The Legend

           Story goes that during the reign of mighty asura (demon) king, Mahabali, Kerala witnessed its golden era. Every body in the state was happy and prosperous and king was highly regarded by his subjects. Apart from all his virtues, Mahabali had one shortcoming. He was egoistic. This weakness in Mahabali's character was utilized by Gods to bring an end to his reign as they felt challenged by Mahabali's growing popularity. However, for all the good deed done by Mahabali, God granted him a boon that he could annually visit his people with whom he was so attached.
  It is this visit of Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam every year. People make all efforts to celebrate the festival in a grand way and impress upon their dear King that they are happy and wish him well.

The Celebrations of The Festival

   Onam falls, on the 12th day of the waxing moon in the Hindu month of Bhadon (around August September) once the golden yellow rice fields have been harvested at that time of the year. There is no specific god associated with Onam. Neither is any special puja (a ritualistic prayer ceremony) performed.

The celebrations of Onam start ten days before the big day. The first thing people do is decorate the gates or main doors of their homes. No balloons or festoons for these folks. They adorn their homes and gates with fresh branches of red coconut (red coconut is considered auspicious on Onam), banana leaves and coconut fronds.

If you happen to be in Kerala around Onam, you will see banana and coconut fronds just about everywhere, sometimes even popping out of trucks and buses or tied to the horns of the neighbourhood cow, all with a pinch of the auspicious vermilion powder.

The first day of Onam is called Attam. Women get up earlier than usual, have a bath, wear fresh clothes (women wear off-white cotton saris with a zari border on festive occasions), neatly pin strings of jasmine and other seasonal flowers in their long black tresses and adorn themselves with jewellery. Children get dressed and go to the market to buy flowers and flower petals which they bring back to their mothers and sisters. The ‘mummies’ prepare a small part of the ground on the eastern side of the house (east is considered sacred because the sun rises in the east and Hindus have worshipped the rising sun since time immemorial).

¤ The Attam

The House Yards are smoothened out, and cow dung spread evenly on it. Flowers are placed over this patch in beautiful patterns. These patterns are generally circular and a lump of cow dung is placed in the centre symbolising Ganesha (the elephant-headed god - see Ganesh Chaturthi).

The creation with dung and flowers is called Attam. Once the Attam is completed, the women sing songs in praise of Mahabali and perform a lovely dance of simple but graceful steps around it.

The Attam is considered very sacred and a fresh decoration is made everyday till Onam. The old decoration is not removed, instead the cow dung is moistened with water, then a thin layer is spread over the Attam and a new pattern is made. People sing and dance around the Attam everyday and remember Mahabali, who perhaps watches them from somewhere. These days, community Attam where all the members of a community come together and rejoice around the sacred spot, is becoming quite popular. These very members take turns to keep a constant vigil over the Attam.

On the third day, people hold big feasts in their homes and invite their relatives and friends. The feast is strictly vegetarian and consists of rice, which is eaten with various curries, curds, vegetables, crisps, pickles, and sweets (see Cuisine).

¤ The Celebration Is Full of Fun and Folic

Onam is a daytime festival. Shops and markets are spruced up and some shops are even illuminated at night. School children and some government organisations like the police force participate in a parade in Thiruvananthapuram (the capital of Kerala) and the Governor takes the salute. Temple elephants are ornately caparisoned and made to join in the parade. The government also takes out elaborate floats on Onam. Scores of people come to watch the parade and there is a feeling of festivity in the air. Mahabali’s people are happy. For him, it’s time to return to the vicissitudes of the nether world and ponder over the memories of his lost kingdom, perhaps still unsure if ‘eternal wisdom’ was worth losing his very own ‘God’s own Country’. But he’ll be back same time next year and he can count on that.


Onam 2010: Onam will be celebrated on August 23, 2010 (Monday).