A state festival, Onam, is widely known for its resplendent fervor. Malyalis in India and abroad show great enthusiasm in the harvest festival, Onam for it's the most significant festival in Kerala. The festival is celebrated as a tribute to King Mahabali. Since times immemorial, Onam has always been a private affair. It is,nevertheless, celebrated now with great ardor among the members of communities in Kerala. Many Malyali associations in and across India have sustained Onam as the festival of vibrancy and color. Onam offers an occasion for the community members to gather together and make merry. It, thus, becomes a festival of social harmony by honoring the age-old tradition.
Almost like Diwali is a festival of the homecoming of Sri Ram, Onam is consecrated for the day of King Mahabali's visit to Kerala. King Mahabali, also known as Onathappan was a glorified figure in ancient Kerala.
Though an Asura, Mahabali was famous for his generosity, benevolence and altruism. He made Kerala a guileless space. The myth goes that the great Mahabali was a benign leader, offering Vishnu to step on his head when Vishnu came to Kerala to conspire against Mahabali. Vishnu melted at the humane act of Mahabali, and granted a boon to Mahabali that he can visit his state once a year. Onam, thus, is a celebration of the yearly visit of Lord Mahabali to Kerala.
The festivity of Onam lasts for ten days. The first day i.e. Attam is jubilated by hanging a swing decorated with flowers in every home. The ceremony is furthered by singing oonjal(swing) songs by women and children. Pokallam (flower carpet) plays a significant role in Onam. It is laid down in front of the courtyard of every house during the festival that adds to the hue and color.
Follows attam is Chithira that is the second day of Onam; the day goes on by offering prayers in the temple. Refreshing the Pokallam by adding new flowers is another ritual. Chodhi comes next, with adorning of Pokkalm; the day calls for wish-fulfilling and shopping. Then comes the fourth day, Visakam wherein the marketplace is the main attraction point for everyone. Anizham is the fifth day annd is a significant one. The great attraction of the day is the snake boat race, also known as Vallamkali, that happens at the banks of Pamba river at the district of Aranmulla, Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. The snake boat race event attracts the most attention during Onam.
Vallamkali is the most beguiling feature of the ten day festival. Back home, more flowers are added to the Pokkalam, thus making it even more beautiful. Thriketa is the sixth day; it is filled with enthusiasm as committees organize various cultural programs. This day stands for the harmony of the community as the people participate in these cultural events. Seventh day is Moolam; the commercial space is jam-packed with people. The Pokkalam becomes even more elaborate. Moolam is followed by Pooradam, which prepares the arrival of Onthappan (Mahabali). Women make sure that their households are kept up and well cleaned. Uthdradam (also called as Onnam Onam) is the ninth day. The farmers bring produce of their farms to the Nair Tharawad, in return of which, they are greeted with sweets by the Karnavar. This is an age-old tradition, a custom still followed in modern times. The tenth and the final day, Thiruvonam comes with cartloads of mirth and exhilaration. People have oil baths, wear Onakoddi. Women and children lay the Pokkalam in their verandahs for welcoming their Lord Mahabali. Onasadya (a grand feast) is laid out in the afternoon, followed by Onakalli (traditional games) iin the evening to celebrate the grand day.
Dance forms form an integral part of Onam. Kaikothikali is the most essential dance style in the festival. Also known as Thiruvathirakali, this dance form is usually by middle-aged women making a circumference around the Pokkalam. A lamp is also placed at the center of Pokkalam. The group usually consists of eight to ten women. The costumes are purely in Keralite fashion; with white sarees and golden borders. The dance is performed with great enthusiasm and it requires immense prior practice by the women. The songs are sometimes sung by the people on the stage, sometimes the dancers sing songs themselves. Besides women, men too at occasions participate in Kaikothikali near the Malabar coast.
Another popular dance is Thumbi Thullal. This formation of this dance looks almost like a game. This too is performed by women who gather around a person holding some leaves called 'Thumba'. The woman encircled is called 'Thumbi'. The woman in the middle sings songs and the women surrounding her clap their hands and dance joyously. The woman at the center looks like a possessed one, though. However, this dance form is fading away in the present times. Puli Kali is yet another dance form that takes place on the fourth day of Onam mostly in Trichur and Palghat districts of Kerala. Puli Kali is a folk dance art that turns the mood more festive and bright. It is a folk dance wherein people paint their bodies and disguise themselves as 'Puli' i.e. tiger; and dance on the streets. The dancers go through a toilsome practice before performing it before the people. In earlier times, these dancers had to be painted from head to toe. However, now the dancers rather go for readymade masks to protect themselves from the toxic paints. Especially the kids enjoy Puli Kali performances, as they take the dancers as real tigers dancing on the streets.
