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Onam Festival

Malayalam Sad Poems    |     Click here for Malayalam Poems

When they were all living happily Everyone was secure and safe No thefts and no cheating Not even a lie, No false measurements No other forms of falsehood either


Keralites celebrate this festival in memory of the golden era of King Mahabali whose spirit is said to visit the state at the time of Onam. People put flower mats in front of their houses, to welcome the King, called ATHA POOVE. Keralites in any part of the world rush back to their native land to celebrate Onam. It is an occasion for family gatherings. It is also a perfect symbol of communal harmony since all communities get together and celebrate this truly national festival. On the Thiruvonam day every one bathes and offers worship in temples early in the morning. Then the gayest new garments are put on. Presents are distributed to the younger members of the family. Then follows the onam feast of delicious food served on plantain leaves. Members of families, staying far away from native places make it a point to visit their ancestral homes to celebrate the festival in the company of the their kith and kin. Keralites celebrate Onam by organising community feast, cultural programmes, etc.

Stories behind Onam

There are a number of legends behind Onam, One of the most famous legend is long time ago, Kerala was ruled by the daemon king, Mahabali. Mahabali was an efficient and popular ruler. The king of the Daityas or Asuras,  (literally, greatly strong) had become powerful with the force of his austerities and he was showing up the gods in a very poor light indeed.. He was loved by all. His kingdom stretched the earth, the patalam or the underground, and was threatening the skies. The ruler of the Heaven, Lord Indra got apprehensive of Mahabali's popularity and might, and approached Lord Vishnu for help and advice. Vishnu came to this mortal world as a (Vamana) Brahmin (this is one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu) and went to Mahabali and asked for 3 steps of land. Mahabali readily agreed. the dwarf Vamana suddenly assumed a cosmic galaxy spanning size and covered the universe in two paces. With the first step, Vamana spanned the entire earth, with the next the underground, and there was nowhere to put his third step. Mahabali being true to his word, asked Vamana to keep the third foot on his head, who pushed Mahabali down into patalam. Mahabali requested Vamana to grant him a boon to come and visit his homeland, Kerala at least once a year, and as the legend goes, he comes to visit his people and his land during Onam.

Another leged, once many years ago, a boat named Palliodam floated down the river laden with food. All of sudden on a turning in the river, the oarsmen tried to move it but were unsuccessful. The spiritual head, Bhattathiripad, believing that it was a bad omen climbed up the riverbank. He saw a hut where a dim light was glowing. When he went towards it he found a poor widow weeping, a few children were sleeping around the kitchen floor. She told the Nambudiri that she had no food and that her children had gone to sleep hungry. The Nambudiri brought out food from the boat and gave it to the poor family. Since then it has become a tradition amongst the Nambudiris to feed one poor person before the Onam feast.

Another legend that long time ago about 10 kilometers up the river Pampa from Aranmulla, the head of the Katoor Mana, a Nambudiri family, offered prayers and had a bath and waited to feed a poor man. After a long wait he began to pray to Lord Krishna. When he opened his eyes there stood before him a poor boy almost naked. The Nambudiri took him to the river, gave him a bath, a new set of clothes and a splendid meal. Much to the surprise of the Nambudiri, soon after eating the meal the boy disappeared. The search for the little boy led the Nambudiri to the Aranmulla Temple. But after a brief encounter the boy disappeared again. The Nambudiri thereafter brought the food to Aranmulla Temple every year during Onam.

