While the Western world celebrates the New Year according to the Gregorian calendar, here in India, things are done slightly differently. Every state follows its own calendar according to the solar and lunar positions or months of harvest. Kerala, a state in the southern part of India celebrates its New Year in the month of Chingam, i.e. August-September and in that month, is also the famed festival of Onam.
One third a harvest festival, one-third a New Year celebration and one-third a carnival, Onam is celebrated with immense pomp and splendour and has a rich tradition attached to it.
Onam is a time when people come together to partake in a grand feast, exchange sweets and gifts, wear new clothes, and deck the state and their homes like a new bride. Legend is that the Asura King Mahabali, the grandson of Prahlad, was sent to hell by Vishnu in a ‘Vamana’ avatar, which translates into ‘dwarf priest.’ But since Bali had been a good, kind, and charitable king to his people throughout his reign, he was granted the boon of being able to visit them on one day of the year. That day is celebrated as Onam.
It is not only a festival commemorating the King’s return to his subjects but also rejoices at the harvest of rice-crop which is a major source of income for the agrarian state. The festival is celebrated over a span of 10 days, the most important day being Thiruonam, the birthday of the presiding deity. The 10 day festival is flagged off with a parade of more than 50 floats! Various competitions of tug-of-war, mimicry, painting, etc. are held. Out of these, the one you absolutely cannot miss is Pookalam or Onapookalam – a floral carpet with an intricate design made entirely out of petals. Each one is more elaborate than the other and all of them are stunning. Another must-see event you have to catch is the boat race, which has hundreds of oarsmen rowing long boats. These snake boats move to the rhythm of singing and shouting by large crowds. It is truly too fascinating for words!
The state is a riot of colours during this festival, the most prominent ones being white and gold. The women wear gorgeous white sarees with beautiful gold borders and the men’s mundu borders are gold too. One of the explanations for this is that Lord Vishnu’s colours are white and gold, but this is just one amongst many. The women adorn their hair with sweet smelling flowers of every hue. Adding to the colour is a plethora of dances performed by vibrantly costumed and painted dancers, including Kathakali, Thiruvathirakali and Pulikali.
All of India’s festivals are known for their kaleidoscope of colours and cultural richness and Onam has its own place of pride amongst them.