Onam is the biggest and the most important festival of Kerala. Festivities of Onam continue for ten consecutive long days. Out of these ten days, there are two most important days. These include Atham, the first day, and Thiru Onam, the last or tenth day.
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 baths on this day and offer prayers in the local temple.
A salient feature of Atham is making Pookkallam [flower carpet] starts from this day. Attha Poo is prepared in the front courtyard by girls of the house. This is made to welcome the spirit of King Mahabali. It is in his honour that the Onam festival 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 a massive size by the final day.
Preparations for the Thiru Onam begin in a special way. Everyone becomes engaged to mark the festival in their own style. All homes are cleaned, tidied and arranged neatly. Everyone gets the set breakfast comprising of steamed bananas and fried pappadam [pappad]. This set breakfast is served to all every day except on Thiru Onam day. A swing is slung on a high branch of a tree and it is decorated with flowers. The youngsters use this swing and take great delight while simultaneously swinging and singing.
Rituals for the ninth day-Utradam:
The day before of the Onam, is the ninth day of the festivities and it is known as Utradam. The Tarawads are traditional large joint family sharing a common kitchen consisting of over hundred people. The tenants and dependents of Tarawads give presents to Karanavar, the eldest member of the family. These presents are usually the produce of Tarawads’ farms such as vegetables, coconut oil, plantains and others. These gifts from the villagers to Karanavar on Onam are known as ‘Onakazhcha’. A sumptuous treat is offered by Karanavar in return for Onakazhcha. The village artisans also offer a specimen of their handicrafts to the Karanavar of Nayar Tarawads. These artisans also receive gracious rewards for their courtesy.
The Big Day – Thiru Onam:
The Onam rituals of Kerala appear in its best grandiose on this day. Traditional and folk extravagant cultural performances add colour to the joy and merriment during Onam. Any witness seeing this would call Kerala is God’s Own Country. There are celebrations all over Kerala and everyone takes active participation in them. Onam has assumed a secular character. Hence, it is celebrated by people of all religions and communities.
People awake early at 4 am on the day of Onam. They start cleaning their house. Earlier, the front courtyards were smeared with cow dung for cleansing. This custom is still practised in the villages. This is not necessary in the cities because houses are made of cement.
On Thiruvonam day, conical figures of various forms are made from sticky clay and painted red. These are decorated with rice-flour and water paste. They are placed in the front court yard and other important places in the house. Some of these clay figures are conical shaped while others represent figures of Gods. The traditional conical shaped clay figures are called ‘Trikkakara Appan’. This is where the Onam festival originated during the mythological time. Around 10 km from Cochin, Trikkakara was the capital during the legendary King Maveli’s reign.
Several prayers and pujas are offered. Elaborate ceremonies are performed on this day. Generally, a senior member of the household acts as the priest to conduct all rituals. The senior member wakes up very early in the morning. He prepares the ata made of rice flour and molasses for Nivedyam [Offerings made to God]. Lamps are lit and placed in front of the idols. All the other members of the household also join to observe the ceremonies. The priest [senior most family member] offers ata, flowers and water in the names of the God. Since Onam is also a harvest festival, people thank God for the bountiful harvest. People pray for the God’s blessings in the coming year. There is a unique custom of men making loud and rhythmic shouts of joys. This tradition known as ‘Aarppu Vilikkukal’ represents the beginning of Onam.
Every member of the family gets dressed in their best attire. They visit the local temple to offer prayers. Most people of Kerala wear new clothes on this day. Also, there is a tradition of distributing new clothes on Onam. Tharawad is traditional large family consisting of over hundred people. The eldest member of the family or Karanavar of Tharawad family gifts new clothes. These are called Onapudava. These gifts are distributed to all family members and servants. Other members of the family also exchange gifts amongst each other.
The Big Feast – Onasadya:
After completing the morning rituals, the family prepares for the grand meal called Onasadya. The biggest and most prominent place in the entire house is selected for storing Onasadya. Traditionally meal is served to people sitting in a row on mats placed on the floor.
The elder member of the family occupies the centre of the row. In front of him, a lighted brass lamp is placed at a distance. On the west of this lamp, a small plantain leaf is placed. Food is served on the plantain leaf. This food is an offering made in the name of Lord Ganapathy.
Thereafter, the meal is served to all present. This elaborate meal consists of 11 to 13 strictly vegetarian dishes that are all served on banana leaves. There is a fixed order n which the various dishes of the meal are served. Also, there is a set location for each dish on the banana leaf. Lots of preparation and hard work goes into making the sumptuous Onasadya.
Time for Fun – Dances and Games:
After the grand meal, people indulge in recreational activities to enjoy the Onam festival. Men of strength and vigour go in for rigorous sports. The seniors and sober family members pass their time by playing indoor games like chess and cards. During Onam, a set of traditional games are played. These games are collectively known as Onakalikal. These include ball games, combats, archery and Kutukutu [Kerala version of Kabaddi].
Women join in dancing activities such as Kaikottikali and Thumbi Thullal during the Onam festival. Women in their traditional gold bordered mundu and neriyathu, gracefully clap dance Kaikottikali. They look extremely wonderful. Traditionally, a swing well-decorated with flowers is hung from a high branch during this festival. Youngsters swing and sing Onappaattu, Onam festival Songs.
There are celebrations and cultural programmes that are held all over Kerala. A large number of people participate in the Onam festivals. The most prominent race is the Vallamkali- the Snake Boat Race for men. Meanwhile, the women perform the entertaining events such as Kummattikali and Pulikali. Other highlight of the Onam festival is the dazzling display of fireworks. When the people of Kerala burst “patassu” or fire crackers, they get engulfed in light and spirit of merriment.