Another story about Onam is that, Mahabali Perumal of Thrikkakkara celebrated a twenty-eight daylong Onam starting from the Thiruvonam day of karkataka. But the main celebration was in the Thiruvonam day of Chingam. This day from the different parts of Kerala kings, chieftains and even common public used to reach Thrikkakkara to visit Mahabali Perumal and worship the deity Mahadeva.The 'athachamaya' celebration of the Maharaja of Kochi is associated with the start of this journey to Thrikkakkara. But due to the lack of proper conveyances the journey was so difficult in those days. Keeping this in mind Mahabali Perumal suggested to celebrate Onam in their own houses instead of assembling in Thrikkakkara. This marked the beginning of this traditional Onam festival


The Atha-pookalam is made for ten days starting from Attam, the first day of Onam. Girls in a neighbourhood join together and 'poovideel' (flower offerings) is performed at the 'pookalam' in accompaniment of songs sung by women every day early in the morning before sun-rise. Usually, the pookalam is round in shape. And the diameter increases each day, as does the variety of flowers, through the ten days of Onam. Earthen idols of Mahabali and Vishnu are placed in the center of the pookalam and worshiped. The 'poovideel' of the final day draws small boys in a competition of who seizes more of the special rice sweets steamed in folded and tied up banana leaves called 'poovada'. Which are hidden by the girls amidst the flowers.


Pulikali, (Kaduvakali) is another game of Onam celebrations. A group of performers paint their bodies in the likeness of a tiger and dance to the beat of Thakil and Udukku, traditional, drum-like music instruments. They prance about, dance and move like tigers. The tigers are accompanied by a hunter and a drummer. The theme is tiger hunting. The scenes enacted include the tiger catching a goat, being hunted down and so on. The pulikali performed at Swaraj ground, Thrissur, on Thiruvonam day is quite popular.


Kaikottikali (Thiruvathirakali) is a dance form performed by girls in the open around the traditional brass lamp. Singing the traditional Malayalam song of Onam. Which talks about the social justice enjoyed by citizens of Kerala during the reign of Emperor Mahabali. Who considered his followers as equal and lies, cheating and theft were unheard of. Everyone lived happily then. The song follows;


The oonjal or swing is another integral part of the Onam celebrations, exceptionally popular in rural areas. Young men, women and children decked in their best, sing Onapattu (traditional Onam songs) and rock one another on swings slung from high branches. Children are thrilled at the sight of a new swing tied between trees every Onam.

Vallam Kali

Aranmula, near the temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna, thousands of people gather on the banks of the river Pampa to witness the snake boat races. Around thirty chundan vallams or snake boats take part. And thousands of people gather. Every member of a village has a place on the boat. Right from the barber to the goldsmith. Singing traditional boat songs, the oarsmen in white dhotis and turbans splash their oars into the water to guide their boats to cruise along like a fish on the move. Clapped by the thousands who throng the banks. Silk umbrellas and golden lace at the head of the boat denotes the affluence of the family owning the boat. Gold coins and lassies hang from the umbrellas make it a spectacular show of pageantry too.

Thumpi Thullal

Usually performed in connection with the Onam festival, this is a dance in which only women participate. All the performers are dressed in immaculate Onakkodi dress and sit in a circle. At the center of the circle sits the performer. Now all the girls sing in chorus to the rhythmic clapping of hands and occasional vociferations known as Kurava. The rhythm and the pitch of the clapping and the songs rise to feverish heights when the girl in the center enters into a trance and begins to dance. In movements that mimic the flight of the dragon-fly.

Ona Sadhya

In the past, Onasadya (Onam feast) was the only sumptuous meal eaten during the whole year. Irrespective of social status. A traditional malayalam proverb reflects on the importance of the feast - Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam. Meaning, one may even sell off  one’s possessions to celebrate Onam with the traditional feast. 

Previously, the sadya included almost 64 items - eight varieties each, of eight dishes. To accommodate the number of dishes, three banana leaves were laid, one below the other!  Onasadya is served in plantain leaf ideally and the dishes include upperi (chips), pickles, pappads, thoran (dry vegetables), avial (assorted vegetables), paayasam / pradhaman (sweet porridges) and a lot more.


This tradition is awaited with baited breath by just about everyone in the family. Elders gift the young ones with new clothes on the first day of Onam. Which are then worn on Thiruvonam, the third day of Onam. Traditionally the gift used to be Kasavu Pudava (Cloth woven with golden thread). 

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