Kummatikali and Kathakali are also customary in the Onam days. Kummatikali is almost like Puli Kali, as it also requires the dancers to be dressed up with masks and costumes. The dance derives its name from a long stick of agricultural produce which is also used by the dancers. This dance style is an invocation to Gods and Goddesses. The dancers wear skirts woven with grass and wear wooden masks on their faces. One person among the group who is the leader sings devotional songs for them. Others who are masked are not allowed to sing along with the leader. In earlier times however, only people from the Nair households were allowed to participate. But now with changing times anyone from any caste or creed can come over and perform Kummatikali. It allows for a sense of unity and equality among the people. Further, Kathakali is the most renowned folk dance of Kerala. It is unique folk dance that allows dance, music and drama: all three together on the stage. The etymology of 'Kathakali' is 'katha' means story and 'kali' means 'dance'. Thus, this folk art narrates a story in a dance. Kathkali is a blended form of five art forms which includes Sahityam (literature), Sangeetham(music), Chithram (painting), Natyam (acting) and Nritham (dance).Earlier Kathakali was performed only in courtyards or at the King's palace, but now it is performed in many cultural festivals across India and abroad. In fact, Kathakali now represents a popular folk dance from India internationally.
These ten days highlight the felicity and euphoria of the festival. This festive spirit is not just seen in Kerala, but all over the country and even across the borders. In other states in India, people from Kerala form their Malayali associations among their brothers and organize various cultural festivals, following their traditions religiously. However, the styles of celebrations of these associations vary from that of the local Kerala. It is because of the obvious reason: since these people are located outside Kerala, they form a heterogeneous sense of traditional customs. Also, they cannot afford to get the essence of Kerala anywhere else in this festive season. Their ways of celebrating, thus, are different from the original Kerala festival. However, the Keralites living outside Kerala do not miss out on so much. They prepare traditional Onam recipes by obtaining the authentic goodies from Kerala stores. Kerala hotels host the Onam festival with grandeur and opulence. The Malayali associations ceremonialize Onam by hosting cultural programs like Bhratnatyam, Mohiniyattam, and Thiruvathira Kali. In cities, film stars and famous writers and film stars add glamour to the festival.
Onam is a festival that represents Kerala as a state rooted in culture and societal unity. It is displayed by not just the dance forms but other kinds of folk art too. For instance, the games played during the religious Onam is significant to be highlighted. Games such as Onkalikal, Kutukutu, Kyyankali, Attakalam, Ambeyyal, Talappanthukali etc. are great examples. These games largely are outdoor ones and are played by men; since they concern usually with combat. The games are not a thing of past. Rather they are very much part of the modern era. In fact, the idea is quite contrary to the actual act: rather than an aggressive combat of victory and defeat, it gives a sense of brotherhood among the people of Kerala. It allows people to come from far off places and indulge in the games.
The richness of the folksy festival is also reflected in its meals. Onasadya is the most attractive feature of the Onam meal. Onasadya is prepared on the last day of Onam i.e. Thiruvonum. The food ceremony is so grand that Onasadya is called 'meals', despite its consumption takes only one sitting. Rice comprises the core to Onasadya. The food is served on a large banana leaf instead of a utensil. Also, people use their hands to eat, no forks or spoons are used. The leaf contains the following dishes: Erissery (prepared from pumpkins or red beans), Kalan (prepared by buttermilk), Aviyal (a kind of mixed vegetable), Thoran (sliced beetroot and various other vegetables), Mulakoshyam (resembles Olan), Koottukari (a vegetable curry), Sambhar (dal and veggies), Rasam (essentially mmade of tamarind juice), Payasam (a pudding), chips, pappads and beverages. Dishes like Erissery seldom become a part of the modern Onasadya.
Onam thus becomes a magnificent festival with tremendous zeal and great enthusiasm among south Indians. Gifts are distributed and greeting cards are sent across to the loved ones living afar. The electrifying festival has enormous potential to attract tourists from round the world. It indeed is true when the government calls it 'Tourism week of India'!