by Jen a.k.a. Haute Mommy, California USA
Welcome Jen, blogger owner of The Haute Mommy Handbook . Residing in California but native to Kerala, India, Jen writes on motherhood, culture, and raising culturally appreciative and aware children. For our first Holidays All World Round post, a column for guests of diverse cultures to discuss their traditional holidays, Jen will share the customs and origin of the Onam Festival.
An important cultural tradition in my family comes from the state of Kerala, located on the southwestern coast of India. It is known as Onam, and these 10 days are considered as the beginning of the New Year by the locals, according to the traditional calendar. On the Gregorian calendar, Onam falls somewhere between August and September every year.
According to Hindu mythology, King Mahabali was a kind, generous, and just ruler. He was a firm devotee of the god Vishnu, and so beloved by his people that even the gods began to feel jealous of the king’s popularity and began to scheme against him.
They approached Vishnu and asked him to test Mahabali’s devotion to him. Vishnu appeared to Mahabali as a dwarf, or Vamana. Generous Mahabali, when he asked Vamana what he wished for, was told that he only wanted “three paces of land”. When the king granted this, Vamana grew to an enormous height, placing one foot over the whole earth, and the second covering the sky.
“Where shall I put my foot next?” asked Vishnu, testing Mahabali’s loyalty.
Mahabali, without hesitation, lowered his head, offering himself to the god. Because the king kept his promise, Vishnu granted him immortality. As a special favor, he allowed the king to visit his beloved people once a year, which is celebrated with great fanfare, as Onam.
Every year during the Onam festival, the spirit of King Mahabali is said to arrive, and colorful festivities and events are carried out in his honor.
Shopping centers will be bustling as families shop for new clothes during this time. The men will wear kasavu mundu and the women will wear Kerala kasavu saree. Both forms of traditional dress are made of cream-colored silk with a wide border of gold thread.
Back at home, women and girls in a family will work together to create beautiful designs for a pookkalam, which are first intricately drawn with chalk, and then filled in with dried flower petals. These circular floral designs will usually be found at the front door or courtyard of one’s home.
Other cultural activities include boat races cheered on by the locals from the riverbank, kathakali performances where mythological stories are enacted through hand gestures and facial expressions, and puli kali (tiger dance), where dancers will dress as tigers and perform for gathered crowds.
On the last day of the Onam holidays is when the Onasadya (Onam feast) takes place. This nine-course vegetarian meal is traditionally served on a banana leaf. Some food items include various vegetables, coconut chutney, papadam, lime pickle, and banana chips, served with a generous helping of rice. Dessert is typically payasam, a sweet liquid made with milk, vermicelli, and cashews and flavored with cardamom.
The Onam festival is one that the people of Kerala look forward to all year long. Although it has roots in Hinduism, people of all religious backgrounds enjoy coming together to celebrate this most auspicious holiday of the return of this most beloved king.
About the Author
Hi there, I’m Jen! I have always enjoyed visual communications and writing ever since my school spelling bee days. With a background in both English and graphic arts, I am passionate about both the written word and good design.
When I’m not blogging, playing wife, mom (to my daughters Pumpkin + Peanut), international politics aficionado, or wannabe fashionista, I can be found soaking in the natural beauty of the outdoors on walks as an avid nature lover. And yes, talking—a lot.