Visuals of Onam: Kerala’s festival when food, flowers, boat race & dance come together in celebration of life

Visuals of Onam: Kerala’s festival when food, flowers, boat race & dance come together in celebration of life

Visuals of Onam: Kerala’s festival when food, flowers, boat race & dance come together in celebration of life mahabali onam sadya food avial 30stades

Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala, is synonymous with life in the coastal state and is marked by food, festivities, flowers, boat races, dances, lights, colours and rituals. Today, it is celebrated across the world wherever people from Kerala live.

The festival commemorates benevolent King Mahabali’s annual return from Patala (underworld or netherworld) during the Malayalam month of Chingam (August-September) to meet his subjects on earth.

The 10-day Onam festival marks his visit, starting on the first day with Atham and concluding with Thriuonam.

Each day of the festival has its own set of rituals and celebrations. On Atham (the first day), homes are decorated with flowers. Colourful arrangement of flowers are made on the floor called Pookalam. The next day, on Chithira, another layer of flowers is added to Pookalam. On Chodi, the third day, family members exchange gifts, known as Onakodi. 

The fourth day, Vishakam, is the most auspicious when preparations for Onam Sadhya or Sadya begin. Families begin to buy ingredients for a variety of dishes, which are served on the banana leaf. 

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At least 26 items including rice flour pappadam, savoury as well as sweet banana chips (upperi and sharkara varatti), olan (ash gourd and red beans in coconut milk), avial (mixed vegetables in grated coconut and cooked in coconut oil and milk), red rice (chor), yam dish Chenna Mezhkkupuratti, sambar, Morru Kachiyatha (made by boiling yoghurt with shallots, garlic, ginger and sesame seeds) are served besides pickles and other vegetables, dal-based dishes etc.

The famous Kerala boat race, Vallamkali, is organized on Anizham, the fifth day and continues almost throughout the festival. On Thriketta the following day, children begin preparing for devotional prayers as schools are closed. 

Moolam is the seventh day when dance performances are held across the state. Women perform Thiruvathira Kali in a circle around a lamp while Kummattikali is a colourful-mask dance. Kathakali, Thiruvathira, Patakam, Thumbi Thullal and other dance forms besides Onam songs and percussion instrument shows enliven every nook and corner of the state.

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On Pooradam on the eighth day, King Mahabali is invited to homes. Devotees take the idols of King Mahabali and Vamana (the dwarf-boy avatar of Lord Vishnu who trampled Mahabali down to Patala) around the house and then put them in the centre of the Pookalam. The designs become bigger from this day onwards and the idols are called Onathappan.

On Uthradom or the ninth day, people buy fruits and vegetables and prepare traditional meals. Legend has it that King Mahabali spends the next four days taking a tour of his kingdom and blessing its people.

Thiruonam or the 10th day is when people visit temples, give alms to the needy, make rice-flour designs outside their homes as a sign of auspiciousness, exchange gifts, and indulge in the special feast – Thiruvona Sadya.

The next two days are when preparations of King Mahabali’s departure are made. Pookalam is cleared and clay statues of Onathappan are immersed in the river. And with the end of festivities begins the wait for the next year’s Onam. The vibrant festival in pictures here:

It is considered auspicious to make Pookalam or Poohkalam during Onam. Pic: Flickr 30 stades Kerala rangoli
It is considered auspicious to make Pookalam or Poohkalam during Onam. Pic: Flickr
Every household, temple and office in Kerala is decorated with flowers and lights during Onam. Pic: Flickr
Every household, temple and office in Kerala is decorated with flowers and lights during Onam. Pic: Flickr

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A man dressed as King Mahabali performing a street play during Onam. Dance, music and cultural activities are 
held across the state during the 10-day festival. Pic: Flickr  30 stades
A man dressed as King Mahabali performing a street play during Onam. Dance, music and cultural activities are
held across the state during the 10-day festival to commemorate King Mahabali’s return to earth. Pic: Flickr
Onam Sadya is a traditional meal served on a banana leaf during the festival. Traditionally, it comprised 26 items. Pic: Flickr
Onam Sadya is a traditional meal served on a banana leaf during the festival. Traditionally, it comprised 26 items. Pic: Flickr

Also See: Maharashtrian food in pictures

Avial (mixed vegetables in grated coconut and cooked in coconut oil and milk) is an integral part of Onam Sadya. Pic: Flickr 30 stades
Avial (mixed vegetables in grated coconut and cooked in coconut oil and milk) is an integral part of Onam Sadya. Pic: Flickr
Sadya's other famous dish is olan - ash gourd and red beans in coconut milk. Pic: Flickr
Sadya’s other famous dish is olan – ash gourd and red beans in coconut milk. Pic: Flickr

Also Read: How home chef Sumitra Kalapatapu is popularising the little-known Andhra Brahmin cuisine

The famous Kerala boat race, Vallamkali, is organized on Anizham, the fifth day and continues almost throughout the festival. Pic: Kerala Tourism 30 stades
The famous Kerala boat race, Vallamkali, is organized on Anizham, the fifth day and continues almost throughout the festival. Pic: Kerala Tourism
Boat races on Onam draw huge crowds - both participants and audience. Pic: Flickr
Boat races on Onam draw huge crowds – both participants and audience. Pic: Flickr
Pulikali, a folk dance, is performed by artists to entertain people on the fourth day of Onam - Chathayam. Aritsts apply tiger paint on their bodies. Pic: Flickr 30 stades
Pulikali, a folk dance, is performed by artists to entertain people on the fourth day of Onam – Chathayam. Aritsts apply tiger paint on their bodies and dress like tigers. Pic: Flickr

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Kathakali, classical dance of the 'story play' genre, is performed across the state during the 10-day festival. Pic: Flickr
Kathakali, classical dance of the ‘story play’ genre, is performed across the state during the 10-day festival. Pic: Flickr
Kathakali artists at an open air performance. Pic by Abraham Jacob, sourced via Flickr.  30 STADES
Kathakali artists at an open air performance. Pic by Abraham Jacob, sourced via Flickr.

Also Read: Nirvana through dance: Uma Dogra’s journey through Kathak

Elephant procession during Onam. Elephants from temples are decked up and taken around towns/villages. Pic: Flickr 30 stades
Elephant procession during Onam. Elephants from temples are decked up and taken around towns/villages. Pic: Flickr
A procession on the last day of Onam. Pic: Flickr 30 stades
A procession on the last day of Onam. Pic: Flickr

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