Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

Celebrated at the beginning of the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, Onam is the Kerala’s harvest festival that also marks the return of Mahabali, the mythological king who sacrificed his life for the well-being of his people. Onam is also the biggest and the most popular festival of Kerala. Onam celebrations in Kerala are way bigger than Diwali, a festival that is celebrated along the length and breadth of India. (DON’T MISS 5 offbeat places in Kerala that are calling out to you) Also Read - Monsoon 2020: Kerala Receives Fresh Spell of Rains, Thunderstorm as Southwest Monsoons Hit Coast



Onam has four main days. The most important day of Onam is called Thiru Onam and it falls on the second day of the festival. In 2016, Thiru Onam falls on September 14. Onam celebrations begin at least ten days before Thiru Onam. Festivites are so popular that this year, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had to issue a warning to government officials forbidding them from celebrating the festival during office hours. ALSO READ 5 things to do this Onam Also Read - Kerala's BevQ Alcohol App Crosses Over 1 Lakh Downloads on Play Store, But Hit By Technical Glitch

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Why is Onam celebrated?

Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

But before we get into Onam celebrations, a small story about why Onam is celebrated to begin with. It goes back to the reign of the Asura king Mahabali who ruled what is present-day Kerala. He was loved by his subjects and he was just. And as his fame spread, so did his empire. He extended his rule from the earthly realm and went on to conquer the netherworld and the heavens. Needless to say, the gods felt challenged by the growing powers of Mahabali. So Aditi, the mother of the Devas, pleaded before Vishnu to intervene to contain Mahabali’s powers. DON’T MISS 15 photos that prove Kerala is the best family destination

Instead of confronting Mahabali on the battlefield, Vishnu decided upon a slightly crafty approach. He transformed himself into a Brahmin dwarf called Vamana — who is recognized as the fifth avatar of Vishnu — and descended upon earth. At the time, Mahabali was performing a yagna or fire sacrifice and would be obliged to grant any Brahmin’s wishes. Knowing this, Vishnu as Vamana, impressed Mahabali with his wisdom and asked him for alms. In return Mahabali granted him a wish. Horrified, Mahabali’s guru, Shukracharya had sensed that Vamana was no ordinary being and tried to talk him out of it without much avail. Mahabali, you see, was mighty pleased with the idea that a god was asking for a favor. And so he declared that he considered no greater sin than going back on one’s word. He asked Vamana for his wish and Vamana humbly asked for just three paces of land.

Pleased with himself Mahabali agreed to grant Vamana his wish; after all how much land would a dwarf’s pace cover, he thought to himself. Little did he know what would follow!

Vamana decided to reveal his true nature, grew in stature and took his first step. The sky was covered and the stars were blotted. In his second step Vamana covered the netherworld. And just as he was about to take his final step and destroy earth, a humbled Mahabali offered his own head. Vamana stepped over it and banished him to the underworld but not before granting him a boon. Since Mahabali was so attached to his people, Vishnu granted him a boon that he would be allowed to visit his people once every year. Onam is the day that marks the return of Mahabali to earth. Kerala pulls all stops in paying tribute to the king who sacrificed himself for his people.

According to another version of the legend, Mahabali was a devout worshipper of Vishnu. And while he was an honest and a just ruler, the king had one flaw: his ego. And so, in order to rid his favorite devotee of his hubris, Vishnu appeared before him as Vamana, the Brahmin dwarf and asked Mahabali for three paces of land. Mahabali agreed and Vamana revealed his true self before stepping on the bowed head of his favorite devotee. By sending Mahabali to the netherworld, he freed the king from the recurring cycle of birth and death. Thus, Onam is also a celebration of the beginning of a new life of humility, truth and piety.

When is Onam in 2016?

Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

This year, Thiru Onam falls on September 14. Thiru Onam is the main day of Onam when the king Mahabali returns to the earthly realm to meet his subject. Even so, the celebrations begin ten days before Thiru Onam on Atham, which falls on September 4, 2016.

Atham is the day when Mahabali is believed to begin his preparations to return to earth and visit his people and kingdom. On this day, the devout begin their day earlier than usual, have a bath and offer prayers either at their home altar or at a local temple. As with all other traditional celebrations, people also draw floral rangolis (called pookalam) just outside the main door of their homes. Traditional pookalams have ten rings, each of which represents a particular god in the Hindu pantheon. On Atham, the pookalams are supposed to be made exclusively of yellow flowers though the color rule is slowly waning out with stress being more on how to make the design as striking as possible.

