Onam, the biggest and the most important festival of the state of Kerala is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm all over the state by people of all communities. According to a popular legend, the festival is celebrated to welcome King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam. Onam is celebrated in the beginning of the month of Chingam,the first month of Malayalam Calendar(Kollavarsham). This corresponds with the month of August-September according to Gregorian Calendar.
Carnival of Onam lasts from four to ten days. First day, Atham and tenth day, Thiruonam are most important of all. Popularity and presentation of rich culture of the state during the carnival made Onam the National Festival of Kerala in 1961. Elaborate feasts, folk songs, elegant dances, energetic games, elephants, boats and flowers all are a part of the dynamic festival called Onam.
Story goes that during the reign of mighty asura (demon) king, Mahabali, Kerala witnessed its golden era. Every body in the state was happy and prosperous and king was highly regarded by his subjects. Apart from all his virtues, Mahabali had one shortcoming. He was egoistic. This weakness in Mahabali’s character was utilized by Gods to bring an end to his reign as they felt challenged by Mahabali’s growing popularity. However, for all the good deed done by Mahabali, God granted him a boon that he could annually visit his people with whom he was so attached. It is this visit of Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam every year. People make all efforts to celebrate the festival in a grand way and impress upon their dear King that they are happy and wish him well.
A flower carpet called ‘Pookalam’ is laid in front of every house to welcome the advent of the vanquished king, and earthen mounds representing Mahabali and Vishnu are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards.The most impressive part of Onam celebration is the grand feast called Onasadya, prepared on Thiruonam. It is a nine course meal consisting of 11 to 13 essential dishes and is served on banana leaves. Onam also means new clothes for the whole family. Spectacular parades of caparisoned elephants are traditionally associated with Onam. It’s also the season of many cultural and sport events and carnivals. Another enchanting feature of Onam is Vallamkali, the Snake Boat Race, held on the river Pampa. It is a colourful sight to watch the decorated boat oared by hundreds of boatmen amidst chanting of songs and cheering by spectators.
There is also a tradition to play games, collectively called Onakalikal, on Onam. Men go in for rigorous sports like Talappanthukali (major out-door games played with ball), Ambeyyal (Archery, tests the skill and patience of a player), Kutukutu (a fun game and very much like the popular game of Kabaddi and it tests strength, speed, tact and the power of lungs of a player) and combats called Kayyankali (men fight one-to-one without using any weapon and the stronger man wins) and Attakalam (less dangerous and aggressive than kayyankali and is played in batches, Kayyankali is played singly).
Women indulge in cultural activities. They make Pookalam. Kaikotti kali and Thumbi Thullal are two graceful dances performed by women on Onam. Folk performances like Kathakali, Kummatti kali and Pulikali add to the zest of celebrations.Although this festival has its origin in Hindu mythology, Onam is for all people of all class and creed. Hindus, Muslims and Christians, the wealthy and the downtrodden, all celebrate Onam with equal fervor. The secular character of Onam is peculiar to this land where unity had always coexisted with diversity, especially during festivals, when people come together to celebrate life’s unlimited joys.
Government of India has taken due notice of this vibrant and colorful festival. It promotes Onam internationally in a big way and celebrates ‘Tourist Week’ for Kerala during Onam celebrations. Thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit Kerala to be a part of Onam.