Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onam
Onam is an annual Hindu harvest festival celebrated in the Indian state of Kerala. A major annual event for Keralites, it is the official festival of the state and includes a spectrum of cultural events. Drawing from Hindu legends, Onam commemorates King Mahabali

Within the textual tradition (prim. Mahabharata), Mahabali is noted to be an Asura, who found liberation at the feet of Vishnu through charity and religious rectitude. However, there are other interpretations of the same myth-cycle. One version, situated within the Bali tradition, celebrates him as a lower-caste Dravidian who challenged Brahminic hegemony. In the state-sanctioned celebrations, Mahabali is portrayed as a cultural hero: a just and benevolent ruler, he chose to even give up his rule/life for protecting his subjects, and was allowed by Vamana to return once a year.

The festival probably has ancient origins and it became intricately linked with Hindu legends at some later date. The earliest known reference is found in Maturaikkanci – a Sangam poem – which mentions Onam being celebrated in Madurai temples. Since then, multiple temple inscriptions record celebrations of Onam. The date is based on the Panchangam which falls on the 22nd nakshatra Thiruvonam in the month Chingam of Malayalam calendar, which in Gregorian calendar falls between August–September.

In a neo-liberal India, the festival has been increasingly re-positioned as a tourist event. It has also been subject to multiple political appropriations — Ritty A. Lukose notes that a festival which has been culturally inclusive within the "secular lexicon" of Hinduism is being increasingly turned into an event of exclusivism by Hindu Nationalists


Literature and epigraphical evidence suggests that Onam has a long religious context and history in Kerala and neighboring parts of South India: The earliest known reference to Onam is found in Maturaikkanci – a Sangam era Tamil poem. It mentions Onam being celebrated in Madurai temples, when games and duels were held in temple premises, oblations were sent to the temples, people wore new clothes and feasted. The 9th-century Pathikas and Pallads by Periyazharwar describes Onam celebrations and offerings to Vishnu, mentions feasts and community events. An 11th-century inscription in the Thrikkakara Temple (Kochi) dedicated to Vamana – an avatar of Vishnu – mentions a series of offerings made by a votary over two days prior and on Thiru Onam.

A 12th-century inscription in the Tiruvalla Temple, one of the largest Hindu temples in Kerala dedicated to Vishnu, mentions Onam and states a donation was made to the temple as the Onam festival offering. Uddanda Sastrikal, a Sanskrit poet from the court of the Zamorin, has written about a festival called śrāvaṇa. It is presumed that this is none other than Onam as śrāvaṇa is the Sanskrit name of the nakshatra Thiruvonam.

'Gangs of lads, playing their bows hoot loudly again and again; All women make their husbands provide wealth and pleasure; All men are wandering hither and thither to present beautiful garments to their women. The festivity of 'Sravana' takes place in Kerala. A 16th-century European memoir describes Onam. It mentions among other things that Onam is always celebrated in September, the Malayali people adorn their homes with flowers and daub them over with cow's dung believing its auspicious association with goddess Lakshmi.

According to Kurup, Onam has been historically a Hindu temple-based community festival celebrated over a period of many days.


Onam is an ancient festival of Kerala that celebrates rice harvest. The significance of the festival is in Indian culture, of which two are more common

Mahabali legend

According to Hinduism, Mahabali was the great-great-grandson of a Brahmin sage named Kashyapa, the great-grandson of a demonic dictator, Hiranyakashipu, and the grandson of Vishnu devotee Prahlada. This links the festival to the Puranic story of Prahlada of Holika fame in Hinduism, who was the son of Hiranyakashipu. Prahlada, despite being born to a demonic Asura father who hated Vishnu, rebelled against his father's persecution of people and worshipped Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu tries to kill his son Prahlada, but is slain by Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar, Prahlada is saved

