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The epitome of Keralites' fond Utopian dreams

Issac John
Filed on August 31, 2020
Onam, celebrated by all, regardless of caste or religion, lasts for 10 days during the Malayalam month of Chingam

Onam epitomises Keralites' quest for a Utopian life from time immemorial

The spectacular festival that emotionally bonds Malayalees across the world, is indeed, a celebration of their everlasting search for an imaginary world of perfection that Keralites fondly believe existed during pre-historic reign of King Mahabali, the fabled ruler of the South Indian state.

While symbolically Onam commemorates the annual homecoming of the legendary king from his underworld exile, the 10-day festival is in fact a celebration marking the end of the showery monsoon season and the onset of the harvest season.

The fable behind Onam is as intriguing as the fascinating dream land of Utopia. The nostalgic folklore revolves around a hoary period when Kerala was ruled by a benevolent demon-king Mahabali who was known for his magnanimity, impartiality and wisdom. During his glorious reign, there was no discrimination based on caste, and there was no corruption or crime. All were equal in that land of prosperity. When his growing popularity became a threat for the jealous demigods in the heavens, they approached Lord Vishnu with a request to conquer Mahabali to put an end to his popular reign.

Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf Brahmin called Vamana and called upon the Asura king. He requested Mahabali to grant him a piece of land, which he can cover within his three tiny steps, to meditate. The generous king granted his wish and soon the dwarf transfigured himself into a giant, and with his first and second steps covered the sky and earth. As the Brahmin was about to take the third step, the king asked him to place his last step on his head which shoved him to the underworld. However, in recognition of the noble deeds of the Asura king, Lord Vishnu granted him a boon that he can visit his subjects every year during Onam day falling in the Malayalam month of Chingam, which corresponds to August or September in the Gregorian calendar.

Even the name of the great demon king Mahabali, also called Maveli, bears an inference. Maha bali means "the great sacrifice," while Ma Veli means "without a wall." Both interpretations have relevance to the mythical king and his era of prosperity, peace, equality and harmony.

The first inference signifies the sublime persona of the king who made the ultimate sacrifice by giving away his kingdom and his worldly life to honour his promise to Lord Vishnu. On the other hand, Ma Veli is symbolic of the classless society that thrived in blissful equality and harmony under the legendary king.

Onam, celebrated by all, regardless of caste or religion,  lasts for 10 days during the Malayalam month of Chingam. The festivities showcase the rich colourful traditions and culture of Kerala.
The Onam season 2020 has already commenced from August 22, and ends by September 2. The first Onam or Uthraadam, is the Thiruonam eve. This is the day when King Mahabali returns to Kerala. On Thiruonam, the second day, it is believed that King Mahabali pays a visit to people's homes.

Preparations for his departure begin from the third day. The fourth day is observed as Sri Narayana Guru Jayanthi. In the subsequent days, post-Onam celebrations continue.
 Onam celebrations are replete with a variety of cultural performances and events, including the Onam feast, dazzling floral carpets, spell-binding boat races and several forms of traditional dance such as Theyyam, Kummati Kali, Kathakali, Thumbi Thullal and Pulikali.

A major highlight of the celebration is onasadhya or the 'Onam Feast,' a nine-course meal comprising a wide variety of traditional dishes served on a banana leaf. Culinary delights consist of seasonal vegetables, mango and lime pickle, yam chips, tamarind and ginger chutney. It also includes rice with coconut essence, pachadi (a blend of coconut, curd, pineapple and chillies), moru (buttermilk), avial (a dish with potatoes, banana, carrots, beans, drumstick and raw mango), rasam (a tangy watery dish) and pappadam.  

Another attraction is the breathtaking snake boat race. The vessels are similar to dragon boats, and are the region's traditional war boats that date back about 500 years. Kummati Kali dance, staged in the streets, particularly in the Thrissur district, features dancers wearing colourful masks with their bodies covered in grass. Theyyam performers are also a common cultural highlight during the festival.

Onam is also called the festival of flowers. Pookalam (floral carpet) is a ritual where the people make designs on the floor and decorate that with various flowers, usually at the door fronts and temples.  
The literal meaning of Pulikali is 'the play of the tiger', which began some 200 years ago. For this crowd dance, hundreds of people get themselves painted and dressed like the tiger and perform dance on traditional music.

Each day of the Onam festival has its own theme, significance and activities. There are also some post-Onam celebrations that add to the 10-day festival, the features and significance of which are as below:

Atham: The first day's festival starts with people decorating their homes with flowers. Known as Pookalam, these floral arrangements grow in size with each passing day of the festival. The day also features a colourful street parade demonstrating different Kerala art forms, musicians, dancers and carnival floats and decorated elephants.

Chithira: The second day of the festival is reserved for the customary cleaning of the entire house and another layer of flowers is added to the Pookalam.

Choti: On the third day of the festivities, following the addition of the Pookalam, the family gets together and begins shopping for each other. They give each other new clothes, known as onakodi, and jewellery.

Vishakam: The fourth day is considered the most auspicious of all the days of the festival and is the day when preparations for the onasadhya begin. The various competitions organised for the festival also begin today.

Anizham: The Vallamkali boat race happens on the 5th day. It starts from the small town, Aranmula, which is located on the banks of the Pamba river in Pathanamthitta.

Thriketa: The sixth day is especially joyous for the children as the schools start closing and all the time is devoted to the preparation and celebration of the festival.

Moolam: Several places see the start of Onasadhya and dance performances. The decoration of the state also begins on the seventh day.

Pooradam: On the eighth day of celebration, statues of Vamana and King Mahabali are cleaned and placed in the centre of the Pookalam.

Uthradom: On the ninth day, King Mahabali returns from the underworld  to visit his subjects. It is considered the most hectic day with people scurrying to shop for fresh vegetables and prepare for cooking the traditional meals.

Thiruonam: The grand finale of all  preparations on the 10th day. People start the day early, exchange gifts and offer prayers at the temple. The elaborate Thiruona Sadhya is prepared in all households. After the feast,  spectacular events including dance and boat racing competitions will be staged.


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