As the tiny state of Kerala nestled in the south-western coast of India bids goodbye to the monsoon, it gears up to welcome a new harvest season – and the festival of Onam. The air is filled with gaiety as a festive spirit grips the locals.
This harvest festival of Kerala falls sometime in between August and September according to the Malayalam calendar. A 10-day-long colourful celebration, the Onam festival in 2019 will be held from September 1st to September 13th.
Let us embark on a journey to discover the importance of Onam in Kerala – and across the globe – as we learn more about this auspicious festival.
The Onam festival
Wondering what is Onam? A beautiful reflection of local culture and tradition, Onam is celebrated to welcome the annual harvest season. Derived from the Sanskrit Shravan, it refers to one of the 27 constellations (nakshatras) in Indian mythology. Despite the Hindu connection, it is a truly secular festival that is celebrated by people of all religions in Kerala.
How Onam is celebrated?
Wondering how is Onam celebrated? Onam festival in 2019 will witness a variety of traditional events that bridge people from different religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. Propagating harmony and invoking a sense of spirituality, the events range from lighting a traditional nilavilakku, followed by a prayer, aarthi, and waving of flowers.
After these offerings comes the main attraction: family and friends enjoy a sumptuous meal together, symbolising the communion of people from all walks of life. Onam celebrations also include traditional folk dances and rituals that are a delight to watch. Each day of the festival holds special importance, and are characterised by an elaborate display of unique cultural events that are mesmerising to watch.
The Onam sadya is a grand feast prepared on the last two days of the festival. Sadya is a Malayalam word that roughly translates to the English word ‘banquet’. It is a multi-course vegetarian meal prepared with a variety of vegetables, fruits, and desserts. Certain parts of the state – especially northern Kerala – sometimes include non-vegetarian delicacies as well.
Though the number of dishes varies, the average family sadya has around ten dishes. Restaurants, on the other hand, may prepare as many as thirty items to ring in the occasion! The meal, if it is to be authentic, is served on a banana leaf. It includes traditional items like rasam, sambar, avial, plantain chips, payasam, and moru (buttermilk), among others.
A rangoli of flowers, the Onam pookalam is one of the many intriguing ways to celebrate this festival. A pookalam involves making intricate designs from flower petals and arranging them artistically at the entrance of a house or temple. Each new day of the Onam festival, old floral designs are carefully removed and a new design with fresh flowers is made. Choice of flowers is crucial when designing a pookalam. Flowers like daisies, chrysanthemums, zinnia, and marigolds are popular as they have colourful petals that last a long time without wilting.
The awe-inspiring pulikali dance (literally ‘tiger play’) had its origins almost 200 years ago, when it was introduced by Sakthan Thampuran, the then king of Cochin. Also called kaduvakali, this is a recreational folk art performed by trained local artistes.
To mark the arrival of the annual harvest festival, the players perform an energetic dance synchronised with the thumping beats of a large drum. Reflecting a free spirit infused with an inherent connection to nature, pulikali artistes paint their bodies in bright yellow and orange. They then mimic the stalking moves of a tiger pursued by a hunter. Their adrenaline-pumping moves portray virility and ferocity.
Snake boat race
Another immensely fascinating event that takes place during the Onam festivities is the snake boat race or vallamkali. The most famous of these is the Nehru Trophy boat race held on Punnamada Lake near the town of Alappuzha. Hundreds of spectators gather to witness this amazing spectacle.
Each long canoe-like boat is manned by 64 (or sometimes 128) rowers and the competition can be fierce. The serene backwaters of Kerala come to life as these snake boats or chundan vallams (as they are called in Malayalam) slice through the waters to the rhythmic beat of drums or to the strains of vanchi paattu (‘boat song’). The vallams are often decorated with flowers and colourful parasols.
A vibrant display of colours, history, culture, and tradition, the harvest festival of Onam is believed to imbue homes of Kerala with prosperity and fill people’s hearts with joy. Each ritual associated with the festival contributes towards making it a memorable occasion.