Celebrating the rice harvest, Onam is one of the three primary Hindu celebrations, along with Vishu and Thiruvathira. Originating in the Indian state of Kerala, the legend goes that King Mahabali brought forth a golden era during his reign over Kerala. Despite his ego, he passed a test set forth by Vishnu, proving his devotion to his people and lands, and so he is allowed to visit Kerala again once every year. Onam celebrates Mahabali’s annual homecoming through a ten-day festival that includes a variety of traditions such as Vallam Kali (boat races), Pulikali (tiger dances), Onathallu (martial arts), and a nine-course vegetarian feast called Onasadya on the last day. The festival takes place 10 days before Thiru Onam, during the month of Chingam (which typically falls between August and September).
When is Onam 2023?
The Hindu festival Onam is observed during the month of Chingam on the Malayalam calendar, which is typically between August and September. Onam starts on August 20 this month.
History of Onam
Onam is a 10-day festival that is observed in Hindu culture. It is a harvest festival that welcomes the mythical King Mahabali. Mahabali was a demon but renowned for his generosity and good heart. His popularity incited jealousy in the Gods, so they asked Lord Vishnu to help them. As Mahabali was a devout worshipper of Lord Vishnu, the latter aided the Gods in their cause but did not initiate a battle with Mahabali.
Lord Vishnu transfigured into a Brahmin dwarf named Vamana, and headed to Mahabali’s kingdoms with a request to have the right over a property measuring ‘three paces.’ Mahabali obliged and fulfilled Vamana’s wish.
The 10 days of Onam are Atham, Chithira, Chodi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradom, and Thiruvonam. Thiruvonam is the most important day of the festival.
Several large events mark the festival. ‘Pookkalam’ is the tradition of designing flowers using colored powder in front of houses. ‘Onakalikal’ refers to all the games that are played throughout the festival. These include ‘Thala Panthu Kali’ with a ball, ‘Ambeyyal’ or archery, and the ‘Vallamkali’ boat race, in which 100 boatmen compete.
Women participate in traditional folk dances, which are among the biggest attractions of the festival. The dances and synchronized performances are in honor of King Mahabali and his arrival. The elephant procession is the peak of the festival, with decorated elephants parading and dancing with people at the place of the procession.
The earliest recorded reference to Onam is in the Tamil poem “Maturaikkāñci.”
Pathikas and Pallads by Periyazharwar describe Onam celebrations and offerings to Lord Vishnu.
Inscription engravings in the Thrikkakara Temple are dedicated to Vamana — the disguise of Vishnu.
An inscription in one of the largest Hindu temples — Tiruvalla Temple, mentions Onam.
Women create carpets of colorful flowers in front of their homes. These designs are called Pookalam. Decorating homes, trays prepared for worship, and wearing special outfits for the occasion are part of the festival traditions. The new clothes worn on Onam are called ‘onakkodi,’ and are an important aspect of the holiday.
The festival has many sub-events that take place; Vallam Kali, Pulikkali, Pookkalam, Onatthappan, Thumbi Thullal, Onavillu, Kazhchakkula, Athachamayam, and more. Plays and dances are performed at these events — Thiruvathirakali, Thumbi Thullal, Pulikali, and Kathakali. The men are dressed up as tigers, and many of these unique performances are witnessed on public events or streets.
The Onasadya meal is prepared on the most important day of the festival, Thiruvonam. Delicacies are cooked and served on large banana leaves. The nine-course meal comprises dishes such as rasam, sambar, rice, and more. Some restaurants offer as many as 30 dishes on their menu for Osandya.
Is Onam celebrated by all religions?
Onam is primarily a Hindu festival but is celebrated by non-Hindu communities as well.
Why do we celebrate Onam?
The Onam festival celebrates the arrival of the legendary King Mahabali, who is believed to visit Kerala every year.
Who celebrates Onam?
Onam is a festival observed by Hindus.
How To Celebrate Onam
Visit the temples
In the early morning of the first day of Onam, head to a temple. Offer prayers for King Mahabali’s arrival and seek blessings.
Participate in a procession
If you live near Thrippunithura, join the large procession that will be taking place. Follow the tradition of leaving food or small items upon reaching your destination. Thrippunithura is significant and many believe that it is close to where the demon king left for the other world.
Decorate your home
Go all out to make your space a good zone for the King’s arrival. Tidy and clean your home, decorate as elaborately as you can, and create colorful Pookalam flower designs outside your home.
5 Facts About Onam
Onam is secular
The festival is secular, so people from all walks of life can join in.
The food is lavish
The food prepared during the ten days of Onam is elaborate and there is a lot of variety.
Gifts are part of the tradition
It is common to gift gold coins, silver coins, clothes, accessories, or gadgets to friends and family.
Three small figurines are formed with red sand and placed outside homes.
It is a homecoming festival
Onam is a homecoming festival, welcoming the Demon King Mahabali.
Why We Love Onam
Onam takes place over 10 days and the events that take place are full of life and color. We’d love to be there!
It is for everyone
Onam is Hindu-based but not limited to Hindu castes. People from all communities can participate and we love the inclusivity!
It is rich in culture and tradition
Onam is one of the many beautiful festivals that take place in Asia. It is a representation of the rich culture of India and its heritage.