Prahlada's grandson, Mahabali, came to power by defeating the gods (Devas) and taking over the three worlds. According to Vaishnavism, the defeated Devas approached Vishnu for help in their battle with Mahabali. Vishnu refused to join the gods in violence against Mahabali because Mahabali was a good ruler and his own devotee. Mahabali, after his victory over the gods, declared that he would perform a Yajna (homa sacrifices/rituals) and grant anyone any request during the Yajna. Vishnu took the avatar – his fifth – of a dwarf monk called Vamana and approached Mahabali. The king offered anything to the boy – gold, cows, elephants, villages, food, whatever he wished. The boy said that one must not seek more than one needs, and all he needed was "three paces of land." Mahabali agreed

Vamana grew to an enormous size and covered everything Mahabali ruled over in just two paces. For the third pace, Mahabali offered his head for Vishnu to step on, an act that Vishnu accepted as evidence of Mahabali's devotion. Vishnu granted him a boon, by which Mahabali could visit again, once every year, the lands and people he previously ruled. This revisit marks the festival of Onam, as a reminder of the virtuous rule and his humility in keeping his promise before Vishnu. The last day of Mahabali's stay is remembered with a nine-course vegetarian Onasadya feast

The name Thrikkakara is originated from 'Thiru-kaal-kara' meaning 'place of the holy foot'. The main deity at Thrikkakara Temple is Vamana, the smaller temple to the side has Shiva as the deity. Vamana temple is known as 'Vadakkum Devar' and the Shiva temple is known as 'Tekkum Devar'. A number of subsidiary deities have been installed at Thrikkakara Temple. The 1961 census report on Onam festival states

Though the Vamana temple is accepted as the main temple at the elite level, the local people consider the Shiva temple as the more important one. They believe that Shiva was the 'Kuladeivam' (family deity) of Mahabali and that there was no Vamana temple at that time. The palace of Mahabali was situated at the place where the Vamana temple is at present. After the fall of Mahabali, his palace was destroyed and later on Vamana was installed on that spot by the saint Kapila.

According to Nanditha Krishna, a simpler form of this legend, one without Mahabali, is found in the Rigveda and the Vedic text Shatapatha Brahmana where a solar deity is described with powers of Vishnu. This story likely grew over time, and is in part allegorical, where Bali is a metaphor for thanksgiving offering after a bounty of rice harvest during monsoon, and Vishnu is the metaphor of the Kerala sun and summer that precedes the Onam. According to Roshen Dalal, the story of Mahabali is important to Onam in Kerala, but similar Mahabali legends are significant in the region of Balia and Bawan in Uttar Pradesh, Bharuch in Gujarat, and Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. The story is significant not because Mahabali's rule ended, but it emphasizes the Hindu belief in cyclical nature of events, that no individual, no ruler and nothing lasts forever, except the virtues and self-understanding that overcomes all sorrow

Parashurama legend

An alternate legend behind Onam relates to Parashurama, an incarnation of Vishnu who is credited in Hinduism to have created the Western Ghats from the southern tip of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and up to Maharashtra. According to this legend, Vishnu got upset with the kings and the warrior caste who were constantly at war and were arrogant over others.

Vishnu took the avatar of Parashurama, or "Rama with an axe" and also known as Rama Jamadagyna, in the era of King Kaartavirya. This king persecuted and oppressed the people, the sages and the gods. One day, the king came to the hermitage of Parashurama and his mother Renuka, where while Parashurama was away, the king without permission took away the calf of their cow. When Parashurama returned, he felt the injustice of the king, called him to war, and killed the king and all his oppressive warriors. At the end, he threw the axe, and wherever it fell, the sea retreated, creating the land of Kerala and other coastal western parts of the Indian subcontinent. Another version states that Parashurama brought Namboodiri Brahmins to southwestern parts of India, by creating a mini-Himalaya-like mountain range with his axe. The Onam festival, according to this legend, celebrates Parashurama's creation of Kerala by marking those days as the new year.

