There is a saying in Bengal, “Baro Mashe Tero Parbon”. It means that there are 12 months in a year but 13 festivals to celebrate in India. India indeed is a land of diverse cultures with innumerable festivals to celebrate. One such festival is Onam, which is celebrated in God’s Own Country, Kerala. Onam is a rice harvest festival and the beginning of New Year for Hindu Malayalis around the world. The festival falls in the month of Chingam of the Malayalam calendar and coincides with August- September of the Gregorian calendar. This year Onam is a 13-day festival and the celebrations will begin from Sunday, September 1 and will conclude on Friday, September 13 with Thiruvonam.
Onam is indeed a unique festival, which brings together people of all religions. Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike celebrate the festival with great gusto.
The Legend Behind the Festival of Onam
As in all festivals in India, there are two beautiful mythological stories that are connected with the celebration of Onam.
According to the first mythological story:
- Mahabali, the great grandson of Hiranyakashyap and grandson of Prahlad, was a very good ruler and an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu.
- Mahabali became very powerful and took over all the three worlds after defeating the Devas.
- The defeated Devas approached Lord Vishnu for help. But Lord Vishnu refused because Mahabali was a good ruler.
- However to test Mahabali’s devotion, Lord Vishnu in the incarnation of Vamana (A Dwarf) approached him and asked for property measuring three paces taken by him.
- Mahabali agreed and then Lord Vishnu increased in size and in just two paces covered all that Mahabali owned and ruled over.
- To keep his promise, Mahabali offered himself for the third pace.
- Lord Vishnu was touched by the devotion of Mahabali and granted him the boon that every year he could visit his kingdom.
- This revisit of Mahabali is celebrated as Onam. Onam is a reminder of the virtuous rule and humility of Mahabali in keeping his promise before Vishnu.
- It is believed that every year King Mahabali brings along with him prosperity in the form of a good harvest for the people of Kerala.
- According to texts in the Rigveda as well as Shatapatha Brahmana, Mahabali is symbolic of thanksgiving offering after a bounty of rice harvest during monsoon, and Vishnu is the metaphor of the sunlight during the summer that precedes the Onam.
The second legend is of Vishnu in the sixth incarnation of Parashurama (“Rama with an axe” ) in the era of King Kaartavirya. Kaartavirya persecuted and oppressed the people and once even stole the calf of Parashurama from his hermitage. Parashurama put an end to the evil Kaartavirya by killing him as well as his oppressive warriors. He then threw the axe and wherever it fell the sea retreated creating God’s Own country, Kerala. The Onam festival, according to this legend, celebrates Parashurama’s creation of Kerala by marking those days as the New Year.
Onam celebrations mark the Malayalee New Year and will go on for 13 days. They are known as Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradom, Thiruvonam, Avvittom and Chatayam. The first and the last days hold special significance for the people of Kerala.
The entire state of Kerala celebrates Onam with great fervour in the following manner:
– The celebrations begin with the grand procession called the Atthachamayam in Thrippunithura near Kochi. Beautifully bedecked elephants, artists performing folk art forms, beautiful floats depicting scenes from epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the Bible, and the beating of the Chenda (Drums of Kerala) mark this procession every year. The procession concludes at the Vamanamoorthy Temple in Ernakulam district.
– The showstopper of the celebrations is of course the world famous boat race conducted on the backwaters of Kerala. Known as the Vallam Kali (the snake boat race), the Aranmula Uthrattadhi Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race are held during Onam where different districts of Kerala participate. Each boat has 90 rowers and the sight of the synchronised rowing is a visual delight. Thousands of people including foreigners throng the shores of the backwaters to witness the race.
– There are other events including Pulikali (tiger dances), Pookkalam (flower arrangement), Onathappan (worship), Onam Kali, Tug of War, Thumbi Thullal (women’s dance), Kummati kali (mask dance), Onathallu (martial arts), Onavillu (music), Kazhchakkula (plantain offerings), Onapottan (costumes), and Atthachamayam (folk songs and dance).
– On the final day known as Thiruvonam the Onasadya, the feast of Onam including 24–28 dishes is prepared.
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