Onam is that festival where all Malayalees around celebrate the homecoming of King Maaveli (Mahabali). It is a 10-day festival where each day represents different cultural and harmonial significance. The second day (Thiruvonam) is believed to be the return of King Maaveli to his homeland. Out of the 10 days, Thiruvonam is the grandest of them all. There are more than 15 customs and practices to celebrate Onam. Now that you know the basics of Onam, let's dig deep into the history and ways to celebrate Onam.
Legend has it that once upon a time, there was a King named Maaveli, known for his generosity and humility. The time he ruled his kingdom was a golden era for the people who lived there. He believed in spreading happiness and was devoted to his people. His rule was so famous that it reached the gods' ears. However, Lord Vishnu was doubtful and wanted to confirm the King's generosity in person. To do this, he took Vamana's avatar, who is said to be a dwarf.
One day, when Maaveli was celebrating his victories with his people by performing the Ashvamedha sacrifice, Lord Vishnu, disguised as Vamana, approached the King and asked for a gift from him. Maaveli, known for being generous to his people, agreed to it. Vamana asked for a piece of land which was as big as his three steps. Since the man was a dwarf, Maaveli agreed to the request without much hesitation. Vamana, who was a dwarf, started to grow. He became so huge that Maaveli realized he was Lord Vishnu himself.
Lord Vishnu's first step claimed the entire earth, his second covered the skies, and his third step covered the cosmic realms. Maaveli kneeled down in front of Lord Vishnu. His last step was on Maaveli's head, sending him down to the netherworld. Maaveli accepted this with utmost humility, surprising Lord Vishnu, who later granted Maaveli a boon.
The boon for Maaveli is that he can visit his kingdom once every year, during the Chingam month (harvesting festival), and celebrate unity, prosperity, and happiness with his people. Maaveli accepted this boon and went down into the Netherlands.
It is believed that since then, during Onam, King Maaveli's spirit has visited every Malayalee's home to witness the celebration. People are asked to dress according to tradition, eat vegetarian food, do charity work, and spread happiness with each other so that King Maaveli knows that his sacrifice is still respected and his belief in harmony, generosity, and unity is followed by his people.
Although there is an alternate version that involves Parashurama, this tale is widely believed among Malayalees.
How To Celebrate Onam
Although there are plenty of customs and games that mark the celebration of Onam, The famous ones are Onam Sadhya (Upto 30 varieties of vegetarian food), Pookaalam (Flower Carpet), Vellam Kali (Boat Race), Vadam Veli(Tug Of War), Thiruvaathira Kali and many more.
Also known as Onam Feast, Up to nine courses are served on a plantain leaf, including up to 30 varieties like Sharkaraveratti, Puli Inji, Pappadam, Banana Chips, Paal Ada Payasam, Avial, Thoran, Pulliseri, Olan, and many more.
It is a flower carpet or rangoli designed using different varieties of flowers. The traditional design is a circular rangoli and in layers. Each layer is decorated with flowers like Thumbapoo (Ceylon Slitwort), Chemparathy(Hibiscus), Chethi(Flame Of The Woods), Tulasi(Holy Basil), Jamanthi Poovu(Chrysanthemum), and more. Here is a picture for reference:
Vellam Kali is a typical boat race where people from different places gather to witness it. A snake-shaped boat that supports more than 40-50 people participates in a race to reach the finish line. Apart from this being a mere game, it spreads the spirit of sportsmanship among people.
Also known as Tug Of War, a game where two teams compete against each other by pulling a rope towards their side. The catch is that while pulling the rope, a team must fight the strength of the opposite team, who is also trying to pull it towards their side. The game tests a team's strength and team spirit.
Image Source: keralatourism.org
It is a dance performed by a group of 8-10 women. They gather and perform this dance in a circle while wearing traditional Kerala attire. The dance showcases the elegance, power of female energy and the coordination of women. A Nilavilaku (Oil Lamp) is placed in between the circle of women.
Image source: keralatourism.org
Onam is a unique festival focusing more on human values like Unity, Joy, Prosperity, and Charity than on Gods. Beyond all hatred and differences, people from different castes and creeds come together for the celebration. Even if there are hundreds of problems in their lives, Onam is the day to forgive or ignore the hatred and spread nothing but joy among each other.