Onam, considered as one of the biggest and important annual Hindu festivals of India, origins in the State of Kerala. Basically, it is a harvest festival and marks the time for family get together, when nobody likes to be away from the family and the near ones. The festival is celebrated to welcome the mythological King Mahabali (Bali Raja), whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam and it also commemorates the‘Vamana Avatar’ ofLord Vishnu. Carnival of Onam lasts for ten days and the people make elaborate preparations to celebrate it in the best possible manner. It brings out the best of Kerala culture and tradition and is celebrated with abundant joy and amazing enthusiasm all over the state.
Onam is celebrated during the month of Chingam, the first month of the solar Malayalam Calendar, called Kollavarsham, which according to the Gregorian calendar corresponds with August and September. The grand festival of Onam continues for long ten days and it is no less than a grand carnival. It is all about being happy and engaging in fun-filled activities, like wearing traditional attires, laying intricately decorated beautiful flower carpets (Pookalam), Onathappan (worship), performing dances like Pulikali (tiger dances), Kummattikali (mask dance), Thumbi Thullal (women's dance),having tasty Onasadya (lavish feast) and participating in competitive games like Tug of War, Onathallu (martial arts) or breathtaking Vallam Kali (snake boat races).
Atham and Thiruvonam, the first and the last day of the Onam festival are considered as most important by the people of Kerala. The other days are known as Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam and Uthradom.
Atham brings an atmosphere of joy and jubilations as the people get engaged to celebrate Onam in the best possible manner. After taking an early bath, they offer prayers in the local temple. There is also a set breakfast for Atham consisting of steamed bananas and fried Pappadam (pappad). This breakfast remains the same till the tenth and the last day of Thiru Onam. The ritual of making ‘Pookalam’ or ‘Athapoo’ starts from this day. It is actually, creation of an intricate floral mat laid in the front courtyard by maidens of the house, to welcome the holy spirit of legendary King Mahabali. In subsequent days fresh flowers and new designs are added to this Pookalam. On the day of Atham a spectacular procession with decorated elephants, known as Athachamyam, is carried in Thripunithura, Kochi. Presentation of folk art, music and dancing make Athachamyam more attractive to the on lookers.
Anizham, the fifth day of Onam celebrations, is marked for the grand Snake Boat Race event, locally called Vallamkali. Thousands of domestic and international tourists come to witness the colourful and spectacular traditional race of the large number of the long snake like boats called Chundan Vallams, on the banks of the river Pamba at Aranmulla.
On Moolam, the seventh day of the carnival, the festivities shift into a higher gear with many native dance performances paving the way for processions. Different traditional dances, like Kummattikali, Thumbi Thullal, Thiruvathira, Pulikali etc are performed with much enthusiasm as essential part of the celebration all over the state. The colorful Kummattikali is performed by the masked dancers, who visit door to door with their show. Thiruvathirakali is specially a women's dance performed in a circle around a lamp. The performers of the Pulikali dance paint themselves like tigers in bright yellow, red and black and dance to the beats of the local musical instruments like Chenda and Thakil. Apart from that, the classical Kathakali dance is also commonly performed in many centres during this time, with dancers enacting famous mythological legends.
On Pooradam, the eighth day of the celebration, the devotees create Poorada Uttigal, clay idols in the shape of small pyramids called a Ma and richly decorate them with flowers.
On Thiruvonam, the last day of Onam Festival, People clean their houses, take early bath and wear new clothes to welcome the spirit of Mahabali. They offer their prayers in their homes or in the local temples. Giant Pookalam is specially prepared on this day and pyramid like clay mounds representing Lord Vishnu and Mahabali are placed in front of the Pookalam. In the noon the grand feast of Onam called Onasadya is prepared. The strictly vegetarian meal is served on a banana leaf. It can have about 24–28 dishes served as a single course. The eldest member of the family distributes the gifts and new clothes to the family members and people greet each other with ‘Onam Wishes’. To mark the end of the gorgeous festival different types of cultural events are organized on this day throughout the state, which include dances, games and other performing shows. Firecrackers (Patassu) are also burnt to celebrate and highlight the spirit of the occasion.
Most cities in Kerala are lit up with colourful lights during Onam. The vibrant and lively festival has now become an event of international interest. As ‘Tourist Week’ is arranged during the festival, today thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit Kerala to be a part of Onam.