Onam is one of the most important festivals of Kerala. This harvest festival, whose origin is associated with the legend of King Mahabali and the dwarf Brahmin avatar of Lord Vishnu (Vamana), is celebrated by the Malayali people across the world. As per the Malayalam calendar, the festival falls on the 22nd Nakshatra (Thiruvonam) in the month of Chingam. Onam festival 2020 has started on August 22, and the 10-day celebrations continue beyond August 31 till September 2.
This ‘festival of joy and harmony’ involves a plethora of cultural programs, traditional dances, interesting rituals, competitions, martial arts demonstrations, and grand feasts. The air is imbued with magical energy, and every corner of the “God’s Own Country” comes alive during these festivities! Partaking in the zealous Onam celebrations must be a part of your itinerary if you are flying to Kerala in the festival month.
Mythological Significance of Onam festival
Onam festival commemorates the annual homecoming of King Mahabali’s spirit. According to Vaishnava mythology, Mahabali – the grandson of Prahlada – is a great Daitya King (clan of Asuras) known for his righteousness and generosity. The state saw the highest prosperity during his reign. With the desire to expand his realm, he conquers the entire universe. In order to retrieve their authority on the heavens, the Devas seek Lord Vishnu’s help, who then approaches Mahabali in the avatar (form) of Vamana (a Brahmin child) when the latter is performing Ashwamedha Yaga. The little boy requests “a piece of land measuring his three footsteps.”
Once Mahabali grants his wish, the dwarf Vamana transfigures into Trivikrama form landing his first step on the whole of the heavens and the second on Earth (thus seizing everything under the rule of Mahabali). Mahabali, realizing that Vamana is none other than Lord Vishnu himself, humbly offers his own head for the third step. Thus, Mahabali descends into the netherworld (patala loka) under the weight of Lord Vishnu’s mighty foot. Lord Vishnu blesses Mahabali with a boon that he could visit his kingdom once a year, and this day is celebrated as Onam.
Onam festival 2020: Day-wise celebrations
Each day of the Onam festival has its distinct name and significance, and is characterized by varied events.
Day-1, Atham (August 22):
People in Kerala start preparing for the return of King Mahabali by decorating their houses. The entrances of houses and temple premises turn colorful with artistic floral Rangolis called Pookkalam. A traditional Pookkalam design consists of 10 circles, each representing a Hindu God. Only yellow flowers/petals will be used for the first layer of decoration.
Grand parades (known as Atthachamayam) mark the beginning of the Onam festivities near Kochi. These processions feature the elephant march, drum beats, classical and folk dances, and reflect the rich culture of Kerala.
Day-2 Chithira (August 23):
Cleaning and decoration of the homes continue this day. People add more layers of colorful flowers and petals to Pookkalam, whose design and size elaborates with each passing day of the Onam festival 2020.
Day-3 Chodi (August 24):
Shopping and gifting clothes and jewelry are a part of the celebrations on this day, besides decorating Pokkalam with an additional layer. The traditional clothes are called Onakkodi.
Day-4 Vishakam (August 25):
Preparations for Onasadhya begin on this auspicious day as women stock up on supplies necessary for the grand Onam feast. The harvest sale is held on this day. Many competitions, including Pookkalam design competitions, also begin on Vishakam.
Day-5 Anizham (August 26):
One of the highlights of the Onam festival 2020, Vallamkali boat race, will be organized on the fifth day i.e. August 26. This famous event takes place at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta. A large number of people attend this race to cheer the oarsmen riding the long snake-shaped boats along the sacred Pampa River.
Day-6 Thriketa (August 27):
The celebrations of this ‘official festival of Kerala’ grow more enthusiastic as families start gathering together. Meanwhile, fresh flowers continue to adorn pookkalam design.
Day-7 Moolam (August 28):
By the seventh day, the festive aura is palpable in every region as the entire state gets decked up for the festival, and cultural dance performances grace the streets. Many places also serve the minor Onam feast.
Day-8 Pooradam (August 29):
The pyramid-styled clay statues called Onathappan will be installed at the center of pookkalam on this day of the Onam festival 2020. These idols stand as icons of Vamana and King Mahabali.
Day-9 Uthradom (August 30):
Also known as First Onam, it is the most important day as it is believed that King Mahabali arrives in Kerala on Onam Eve. Fresh fruits and traditional meals will be made ready in every household as a welcoming gesture to Mahabali.
Day-10 Thiruonam (August 31):
Thiruvonam or Second Onam is the main as well as the culminating day of Onam celebrations when the spirit of King Mahabali visits every household of the Keralites. Homes are all spruced up, the final pookkalam looks impressive, people dress up in traditional clothes, offer prayers, and feast on the grand Onasadya.
This traditional vegetarian meal is served on a banana leaf, and the food items include rice with coconut essence, a pickle, yam chips, curries made with fresh seasonal vegetables, avial, rasam, pappadam, buttermilk, and payasam (dessert).
The next two days (Third Onam/Avvittom on September 1 and Fourth Onam/Chatayam on September 2) are part of the post-Onam celebrations, when arrangements for the departure of King Mahabali are made, and Onathappan statues are immersed in the nearby water bodies. Certain events such as Pulikkali dance, snake boat races, etc. continue for a couple of days in some parts of Kerala.