Onam is the biggest and most significant festival of Kerala, which brings in the people a sense of oneness, irrespective of religion, caste or creed.

Though Onam is a harvest festival, many of its activities are centered round religion, reflecting the faith of the people of Kerala.

And it is celebrated by the Hindus, Muslims and Christians with equal fervour.

Onam is celebrated in the Malayalam month of chingam, which falls between end-August and mid-September.

The festivities go on for ten days, the most important being the first day, atham, and the last day, thiruvonam.

There are many legends attached to Onam, but the most popular one is on Mahabali, the demon king who once ruled Kerala. He was a very kind and just ruler, who brought harmony and prosperity to his kingdom. Onam is celebrated to commemorate the blissful rule of Mahabali. It is believed that during Onam he returns to his kingdom to pay a visit to his people. Another significance of the festival is that after the rain-drenched month of karkidakam, chingam is a welcome month for Keralites. The festival is the harbinger of spring, signalling the start of the harvest season.

The main attraction of Onam is pookalam which adorns the houses in Kerala from atham day, and continues till thiruvonam. It is an intricate and colourful arrangement of flowers on the ground outside the courtyard. The pookalam is followed as a ritual in almost every household during the ten days. The preparations for pookalam are quite elaborate and children have real fun collecting flowers from other houses and waysides.

Preparations for the festival start very early, many a times from the beginning of chingam. The first step in this is preparation of eatables like banana chips, which is an indispensable part of Onam. Cleaning of houses is generally done on uthradam or the ninth day.

Another attraction is buying new clothes for the family and relatives. The elder in the family distribute new clothes among the other members. In many households new clothes for the whole year are brought during Onam.

The feast during Onam (Onasadya) is its most delicious part. An elaborate and grandiose meal is prepared on thiruvonam day, with not less than four side dishes. This is usually served in banana leaves. The dessert is usually payasam, the sweet porridge, which is a favourite among Keralites. In many houses the feast starts a couple of days before thiruvonam. The recipe for each day will be slightly different and so will be the ’payasam’. This is also the time when the lady of the house gets a chance to show her culinary skills.

Another event synonymous with Onam is the ’vallamkali’ or snake boat race. About a hundred oarsmen row huge and graceful snake boats in a tough competition to win the prestigious trophy. People from far and near throng the place to watch the competition.

With considerable influence from the West, Kerala has changed significantly, and so has its way of thinking and living. But Onam will surely not lose its lustre in the near future.

Ambika Varma

More In: KERALA | NATIONAL