ONAM is the biggest harvest festival and the most important festival of the state of Kerala and is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm irrespective of caste or community. 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 gregoriam calendar.
The word ‘ONAM' or Thiruvonam is derived from the Sanskrit ward shravanam. Thiruvonam is one among the 27 nakshatras or constellations. Onam festival continues for ten days, starting from the day of Atham aand culminating on Thiruvonam. Popularity and presentation of rich culture of the state during the carnival made Onam the National Festival of Kerala in 1961.
The festival marks the homecoming of legendary king Mahabali. He is also popularly called ‘Maveli and Onathappan’. Mahabali is the son of Virochana and grandson of Prahlad, the devout son of demon king Hiranyakashipu .Mahabali also belonged to the Asura dynasty but was an ardent worshipper of lord Vishnu. During the reign of King Mahabali, Kerala witnessed its golden era. Everybody 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. It is believed that on the Thiruvonam day, Lord Vishnu took his fifth avatar as Vamana and sent him to the nether world. However, for all the good deed done by Mahablai, god granted him a boon that he could annually visit his people with whom he was so attached.
The people of Kerala believe that on the Thiruvonam day King Mahabali visits his subjects and hence the day is marked by feasting and festivities. To welcome their reverted king, people lay flower mate (pookalam) and prepare a grand feast (Onasadya). It is a nine course meal consisting of 11 to 13 essential dishes and served on banana leaves and people sit on a mat laid on the floor to have the meal. It showcase the unity among people.
Another enchanting feature of Onam is Vallamkali, the snake Boat race, held on the river Pampa. It is a colourful right to watch the decorated boat oared by hundreds of boatmen amidst chanting of songs and cheering by spectators.
Pulikkali or kaduvakali is another entertaining performance where the performers take the quire of tigers, painting their bodies yellow with patterns of black and red. Kummattikali is another recreational folk dance performed during Onam.
Kaikottikali is an elegant clap dance performed on the occasion of Onam. In this, women sing songs praising the legendary king Mahabali and dance around the pookalam. Thumbi Thullal is another folk dance performed by a group of women who sit in a circle.
If we try to find out the meaning and significance behind its celebration we will see that according to legends 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.
Onam not only keeps alive memories of a bygone era of peace and prosperity but bring families scattered in distant places to an annual get-together reinforcing the strong family bonds.