But nothing truly marks the beginning of the Onam celebrations as Athachamayam, a cultural gala that is held each year in historical town of Thripunithura near Kochi. Held on the Atham asterism of the Malayalam month of Chingam, Athachamayam commemorates the grand march that the king of Kochi from Tripunithura to the Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara. (ALSO READ Tripunithura: Steeped in history, lost to time)

Even though the king is long gone, the procession is just as large and majestic. Caparisoned elephants, floats and musical ensembles are part of the Athachamayam procession that also features folk performances from almost all corners of the state. ALSO SEE Places to visit in Kochi

Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

Celebrations continue on Chithira which falls on September 5, 2016. The pookalams receive two new colors as orange and light yellow flowers are added to the decorations. People also visit local temples to offer prayers and seek blessings.

Chodhi, which falls on September 6, 2016, is the day when Onam shopping begins. New clothes and pieces of jewelry are purchased. Markets of Kerala come alive on this day as people go to shops and malls in droves.

Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

Vishakham, which is on September 7, 2016, is the day that the preparations for the Onasadhya, also called sadhya or Onam Sadhya is the special meal prepared on the occasion of Onam. The meal is vegetarian and very, very elaborate. This is the day when traders would hold their harvest sale, thus making is a particularly popular day to go shopping. Traditionally this is also the day when women would go shopping for the ingredients of Onasadhya. Vishakham is also the day when Pookalam design competitions also begin across the state.

Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

Anizham falls on September 8 and 9, 2016 is the next day of the Onam celebrations. This is the day when snake boat races are flagged off around Kerala. In the temple village of Aranmula (located some 116 km north of the capital, Thiruvananthapuram) the banks of the holy river Pamba come alive with crowds cheering for the participants of a mock race that serves as a rehearsal for the main race, which is held on the day after Thiru Onam.

We are now getting closer to the main Onam celebrations. Thriketa, which falls on September 10, 2016, is the day when people begin their socializing. Families visit each other and the pookalams continue to get bigger and more colorful. (CHECK OUT: 5 awesome beaches in Kerala that’ll make you want to ditch Goa!)

Moolam falls on September 11, 2016 and this is the day when the government Onam Week celebrations begin. On this day, all of Kerala is dressed like a bride and you really begin to feel Onam festivities in the air.

The next day is Pooradam that falls on September 12, 2016. This is the day when pyramid-style clay statues also called Onathappan are installed at the center of pookalams. These statues are representative of Mahabali and Vamana. These statues are offered sweets such including ada, a dish made of rice and nevaidyam, a mixture of bananas, rice, coconut and jaggery. On the day Mahabali is formally invited by reciting: “Arpo Irro, Irro!”

Uthradom, which falls September 13, 2016, is the day when Mahabali is believed to arrive on earth each year. This is the day of last-minute shopping and cleaning up of homes. Uthradom is also considered to be particularly auspicious for purchasing fresh vegetables and fruits.

Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

Thiru Onam falls on September 14, 2016 is the main Onam day. This is supposed to be the day when Mahabali visits homes of his subjects. By this day the homes have been freshly painted and cleaned, pookalams are complete and more elaborate than ever, the shopping is on full display and families get together for the Onasadya. After Onasadya, the womenfolk dance around the pookalam or sit on a swing in the courtyard and perform around it. This dance is known as Onam Kali and is set to special Onam songs called Onam Pattu.

Avvittom, which falls on September 15, 2016, is when the state of Kerala begins to bid goodbye to its beloved king Mahabali. It is on this day that the Onathappan statues are immersed in a water body and the pookalams are cleared out. Onam celebrations are almost over now.

Chatayam, which falls on September 16, 2016, marks the end of the celebrations. Just as the Onam celebrations begin with a procession, they also end with one. The biggest procession in Kerala that marks the end of Onam is held in Thiruvananthapuram and is marked by dance, music and performance of traditional art forms.

