race and events like Kummattikali and Pulikali are the most prominent among these programs. There is also a dazzling display of fireworks and fire crackers that engulfs Kerala in lights, spirits and merriment.