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Onam 2018: Date, history, significance of the Kerala harvest festival

Onam is celebrated to honour a demon king, as it is said that on Thiruvonam, the spirit of the demon king Mahabali visits Kerala.

Updated: Aug 15, 2018 10:03:55

By Kabir Bhandari

Onam is the festival for welcoming the demon king Mahabali. Though a demon, he was said to be kind hearted. (Shutterstock)

Onam is the most important festival for Malayalis, and is celebrated all over Kerala during the month of Chingam, which is the first month of the Malayalam solar calendar, Kollavarsham.

Spread over ten days, the festival kicks off on a day known as Atham and carries on till the 10th day which is known as Thiru Onam or Thiruvonam, which means ‘Sacred Onam Day’.

This year the festivities will begin on August 15 and carry on till August 24. After the 10th day, for about two more days as there are a few cultural events like the snake boat races, Pulikkali tiger play and others.

Onam is celebrated to honour a demon king, as it is said that on Thiruvonam, the spirit of the demon king Mahabali visits Kerala. Onam is the festival for his welcome. Though a demon, he was said to be kind hearted.



Traditional Onam Sadya served on a banana leaf. ( Shutterstock )

History behind the festival

According to Vaishnava mythology, Mahabali defeated the gods and took over all three worlds. This made the gods unhappy and they sought the help of Lord Vishnu against Mahabali. Vishnu said he would aid them but did not want to be involved in a battle with Mahabli (since Mahabali worshipped Vishnu). So, he transformed into a poor dwarf Brahmin and went to Mahabali, asking for three wishes. He asked Mahabali for the property right over a piece of land which measured ‘three paces’.

He then grew in size and in only two steps covered whatever Mahabali had. Mahabali then offered his head for the third step, which Vishnu stepped on, throwing him into the nether world. However, Vishnu was impressed by Mahabali’s devotion and told him that he could return to earth once a year – and this yearly visit is what is celebrated as Onam.

How it is celebrated

Flower mats called Pookalam are made for welcoming him and a meal is prepared which is called Onasadya. Celebrations comprise traditional dance, games and music and are referred to as Onakalikal.

Onasadya is a nine-course meal comprising 10-13 dishes, like rice, sambar, rasam, avail and more. This is served on Thiruonam- which is the main day for the celebrations.

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First Published: Aug 15, 2018 10:03:55

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