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Best Onam celebrations in Kerala

Even though the entire state of Kerala comes alive during Onam, especially during the last four days of the festival, the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram as well as Kochi, Thrissur, and Kottayam see the most spectacular celebrations. However there are few specific celebrations that stand out from the rest. They are listed below:

1. Athachamayam in Thripunithura on September 4, 2016

Photograph courtesy: Abhilash C/Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/lightsync/2942356456/sizes/o/

Photograph courtesy: Abhilash C/Creative Commons

The historical town of Thripunithura near Kochi hosts Athachamayam, a spectacular cultural gala that marks the beginning of Onam festivities. Athachamayam involves a grand procession that involves decorated elephants and floats showcasing traditional art forms of Kerala. The beginnings of Athachamayam can be traced back to the procession of the king of Kochi who would lead a similar march that began from Tripunithura to the Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara. The Vamanamoorthy temple is also called the Thrikkakara temple and is most associated with the legend behind Onam. Another highlight of Athachamayam is the pookalam competition which results in some of the most spectacular and elaborate pookalams you’ll ever see.

Where: Tripunithura is the suburb of Kochi and is located near Ernakulam.

2. Festivities at the Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara on September 13, 2016

Photograph courtesy: Hari Vishnu/Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ThrikkakaraAarattu.jpg

Photograph courtesy: Hari Vishnu/Wikimedia Commons

The temple of Vamanamoorthy in Thrikkakara stands at the center of the legend behind Onam. Vamanamoorthy is dedicated to Vamana, the Brahmin dwarf and the fifth incarnation of Vishnu who stepped on the head of Mahabali sending him to the netherworld. It is believed that the temple stands at the very spot where the king Mahabali offered his head to Vamana so as to spare the lives of his subjects. Celebrations here begin with the hoisting of the flag and continue for ten long days.

Expect a lot of dance, music, folk art and cultural performances during this time as well as a spectacular procession that is held on Uthradom (September 13, 2016), the day when Mahabali supposedly returns to earth to visit his subjects. The procession is led by the idol of Vamana that is carried around the grounds of the temple on an elephant.

Where: Thrikkakara, which is about 15 km northeast of Ernakulam.

3. Snake boat race in Aranmula on September 17, 2016

Photograph courtesy: Mark Shann/Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/synnefoula/10223316424/sizes/l

Photograph courtesy: Mark Shann/Creative Commons

One of the defining elements of Onam festivities in Kerala are the snake boat races. And the one held in Aranmula along the river Pamba is not just the most famous one but also one of the oldest in Kerala. The origins of this race can be traced back to a legend that involved a Brahmin who promised to offer all the requirements for the thiruvonasadya (the feast that is held on the day of Thiruvonam) at the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple. These offerings would be carried on board a boat. As was wont, one particular year, the boat carrying the offerings was attacked. In order to protect the offerings, locals began accompanying it on their own snake boats. This practice eventually metamorphosed into a race that is held every year to this very day.

Where: Aranmula, about 116 km north of the capital, Thiruvananthapuram and about 10 km from Changannur railway station

4. Puli Kali in Thrissur on September 17, 2016

Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

One of the most curious (not to mention colorful) procession is one that involves bare-bodied men who have been painted as tigers. This procession is called Puli Kali (loosely translated as Tiger Play in Malayalam). Over the years, Puli Kali has become synonymous with Onam celebrations in Kerala. The festivities involve groups of local men who get their faces and bodies painted as tigers and lions. The paintings are extremely elaborate and time-consuming. The art form goes back more than two centuries and involves a painstakingly long process. It starts with bodies of the participants being shaved following which the first coat of paint is applied. This is then left to dry for a few hours before the second coat is put on. The performance involves a game of hide-and-seek with a mock gun-wielding hunter.

Origins of Puli Kali can be traced back to the reign of Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran the king of Kochi. He introduced the folk art form in the hope that the dance would reflect the wild and macho spirit of the force. As time passed, participants included Muslim soldiers of the British Army who were at the time stationed in Thrissur too. It was these soldiers who popularized the genre with steps that depicted a tiger being chased by a hunter.

Where: Swaraj Round in Thrissur

5. Kummatti Kali in Thrissur on September 14

Photograph: Shutterstock

Photograph: Shutterstock

This well-known mask dance of Kerala is practiced in its purest form in the Bhadrakali temple of Palakkad district. Kummatti Kali involves dancers wearing brightly painted wooden masks that depict the faces of Krishna, Narada, Kiratha or the hunters. The dancers also wear skirts that are woven out of plaited grass and wield sticks of a residuary agricultural produce called Kummattikali from which this dance performance gets its name. These of the Kummatti Kali are derived from Ramayana and Darika Vadham as well as local folk tales and of course the story of Shiva. The Kummatti dancers go from house to house collecting rice and jaggery and occasionally cash.

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