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Onam is considered as the Malayalam New Year. The Malayalam calendar starts with the month of Chingam, the month in which Onam is celebrated by all Malayalees across the world. It is the state festival of Kerala and considered the most auspicious time of the year for weddings, housewarmings, purchase of new car, starting a new business and everything else.

The Legend

mahabali photoPhoto by Abhay vyas

The story behind Onam goes like this – Mahabali was a demon king who was very virtuous who ruled Kerala. The Gods were not happy with his soaring popularity among the people as they seemed very happy in Mahabali’s kingdom. They requested Lord Vishnu to put an end to Mahabali, the demon. Lord Vishnu took the avatar of Vamana a poor Brahmin and approached Mahabali for three feet of land. Mahabali, being very kind to the poor, immediately granted it though he wondered what the Brahmin would do with just 3 feet of land. He requested Vamana to measure it to his like. Vamana suddenly grew as huge as the sky and measured the earth on one feet and the sky on the other. As he looked on to Mahabali for the 3rd feet of land as promised, Mahabali realized that it’s Lord Vishnu who has come. He requests Vamana to measure his head for 3rd feet. Vamana is impressed by Mahabali and grants him one last wish before he is sent to the Pathala or the Hell. Mahabali’s only wish was to visit his dear people at least once every year. Onam is the celebration of welcoming Mahabali every year.

The Celebrations

sadhya photoPhoto by Syam Subramanian


Onam celebrations begin on Atham day of Chingam month and last for 10 days. Every day, the every household spreads a flower carpet in front of the house ready to welcome Mahabali. Every day is auspicious and calls for a different design with different flowers. The actual celebrations last 4 days –on Uthradam, Thiruvonam, Avittam and Chathayam. Uthradam is actually the 9th day from Atham. The floral carpet or ‘Pookkalam’ gets bigger this day and the elders of the house gift the younger ones and workers with new dresses and vegetables to make the Onam Sadhya the next day. Thiruvonam is the most auspicious day. It is the day on which Mahabali visits. The grand feast is prepared, people wear new clothes, visit the temple and relatives, enjoy the feast and some dance. The ladies perform ‘Thiruvathirakkali’ which is a local dance form. On the 3rd day, the people bid farewell to the Mahabali who will return to ‘Pathalam’. The 4th day calls for Pulikali or the Tiger Dance which adds vigor and color to the event.

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The Pookkalam

pulikali photoPhoto by h0lydevil

One of the major attractions of Onam is the colorful flower carpet called ‘Pookkalam’ which is spread in front of the house. Since Onam brings with it the Spring season, flowers start blooming after the pouring monsoons during this time. Local flowers of all colors are used to decorate the ‘Pookkalam’. Typically, the flower carpets are round in share and starting from Atham, every day, a new ring of flowers add to it. On the 10th day, the Pookkalam will have at least 10 rounds of different flowers. Thumba, Rose, Jasmine, Hibiscus, Thulasi, Chethi, Shankhupushpam etc that are locally available are generously used for the Pookkalams.

 

The Sadhya

sadhya photoPhoto by Joseph Thekkekara

The Onam Sadhya is a lavish spread of 25+ dishes served on a two-fold plantain leaf. It has to be eaten with fingers. Every dish offers a different flavor to savor. The entire Sadhya is a 4-course lunch with 20+ side dishes that rejuvenates every taste bud in your mouth. Rice is the main item which is eaten with Sambhar, Rasam and Curd separately. Sides like Lentils, Pachadi, Kichadi, Thoran, Olan, Ishtu, Koottu, Kalan, Aviyal and 3 to four varieties of pickles and chips will be served. Each has a different taste from bland to spicy. Crispy pappadams add crunch to the food. The highlight is the range of Payasams served. Payasam is a dessert made of milk and sugar or coconut milk and jaggery. Pazham Pradhaman, Parippu Pradhaman, Gothambu Pradhaman, Palada Pradhaman, Chakka Pradhaman and Ada Pradhaman are the favorites. The Onam Sadhya will definitely have Palada Pradhaman which is considered the King of Payasams along with one of the other Payasams listed. This Sadhya will leave you gasping for breath after the explosion of flavors you savor.

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Onam is a beautiful celebration that brings the entire state together. It is believed that every person who is a Malayali will celebrate Onam in one way or the other as they can afford. It is a celebration of colors, nature and traditions that unite the people of Kerala and bind them to their roots.

Featured Photo by Rameshng

Onam – Welcoming Mahabali, The Virtuous Ruler

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