Food and fervour this Onam
During Onam, floral arrangements, known as pookkalam, are designed on the floor, with communities holding pookkalam competitions.
Onam, the popular Keralite harvest festival, is celebrated with performances, floral arrangements, music, and feasts
The harvest festival is a popular Keralite tradition, one that crosses religious and geographical barriers. Onam is celebrated by Malayalees in Kerala and by Malayalee immigrants around the world. The celebrations include floral arrangements (pookkalam), mask dances (Kathakali), music, costumes, races, and the nine-course vegetarian feast at the end of the festival (known as onasadya).
According to Hindu mythology, the festival commemorates the visit of King Mahabali, whose spirit visits Kerala during Onam. The legend revolves around a demon-king named Mahabali, who came to power by defeating the gods and taking over. Lord Vishnu refused to go against Mahabali as he was an avid devotee. However, Vishnu decided to test Mahabali's loyalty. Taking the appearance of a small boy, Vishnu asked Mahabali for 'three paces of land', which Mahabali graciously accepted. Vishnu then grew to an enormous size, and in two steps, covered Mahabali's entire territory. For the third pace, Mahabali offered his own head, and Vishnu accepted this as evidence of his devotion. Vishnu granted Mahabali the ability to visit the lands he used to rule, leading to Onam celebrating the return of Mahabali's spirit to Kerala, the land he ruled.
Despite being rooted in Hindu mythology, others in Kerala celebrate Onam due to its cultural and traditional significance. The festival begins with sharing an Onam meal between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and other religious denominations because of the cultural significance of the festival. The meal signifies a form of communion between members of different faiths, pointing to the power of cultural bonds and the respect given to different traditions.
The festival covers 10 days, and also marks the beginning of the Malayalee New Year. The first day of the festivities is known as Atham, and begins with temple visits and street parades. Over the next few days, people celebrate by holding boat races, kathakali dance events, symbolic masked dances, sports competitions, and floral arrangements.
Pookkalam arrangements start small, with flowers and designs being added each day throughout the festival. The last day, known as Thiruvonam, is celebrated by having a grand feast, known as Onasadya. Typical garments include the traditional Kerala saree, or the Kasavu saree for women, and men wear the traditional mundu.
Onam has become a widespread festival in other parts of the globe as well, carried forward by Malayalee diaspora wherever they go. In the UAE, Onam has become a grand festival, with families creating pookkalam arrangements right outside apartment doors, or in the suburban streets. Kathakali dances are held in clubs and halls across the city, and several restaurants serve onasadya specials for those who wish to taste Keralite food.
Onam helps bring communities together, and as Onam is declared a multiple-day holiday in Kerala, families are able to travel during this time to visit relatives abroad and celebrate Onam with their loved ones.
Boat races are also popular during Onam, and friendly races are held between communities in Kerala.
Kathakali, a masked dance, is a popular form of dance in Kerala, with performances happening in streets during the festival.