The legend and worship of Parashurama is attested in texts and epigraphs dated to about the 2nd century CE

Cultural festival

Onam is a "popular major Hindu festival in Kerala", states Christine Frost, but one that is also celebrated by other communities with "much zest alongside Hindus". The festival is celebrated in BECs (Basic Ecclesial communities) in Trivandrum with local rituals, according to Latin Catholic Bishop Selvister Ponnumuthan. These traditions, according to Selvister Ponnumuthan, start with the lighting of Nilavilakku, an arati that includes waving of flowers (pushparati) over the Bible, eating the Onam meal together with the Hindus as a form of "communion of brothers and sisters of different faiths". The significance of these practices are viewed by BECs in Trivandrum as a form of integration with Hindus, mutual respect and sharing a tradition.

Paulinus of St. Bartholomew (1748-1806), in his 'A voyage to the East Indies' describes Onam as :

The fourth grand festival, celebrated in Malayala, is called Onam, and happens always in the month of September, on the day of new moon (not always). About the 10th of September the rain ceases in Malabar. All nature seems as if regenerated; the flowers again shoot up, and the trees bloom, in a word, this season is the same as that which Europeans call spring. This festival seems, therefore, to have been instituted for the purpose of soliciting from the Gods a happy and fruitful year. It continues eight days and during that time the Indians are accustomed to adorn their houses with flowers and daub them over with cow's dung; because the cow, as already observed, is a sacred animal dedicated to the Goddess Lakshmi, the Ceres of the Indians. On this occasion they also put on new clothes throw aside all their old earthenware and supply its place by new. The men, particularly those who are young, form themselves into two parties and shoot at each other with arrows. These arrows are blunted, but exceedingly strong, and are discharged with such force, that a considerable number are generally wounded on both sides. These games have a great likeness to the Cerealia and Juvenalia of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

According to P.S. Salini, a research scholar in Islamic studies, most Muslims join the festivities with their friends and celebrate "Hindu festivals such as Onam". According to a 2001 chapter by Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella, both Hindus and non-Hindus have celebrated Onam equally "as a time when the unity of the family and kin group is particularly emphasized". In another 2008 paper, Osella and Osella state that "Onam is not celebrated by Muslims" and the Muslims who do prepare an Onam feast have an air of a "daring secret".

Muslim reformists have called on other Muslims to refrain from taking part in the festival. For example, a Kerala-based Salafi preacher has called Onam as haram (wrong and forbidden). In 2019, another Muslim religious speaker caused controversy over his statement that Muslims should not celebrate the festivals of other religions like Onam. Some Muslim Indian politicians light traditional vilakku (oil lamps), while others have refused to light these lamps at Onam events declaring it to be a Hindu tradition and against the teachings of Islam. Muslim daily newspapers and other publications have condemned Muslim ministers who participate in Onam traditions. However some Muslims observe Onam anyway, considering its celebrations and rituals as a cultural practice.

According to Ritty A. Lukose, Onam is generally considered as a Hindu festival, one that is culturally inclusive within the "secular lexicon" of Hinduism. In recent years, however, it has undertaken a political tone. In one case, students group affiliated with Hindu nationalism in Kerala objected when a Muslim played the role of Mahabali. While the student group did not attack the Muslim, they targeted and protested against the local organizer when alternate Hindus are available to play that role. According to Lukose, this incident shows how "the cultural figure of King Mahabali, understood as Hindu, tolerant and inclusive" into an "exclusively Hindu one".

Celebrations, rituals and practices

Onam falls in the month of Chingam, which is the first month according to the Malayalam Calendar. The celebrations mark the Malayalam New Year, are spread over ten days, and conclude with Thiruvonam. The ten days are sequentially known as Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradam and Thiruvonam. The first and the last day are particularly important in Kerala and to Malayalee communities elsewhere.

The Atham day is marked with the start of festivities at Vamanamoorthy Thrikkakara temple (Kochi). This Vishnu temple is considered as the focal centre of Onam and the abode of Mahabali, with the raising of the festival flag. Parades are held, which are colourful and depict the elements of Kerala culture with floats and tableaux.

Other days have a diverse range of celebrations and activities ranging from boat races, cultural programs, sports competitions, dance events, martial arts, floral Rangoli – pookkalam, prayers, shopping, donating time or food for charity to spending time with family over feasts. Men and women wear traditional dress. The Kerala sari or Kasavu sari is particularly wore on this day