Onam, which breaks all barriers of caste, creed and religion, is the most anticipated festival in Kerala and by Malayalis around the world. Thiruonam is the day when the Asura King Mahabali (Maveli) comes to visit his subjects. Each house in Kerala decks up to welcome King Maveli, who during his reign made the ideas of a utopian rule a reality. In 2011, the date of Onam is September 9. Onam is celebrated over four days – first Onam or Onnam Onam is on September 8. Second Onam or the most important day of Onam is Thiruonam and it is on September 9. Third Onam or Munnam Onam is on September 10. Fourth Onam or Naalam Onam is on September 11.
The preparation for Onam begins on the Atham nakshatram day in the Malayalam Chingam month (August – September). Atham falls around 10 days before Thiruonam. Onam festival begins on Atham day, around 10 days before Thiruonam. People begin purchases for the onam which include new dresses for all the people in the family. During these ten days children and women prepare the floral design called Pookkalam in front of their houses to welcome King Maveli. Today there are Pookalam competions organized by various organizations. Another major preparation is for the grand onam feast – Onam Sadya.
On the Tiruvonam day members of the family gather together, usually at the ancestral home, for Onasadya (traditional Onam feast) served on plantain leaves. The significance of the Ona Sadya is established from the popular Malayalam saying “kanam vittum onam unnanam” – Onam feast should be prepared even if one has to sell all the seedlings that are kept to sow for next harvest. Onam is traditionally a harvest festival and earlier the people of Kerala used to entirely depend on agriculture.
After the Onasadya, women and children engage in folk games, songs and dances like Oonjalattom (soaring high on the swing), Thumbithullal – a traditional folk dance, Kaikottikkali or Thiruvathirakali.
Onam is also time for snake boat races (Vallam Kali) and there are numerous competitions including the famous Aranmula Vallam Kali. Apart from this there are other traditional rural arts and games like Pulikali, Kummati kali, Ona Thallu etc take place during the period.
Malayalis are today spread around the world and Onam transports each Malayali to his/her home in Kerala. Each malayali has sweet memories associated with Onam and it is dusted out and remembered with a smile.