Essential Guide to 2018 Onam Festival in Kerala

Floral arrangement, or pookalam, during Onam festival in Kerala.
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Onam is a traditional ten-day harvest festival that marks the homecoming of the mythical King Mahabali. It’s a festival rich in culture and heritage.

When is Onam Celebrated?

Onam is celebrated at the beginning of the month of Chingam, the first month of Malayalam Calendar (Kollavarsham). In 2018, the most important day of Onam (known as Thiru Onam) is on August 25. Rituals commence approximately 10 days before Thiru Onam, on Atham (August 15).

There are actually four days of Onam. First Onam will be on August 24, the day before Thiru Onam, while fourth Onam will be on August 27. Onam festivities continue throughout these days.

Where is Onam Celebrated?

Onam is celebrated in the state of Kerala, in southern India. It's the biggest festival of the year there. The most spectacular celebrations take place in Kochi, Trivandrum, Thrissur, and Kottayam.

Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara (also known as Thrikkakara Temple), located around 15 kilometers northeast of Ernakulam near Kochi, is particularly associated with the Onam Festival. It's believed that the festival originated at this temple. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Legend has it that Thrikkakara was the abode of good demon King Mahabali, who was popular and generous. His reign was considered to be the golden era of Kerala. However, the gods grew concerned about the King's power and popularity.

As a result, Lord Vamana is said to have sent King Mahabali to the underworld with his foot, and the temple is located at the spot where this happened. The King asked to return to Kerala once a year to ensure that his people were still happy, well fed, and content. Lord Vamana granted this wish, and King Mahabali comes to visit his people and his land during Onam.

The state government also celebrates Tourism Week in Kerala during Onam. Much of Kerala's culture is showcased during the festivities. Unfortunately, do note that Kerala Tourism's Onam festival program has been canceled this year, due to the severe flooding in Kerala this month. Most Onam festival celebrations will also be curtailed because of this.

How is Onam Celebrated?

People strikingly decorate the ground in front of their houses with flowers arranged in beautiful patterns (pookalam) to welcome the King. The festival is also celebrated with new clothes, feasts served on banana leaves, dancing, sports, games, and snake boat races.

What Rituals are Performed?

On Atham, people start the day with an early bath, perform prayers, and start creating their floral decorations on the ground in front of their houses. The floral decorations (pookalams) continue during the ten-day lead up to Onam, and pookalam competitions are organized by various organizations.

At Thrikkakara Temple, celebrations commence on Atham with a special flag hoisting ceremony and continue for the 10 days with cultural, music, and dance performances. A highlight is the grand procession, pakalpooram, on the day before Thiru Onam.

The main deity, Vamana, is carried around the temple grounds on an elephant, followed by a group of caparisoned elephants.

Each day of Onam has its own ceremonial significance, and the temple authorities perform various rites involving the main deity and the other deities housed at the temple. The idol of Lord Vamana is decorated in the form of one of the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu on each of the 10 days of the festival.

The Athachamayam festival at Tripunithura (near Ernakulam in ​​greater Kochi) also kicks off Onam festival celebrations on Atham. Apparently, the Maharaja of Kochi used to march from Tripunithura to Thrikkakara Temple. This modern-day festival follows in his footsteps. It features a street parade with decorated elephants and floats, musicians, and various traditional Kerala art forms.

A lot of cooking takes place during Onam, with the highlight being a grand feast called Onasadya. It's served on Thiru Onam. The cuisine is elaborate and varied—try it for yourself at one of the quality hotels in Trivandrum which have specials for the occasion. Alternatively, Onasadya is served daily at Thrikkakara Temple. Tens of thousands of people attend this feast on the main Onam day.