Onam is a time when the people of Kerala come together, regardless of religious affiliations or class status, to celebrate their rich culture with ten days of folk art, food, sporting events, and gift-giving.
The people of Kerala believe that the legendary King Maveli (also referred to as Mahabali and Onathappan), a mythological king who, as as the story goes, brought about a golden era to the state of Kerala with his generosity and kindness. During this time, there was no caste system, no poverty, no sadness. All people were equal and content.
The belief is that King Maveli returns from the netherworld each year during Onam to bestow blessings upon the community. Maveli’s appearance has changed over the years, and he is now depicted in cartoon drawings as a jolly man with a round belly and a beard. Men will sometimes dress up as Maveli and pay visits to families. The people of Kerala decorate their homes and public spaces to welcome Maveli, and children are given gifts of toys, clothing and sweets. Families reunite to be together during this special time, and there’s a general feeling of goodwill and kindness towards one another. Sound familiar? It’s easy to draw comparisons between Onam and Christmas.
One major distinction between Christmas and Onam (OK, aside from their stark cultural and religious differences) is the time of year in which they are celebrated. Onam is not only a celebration of the return of King Maveli, but it is also a harvest festival that serves to welcome in the New Year based on the Malayalam calendar. Between August and September, when Kerala’s weather is sunny, warm and generally beautiful, the rice harvest is celebrated with various sporting events, such as tug-of-war, songs, folk arts, such as Pulikali, where performers dressed as tigers and hunters create pantomime, and finally, Onasadya, the grand feast that is prepared on Thiruvonam, the most auspicious date during Onam.
Onasadya is a nine-course meal that consists of approximately 11-13 traditional Indian dishes, including the central dish of the meal—rice, all served on banana leaves. The meal is a highly ritualized event with a specific order in which dishes must be eaten. Although each community and household has their own variation on the feast, it is customarily a strict vegetarian meal, and diners usually sit cross-legged on mats on the floor, eating only with the right hand.
Onam is so multifaceted, it’s difficult to summarize in words. To get a true sense of the festival, it’s really just better to experience it in person. In short, Onam is, much like India itself, a colorful kaleidoscope of moving parts. Turned one way, it’s a harvest festival. Turned again, it’s a New Year celebration. Yet again, and it’s a cultural event filled with song, food, recipes and more. Any way you look at Onam, it’s a beautiful celebration of Keralan heritage.