When is it?
On am is celebrated in the month of Bhadrapad (a month in the Hindu calendar that corresponds with August/ September in the Gregorian calendar) on the twelfth day of the waning moon. It falls when the south west monsoon ends and the harvest season begins in the state of Kerala. In 2016, this is on Tuesday 13th September.
History and Legend
According to legend the festival is the celebration following the home coming of the ‘Asura ‘ (a divine being in the Vedic period who compete for power) King Mahabali. King Bali ruled the state of Kerala; he was kind and just and accordingly the people loved him. When King Bali wanted to expand his kingdom further lord Vishnu attended the king’s court as the avatar ‘Vamana’ ( a dwarf priest). As this avatar, lord Vishnu granted the King the small wish of three steps of land. Then Vamana assumed an enormous form and in one step covered the entire earth, in the second step covered all the skies, then waited. The King placed his own head for lord Vishnu to rest his foot which pleased lord Vishnu. The King was granted one last wish as a consequence. (Another version of this story states that due to lack of space Vishnu put his third step or leg on Bali himself and crushed Bali to the nether or Patala Loka (underground world) thus helping the gods out). The King requested that he could return at least once a year to Kerala, his land. Onam is the day King Bali comes to visit his people and is celebrated to rejoice his homecoming.
How is it celebrated?
It is the biggest and most important festival in Kerala. It is celebrated over a period of ten days, starting from the first day of Atham and continuing until the tenth and biggest day called Thiruvonam. The festival attracts thousands of tourists from across the country and globe.
The first day of celebrations involves intricate floral carpets called Pookalam. Each day more flowers of differing colours are added to the floral carpet. Girls design the patterns in the front of the houses and the boys gather the flowers. Prayers are said in the temple.
The biggest day is Thiruvonam when festivities start as early as 4am. People clean up their houses, take a bath, wear new clothes and pray for blessings. A special Pookalam is designed to welcome the spirit of King Maveli. The high point of the day is an enormous lunch with 11-13 prescribed dishes (which is prepared by all, even if they’re struggling financially). It is effectively a 10 day carnival in which everyone takes part.