Onam is the biggest and the most important festival of Kerala. Festivities of Onam continue for ten long days. Of all these days, most important ones are the first day, Atham and the last or tenth day, Thiru Onam.
Rituals for the Atham Day
Celebrations commence from the first day, Atham. The day is regarded holy and auspicious by the people of Kerala. People take early bath on the day and offer prayers in the local temple.
Notable feature of this day is that making of Pookkallam or the flower carpet starts from this day. Attha Poo is prepared in the front courtyard by girls of the house to welcome the spirit of King Mahabali in whose honour Onam is celebrated. Boys play a supporting role and help in gathering flowers. In the following days, more flowers are added to Pookalam. As a result Pookalam turns out to be of massive size on the final day.
Preparations for the Thiru Onam starts in a big way and everybody gets engaged to mark the festival in their own style. House cleaning starts on a massive scale and everything is made to look neat and tidy. There is also a set breakfast consisting of steamed bananas and fried pappadam (pappad). This remains the same till the day of Thiru Onam. A swing is also slung on a high branch of a tree. It is decorated with flowers and the youngsters take great delight in swinging and singing, that goes simultaneously.
Rituals for the ninth day-Utradam
A day prior to Onam is the ninth day of the festivities and is known as Utradam. On this day tenants and depends of Tarawads (traditional large joint family sharing a common kitchen and consisting of more than hundred people) give presents to Karanavar, the eldest member of the family. These presents are usually the produce of their farms consisting of vegetables, coconut oil, plantains etc. This gift from the villagers to Karanavar on Onam are called 'Onakazhcha'. A sumptuous treat is offered is offered by Karanavar in return for Onakazhcha. Village artisans also offer a specimen of their handicrafts to the Karanavar of Nayar Tarawads. They receive gracious rewards for this courtesy.
The Big Day - Thiru Onam
Onam RitualsKerala appears in its grandiose best on this day. Cultural extravaganza, music and feasts add colours of merriment and joy to the God's Own Country. There are celebrations all around the state and everybody takes active participation in them; Onam has assumed a secular character and is celebrated by people of all religions and communities.
People wake up as early as 4 am on the day of Onam. Day begins with cleaning of the house. In the earlier days, front courtyards were smeared with cow dungs. The custom is still followed in villages, where the houses are not cemented.
On the day of Thiruvonam conical figures in various forms are prepared from sticky clay and are painted red. These are decorated with a paste made of rice-flour and water and are placed in the front court yard and other important places in the house. Some of these clay figures are in the shape of cone and others represent figures of Gods. Those in the shape of a cone are called, 'Trikkakara Appan'. The tradition of making clay cones for Trikkara Appan has its roots in mythology, which says that festival originated at Trikkakara, a place 10 km from Cochin. Trikkara is also said to be the capital in the reign of legendary King Maveli.
Elaborate prayers ceremonies and poojas are also performed on this day. A senior member of the house plays the role of the priest and conducts the rituals. He wakes up early and prepares ata; Ata is prepared from rice flour and molasses for Nivedyam (offerings to God). Lamps are lit up in front of the idols and all members of the house join in for the ceremonies. Priest offers ata, flowers and water in the names of the God. As Onam is also a harvest festival people thank God for the bountiful harvest and pray for the blessings in the coming year. A peculiar custom is followed after this, wherein male members make loud and rhythmic shouts of joys. The tradition is called, 'Aarppu Vilikkukal'. This represents the beginning of Onam.
It is now the time for members of the house to dress up in their best attire and offer prayers in the local temple. Most people wear new clothes on the day. There is also a tradition of distributing new clothes on Onam. In Tharawads (traditional large family consisting of more than hundred people), Karanavar, the eldest member of the family, gives new clothes as gifts, called Onapudava, to all family members and servants. Other members of the family exchange gifts amongst each other.
The Big Feast - Onasadya
After completing the morning rituals, it is time for the family to get ready for the grand meal called Onasadya. The biggest and most prominent place in the house is selected to lay the meal which is traditionally served in a row on a mat laid on the floor.
The central place in the row is occupied by the eldest member of the family. In front of him is placed a lighted brass lamp at a distance. Towards the west of the lamp is placed a small plantain leaf on which the food is served. This is an offering made in the name of Lord Ganapathy.
Thereafter, the meal is served to all present. The elaborate meal consists of 11 to 13 strictly vegetarian dishes and is served on banana leaves. There is a fixed order of serving the meal and a set place to serve the various dishes on the leaf. A lot of preparation and hard work goes in making of the scrumptious Onasadya.
Time for Fun - Dances and Games
After the grand meal, it's time for people to indulge in recreational activities and enjoy the festival. Men of strength and vigour go in for rigorous sports while senior and sober members pass time by playing indoor games like chess and cards. There is a set of traditional games to be played on Onam which are collectively called, Onakalikal. It includes ball games, combats, archery and Kutukutu (Kerala version of Kabaddi).
Women go in for dancing activities as there are specific dances like Kaikottikali and Thumbi Thullal for the festival of Onam. Women performing the graceful clap dance called Kaikotti kali in their traditional gold bordered mundu and neriyathu presents a splendid sight. Besides, there is also a tradition of playing on a decorated swing hung from a high branch. Onappaattu - Onam Songs, are also sung on the occasion.
Celebrations and cultural programmes are held all across the state to mark the festival of Onam in which a large number of people participate. Prominent amongst them are Vallamkali- the Snake Boat Race and entertaining events like Kummatti kali and Pulikali. The other highpoint of Onam is the dazzling display of fire works. The state of Kerala can be seen engulfed in light and spirit of merriment when people burst patassu or fire crackers.