The Onam celebrations in the Kerala district begin with the ceremonial parade of athachamayam. Athachamayam was a triumphant march of the Maharaja of Kochi from Thripunithura to the Vamana temple at Thrikkakara. Thripunithura is known as the land of Maharajas. The rituals are marked with the poojas done for Vamana Murthy in the Thrikkakara temple situated in Kochi.
The Festival of Onam commences on the day with the star Atham and lasts for ten days. Athachamayam is a cultural fiesta wherein we can witness almost all the folk-art forms of Kerala. Folk art forms such as Theyyam, Kummatti, Kolkali, Mayilattom, Karakattom, Kummi,
Poykal, ammankudam, pulikali, Kathakali, aatakavadi, panjavadyam, chendamelam etc are displayed in the parade. The celebrations are flagged off with grand processions in a place called Thirupunithura and named Thiruppunithura Athachamayam. It is a grand celebration which marks the beginning of the ten-day Onam Festival. The Carnival of Onam brings out the best of Kerala culture and tradition.
Earmarking the year beginning with the Malayalam month Chingam, welcoming back King Mahabali on his annual visit to his homeland is ONAM.
According to Hindu mythology, King Mahabali, the grandson of King Prahlada, who was a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu, conquered the celestial rulers called the Devas. They pleaded to Lord Vishnu to save them. But the Lord denied coming to their rescue but consoled them that He will try at an opportune moment. On his victory over the Devas, King Mahabali arranged for special prayers and promised his citizens that he will grant whatever they wanted on the day of poojas. Lord Vishnu went to the venue disguising himself in the form of a small boy. He requested the King to grant Him three pieces of land and the King agreed. Instantly God covered the earth and sky with his two feet and asked the King for the third piece. Realizing that it is the Lord who has come to grace him, King Mahabali offered his head for the third piece of land. Lord Vishnu was very happy accepting his devotee’s request and blessed him with a boon that he can come back and visit his place and people every year and that period is celebrated as Onam by Keralites. Many other legends are there that lead to the celebration of Onam.
The festival Onam is not only for the Hindus but also for the Christians who give a warm welcome to their King. Grand celebrations are arranged in churches. Though the Islamic preachers taboo the celebrations, most Muslims prefer being a part of this festival.
The epicentre of the entire celebrations is focused on Lord Vishnu and king Mahabali and exhaustive prayers are offered at Vishnu temples across the state.
The beginning of the celebration is reflected in the form of flower decorations in every house and temple called Athappookkalam.
The flowers that are common to Kerala are used in this. The size of the flowers used is very small on the first day and it grows in size as days pass by. On the 10th day with the star Thiruvonam, one can see very big decorations everywhere in Kerala along with the firing of crackers.
In every house, there are small statues or figurines of Vamana Murthy and Mahabali worshipped on all ten days. This can be related to the Lord Ganesha statues worshipped on the day of Ganesh Chaturthi. Forms of traditional dances like Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, and Thumbi Thullal, are performed everywhere and competitions are also conducted. Snake boat races called Vallamkali are conducted attracting a huge number of tourists from across the world. Describing Onam will not be complete if Onam Sadya is not mentioned. It is the grand feast arranged in every house on the last day of the Onam. “Kannum vittum Onam unnanum” is a world-famous proverb meaning that a Keralite should anyhow prepare or at least attend the feast Onam sadya without fail. It is a grand feast prepared with a minimum of nine dishes, rice and ended with desserts. The number of dishes may even go up to 40.
Mahabali statues worshipped at houses are let into the nearby rivers or waterbodies as post-Onam celebrations marking that King Mahabali returns to Paadhalaloga.
Elaborate arrangements are made by the Government of Kerala in major cities like Trivandrum and Cochin. People do huge shopping and enjoy the festival with reunions of friends and families. As we all know well that Keralites are everywhere in the world, and grand celebrations are carried out in the USA, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai.
Onam is an ancient festival which still survives in modern times. Kerala’s rice harvest festival and the Festival of Rain Flowers, which fall on the Malayalam month of Chingam, celebrate the Asura King Mahabali’s annual visit from Patala (the underworld). Onam is unique since King Mahabali has been revered by the people of Kerala since prehistory. The King is so much attached to his kingdom that it is believed that he comes annually from the nether world to see his people living happily. It is in honour of King Mahabali, affectionately called Onathappan, that Onam is celebrated.
Onam is a celebration to inculcate harmony and peace in mankind.