Onam is a major Hindu festival of Kerala celebrated in the month of August-September as per the Gregorian calendar coinciding with the Malayalam calendar month of ‘Chingam’. Malayalis celebrate Onam as New Year through festivities lasting for 10 days. The festival reveres Hindu deities as per an associated legend. The Essay on Onam in English covers all important headings – Onam history, legend (story) of Onam, Onam message, etc.
There are two legends associated with the Onam festival. One is related to demon king ‘Mahabali’ while the other is related to the sage ‘Parashurama’. We will briefly go through both the legends and stories.
According to ancient Hindu texts, Mahabali or Bali was a demon king who was also the son of Virochana and the grandson of Prahlada of Holika fame. We all are familiar with the name of ‘Prahlada’ an ardent devotee of Vishnu and the son of ‘Hirankashyap’, who was saved at the last moment by Vishnu when Hirankashyap made him sit on a burning pier with Holika. So, Bali was the grandson of Prahlada and was also an ardent devotee of Vishnu, like his grandfather.
Bali was powerful King and his prowess grew with time, so much so that he successfully defeated ‘Devas’ or the Gods. Terrorized by the defeat, the devas approached Vishnu seeking his intervention. On the contrary, Vishnu declined to intervene stating that Bali is an efficient and good king and also his devotee as well. However, Lord Vishnu decided to test the devotion of Mahabali at an appropriate time.
One day king Mahabali announced that he would be performing a yagna or puja and he also will be granting any wish to anyone who approaches. Vishnu took his fifth avatar of ‘Vamana’ and asked Mahabali to grant him three paces of land. Mahabali readily agrees not realizing that the dwarf boy Vamana is actually Vishnu.
So, Vamana covered the entire earth in two paces, and for the third Mahabali offered his own head. Once again Lord Vishnu was pleased with the devotion of Mahabali and granted him a boon, according to which Mahabali could visit once in a year the land he has ruled.
The revisit of Mahabali is celebrated as Onam every year. It is celebrated in the memory of the ideal rule of king Mahabali and his devotion to keeping his promise to Vishnu.
This legend is associated with Parashurama who is another reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu was enraged by the unruly kings who were constantly at fight with others and creating chaos. Vishnu took the avatar of Parashurama to tackle such unruly kings. Parashurama translates to ‘Rama with an axe’.
One day King Kaartavirya who had terrorized Gods visited the hermitage of Parashurama when the latter wasn’t around. Kaartavirya took a calf from the hermitage in front of Parashurama’s mother. Parashurama was enraged and get into war with Kaartavirya, beheading him with his axe. The legend is that Parashurama threw the axe after the fight. The sea where the axe had fallen retreated, exposing a land which is today known as Kerala. It is this creation of Kerala that the inhabitants celebrate as ‘Onam’ or ‘New Year.’
Onam celebration spans over a period of 10 days. Each day has a specific name, events and significance. Beginning from the first day to the tenth and last, they are – Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradam and Thiruvonam.
Activities like boat races, sports competitions, martial arts competitions, etc are performed during the ten days celebration. Below we will briefly go through the details of each day.
Day 1 – Atham
This is the first day of Onam and particularly significant. The focal point of celebrations is the Thrikkakara Temple at Kochi, which is one of the few temples devoted to God ‘Vamana’. The festival flag is raised here and a procession of Kerala’s culture with tableaux is taken out which is called ‘Atthachamayam’. On this day people start laying a floral carpet called ‘Pookalam’. It is interesting to note that with each passing day of the festival, the Pookalam grows bigger in size.
Day 2 – Chithira
The second day is celebrated buy cleaning the houses and compounds. It is similar to the cleaning done in houses before Deepawali in north India. People either discards or donate articles not in use and rid their houses free of trash and dust. Not to mention that another layer of beautiful flowers is added to the Pookalam and it becomes larger.
Day 3 – Chodhi
The third day calls for shopping by the families to celebrate the harvest and the prosperity. Families buy gold, utensils and articles for themselves as well as to gift near and dear ones. Once again a beautiful layer of flowers is added to the Pookalam, making it even larger.
Day 4 – Vishakam
The fourth day Vishakam is the most important days of all. ‘Sadhya’ a special family meal of around 26 delicacies is prepared on this day. There is a tradition of each family member contributing something in the preparation. The day is also significant because on this day the markets begin their sale of harvest.
Day 5 – Anizham
This is the day when one of Kerala’s most sought after tourist attractions the ‘snake boat race’ or ‘Vallam Kali’ is held. The race that also includes the famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race is held at Alappuzha, Kerala in Lake Punnamada on the fifth day of Onam.
Day 6 – Thriketa
The families visit their friends and relatives on the sixth day and exchange gifts and greetings. Meanwhile the ‘Pookalam’ grows much bigger in size as compared to the first day.
Day 7 – Moolam
This is the feasting day traditionally called as ‘Onam Sadya’. Families feast together and the temples organize feasts. Traditional dances and cultural events are performed on the seventh day. One of the famous dances performed is ‘Puli Kali’ or the ‘leopard dance’ performed by an artist painted as a leopard.
Day 8 – Pooradam
This day is dedicated to the deities ‘Mahabali’ and ‘Vamana’. Their statues adorn the center of the Pookalam. Also, the design of Pookalam becomes bigger and more complex by the eighth day. The statue of ‘Mahabali’ called Onathappam is symbolic of the deity’s visit in the house.
Day 9 – Uthradam
People spend this day buying fresh fruits and vegetables for ‘Thiruvonam’, the last day of the festival. It is an auspicious day and it is believed that beginning on this day, the ‘Mahabali’ visits each house and blesses them.
Day 10 – Thiruvonam
The tenth day of the festival is the most eventful day as compared to the others. People once again clean their houses and decorate house entrance with floor art. They take bath early and delicious meal is prepared.
Traditional Kerala games are played and dances performed everywhere. In the night, every place and house is brightly lit with lights and lamps, similarly as the Deepawali festival in north India.
Message (Significance) of Onam
Onam marks the harvest season of Kerala and thereby celebrates the prosperity of the land and hard work of the farmers. It is a time for the people to enjoy the benefits of their hard work.
The festival also inculcates cultural values on a large scale into the people of Kerala. Traditional cultural events spanning over ten days, ensure that the people stay rooted to their traditions and beliefs.
People from other religious communities also celebrate Onam with the same enthusiasm as the Hindus; making Onam one of the rare Indian festivals those propagate religious harmony.
Last but not least, the festival gives billions in revenue to the Kerala government by tourism industry.
“Onam’ is a celebration of culture, traditions, and values specific to the state of Kerala. It also celebrates the prosperity of the land and the deep-rooted religious beliefs of the inhabitants.
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