The History of the 10-Day Onam Festival

The History of the 10-Day Onam Festival

Deepthi K

Onam is the most important festival for the people of Kerala. Onam is a harvest festival. It is celebrated over a span of 10 days between the second half of August and the first half of September to symbolise prosperity in the land. The first day is called Uthradam and the last day is known as Chadhayam. Keralites also celebrate this festival to honour King Mahabali who ruled the place several years ago.

Let’s get to know more about the history of this festival and how it is celebrated with pomp and gaiety by Malayalis (people of Kerala) all over the world. 

The Story of Mahabali

Lord Mahabali was an asura king who ruled over Kerala. Although he was an asura, he loved and respected his subjects deeply. His subjects shared the same feelings towards him. However, the king was always egoistic about his generosity. With his power, he defeated the gods and took control over the three worlds. The gods approached Lord Vishnu to help them against the battle with the asura king but he did not oblige as Mahabali was his devotee. However, he agreed to help them when the need arose.

Their defeat and the increasing popularity of the asuras made the devas insecure and they requested Lord Vishnu to help them once again. Vishnu waited for the right moment. Mahabali was performing a yagna to celebrate his victory and declared that he would give anyone whatever they wanted during the course of the yagna. Vishnu chose this moment and took his fifth incarnation as a dwarf brahmin called Vamana; and approached Mahabali when the yagna was in process.

Mahabali offered the brahmin various luxuries and asked him what the latter wanted. The brahmin replied that one should ask for only what one needs and asked for just three feet of land. The king’s guru understood who the brahmin was asked Mahabali to take back his offer. The king, in his ego, refused. After all, the brahmin had asked for very less and he could easily give it to him.

As soon as the wish was granted, the dwarf began to grow in size. He covered heaven with one step. With the other step, he covered the entire earth. He asked the king where to keep the third step. Realising who the Brahmin was, the king, without hesitation, knelt down and showed him his head. Vamana then placed a third foot on the king’s head and sent him to the nether world after showering his blessings and revealing his true self. 

The king asked the lord for a favour before entering the nether world. He requested that he should be allowed to visit his subjects once a year. Vishnu agreed to this and it is believed that the king comes to see his subjects every year on Tiruonam, the eighth day of the Onam festival. This is also the most important day of the 10-day festival.

How is Onam Celebrated?  

People celebrate Onam by decorating the compound with a detailed floral arrangement known as Pookolam to welcome their beloved king. People wear a new dress called Onakodi on Tiruonam day. This is followed by the preparation of a grand feast called Onasadya comprising about 25 items and is served on a banana leaf with red rice. 

While some of the dishes vary every year, a few of them such as avial, olan and inji curry are the same every year. Interestingly, each dish must be placed in a specific portion on the leaf. The first item to be served is parippu curry that is essentially a spoon of cooked dal with a dollop of ghee on top. The feast typically ends with a kheer or payasam.

Martial arts, tiger dances, boat races, and folk songs and dances are some other events organised as part of Onam celebrations. On the two days after Tiruonam, Malayalees make preparations for the king’s return journey to the nether world.

Although Onam is primarily a Hindu festival, it is celebrated with equal fervour by Christian and Muslim communities with equal fervour. This makes the festival unique when compared to other Hindu festivals celebrated in the country. Onam also binds the history, beliefs and cultures of the state together.