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Onam is a harvest festival celebrated in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It is the biggest and most important festival in the state, known for its colour and vibrancy, and for the enthusiasm and joy of the celebrations. Its popularity has led to the Government of India promoting Onam internationally and encouraging foreign and domestic tourists to visit Kerala and join the festivities.
Legend tells that Onam celebrates the yearly homecoming of Mahabali, the benevolent, wise, mighty immortal King whose reign transformed Kerala into a heavenly place. It is said that after many wars Mahabali had conquered the heavens and the earth. His reign was eventually ended by Vishnu at the request of the Devas, who envied Mahabali and feared he would bring their own demise, but in recognition of all his good works he was granted the boon of being able to return to his earthly kingdom once a year. Onam is the celebration of this visit.
In Kerala, Atham is marked with a grand procession of elaborate floats, decorated elephants, costumes, masks, and music. The parade floats will often depict scenes from the great Sanskrit epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
Floral Rangoli known as Pookkalam begin on Atham. Pookkalam are created by arranging the blossoms of various types of flowers to make an intricately patterned carpet on the floor at entrances to homes or at temples. Often centred around a lamp, the pookkalam start with a single type of flower, and are added to with concentric rings of new flowers each day of Onam, increasing in size and complexity as the festival progresses.
Dance and music are important features of Onam, with many traditional forms displayed. Examples include Thiruvathirakali, in which groups of women and girls in traditional dress follow an elaborate coordinated circular path while singing, clapping and dancing, and Kummattikali, which sees colourfully masked dancers moving from house to house, collecting gifts and entertaining people. Another dance of importance is the tiger dance, Pulikkali, where performers adorn themselves with masks and body paint to resemble the tiger, and dance to the beat of drums.
Sports and games are another important aspect of Onam, with people of all ages and castes participating in ball games, archery competitions, and tug of war. Boat racing is also a hugely popular Onam tradition in Kerala with the Vallamkali, or snake boat race drawing spectators in their thousands. The Malayali diaspora in Singapore have embraced this tradition and hold similarly large-scale snake boat races as part of their Onam celebrations.
Another indispensable part of Onam is feasting. The Onam Sadhya is a vegetarian meal made up of multiple courses and is traditionally served laid out on plantain leaves. The meal usually consists of at least nine courses but can sometimes include up to thirty. The Onam Satya is an enormously important tradition, summed up by the Malayali proverb “Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam”, which roughly translates as “One must feast during Onam, even if it means selling one’s land”.
Onam is celebrated by the Malayali diaspora worldwide, and in those places where there are no large public festivals or dedicated temples it is observed by families in their homes as a time of joy and fellowship.
Onam is celebrated during the solar and sidereal Malayalam Calendar month of Chingam, which roughly corresponds with August/September in the Gregorian calendar.
In 2023 Onam will begin on Sunday the 20th of August.