Festivals are the heart of any culture. And India is very rich in this regard. It observes numerous grand celebrations each year. One such festival is Onam, the very identity of the state of Kerala.
About the festival: Onam is a 10 day long festival that is mostly celebrated by the Malayali people of Kerala. It falls on the 22nd Nakshatra Thiruvonam in the Malayali month of chingam, which usually overlaps with August-September. Onam is the harvest festival of Kerala and is celebrated in a grand way.
There are many exciting aspects of the festival starting from boat races to music, tiger dances, and many more. Onam is marked as the state holiday of Kerala and is also celebrated as the new year by the Malayali people. There is something so beautiful, something very pure about this festival that makes it the very heart of Kerala culture.
Legends behind Onam: Every cultural festival celebrated in India has some background attached to it. These stories give the festivals a timeless aura. The same is true with Onam as well. In the local culture, one may find many people having different reasons to celebrate Onam. But here are the two most popular stories that the people of Kerala still behold:
1) Return of Mahabali: Mahabali or King Bali was a descendant of the Kashyap dynasty of Asuras. Not to be confused with Bali of Ramayana, he was the grandson of the great devotee of Vishnu, Prahalad. He was a generous and righteous king full of bravery and vigor. He had won both earth and heaven due to his mighty powerd. Devas were worried because of him. They approached Lord Vishnu to seek help.
Bali arranged an Ashwamedha yagya and gave everyone whatever they asked for. Lord Vishnu came there in the form of a Vamana(dwarf) brahmin. When Bali asked Vamana, He said that he needs only three steps of land. Bali agreed immediately. Then lord Vamana took a massive form, and covered the entire earth with one step and the entire heaven with the second step. Realizing that he was none other than the Lord himself, Bali bowed down and offered his head for the lord to put His third step on it.
What happened next is a subject of various interpretations. Some texts state that he was taken to Patala Lok, some say, Heaven, while some state he was elevated to the ultimate Vaikuntha. Nonetheless, Bali was granted the boon that he will be able to return to earth every year to see his people during the harvest season. It is for his visit that the people of Kerala celebrate the Onam festival.
2) The legend of Parshuram: Parshuram too is an Avatar or incarnation of Lord Vishnu who appeared in the era of king Kartavirya. Vishnu took the form of Parshuram because he was upset with Khatriyas indulging in wars all the time.
Kaartavirya once visited the hermitage of Parshuram when he was not present there. Without seeking permission, he took away a calf of the cow. When Parashurama returned, he was enraged with the king's injustice and challenged him for a war. The king and his warriors were killed in the war. It is said that Parshuram threw his axe after the war, and it hit the sea, which created the land of Kerala and other coastal areas.
It is also said Parshuram is the man who created the Western ghats range. Another legend states that he created a mountain range with his axe to bring Namboothiri brahmins to Southern India.
Celebrations of Onam: Onam is a celebration like no other. The whole Kerala lit up in a united sense of joy and exuberance. One could see all colors of the festival coming together at the grand celebration of Onam. It falls on the first month of the Malayali calendar and is celebrated for 10 days.
The first day is known as Atham. It starts with auspicious proceedings at the Thrikakara temple, the focal point of the Onam festival. A grand procession starts from the Thrippunithura temple. The procession consists of elephants, drum beats, folk dance and music, and many cultural representations. Themes from Ramayana and Mahabharata are shown as well.
In ancient times, a grand military procession was organized by the king of Kochi towards the temple. The mood of festivity covers every part of Kerala during Onam. Folk dances, music, donations, games, pujas, and other cultural activities are held everywhere. Beautiful flower rangolis known as Pookkalam are made at entrances. The sizes of Pookkalam grow with each passing day of Onam.
Boat races are particularly very popular during the Onam festival. People from all over India come to Kerala to witness these boat races. Large snake-shaped boats stand in competition against each other. These boat races are held on the sacred Pampa river of Kerala.
The last day of Onam ends with grand feasts organized by Malayali people. It includes traditional Malayali food as well as foods from other traditions. This day marks the end of a beautiful time, a time like no other for the Malayali people.
Cultural significance: Onam is the biggest festival celebrated in Kerala. The whole state glitters in collective harmony during the festival. Although the roots of the festival are attached to Hindu mythology, this festival transcends the religious and social barrier and is celebrated by the whole of Kerala.
Many Christian and Muslim people become part of the grand celebration in their own way. Even though politics has entered the beautiful culture in recent years, still, the beauty and harmony of the festival remain untouched. Onam ties the people of Kerala together in inseparable oneness.
Summary: Onam is the very heart of Kerala. One needs to witness the celebration to feel the energy that fills the atmosphere during this time. It is yet another beautiful pearl in the garland of Indian heritage. Onam is no more just a celebration for Malayali people. They live this festival, it has become a very part of their life, an inseparable one.