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Celebrating unity in diversity

Statesman News Service |

The Harvest Festival Onam is one of the biggest and the most important in the state of Kerala. People of all communities in Kerala celebrate this festival with great enthusiasm and joy. Onam has been made the National Festival of Kerala in 1961. Grand feasts, graceful dances, colourful dresses, folk songs, boat races, games, flowers are the symbols of this festival.This year it will be celebrated on 13 September. According to Hindu Mythology the festival Onam  marks the commemoration of  Vamana avatara of Vishnu and is related to the homecoming of the mythical King  Mahabali . During his tenure, the people were very happy as the king could establish equality among all the human beings, provide justice to all and prosperity to the country. The Gods became very much jealous with his popularity and felt challenged by him. So, they wanted to bring an end to his reign. 

But, in spite of having all these virtues he was very egoistic. The Gods utilized this weakness of King Mahabali to destroy his supremacy. However, for all the good deed done by Mahabali, he was allowed by the Gods to visit his people annually with whom he was so attached. The festival of Onam celebrates the visit of Mahabali in a grand manner to make the King feel their happiness and prosperity.  Onam is celebrated in the beginning of the month of Chingam, the first month of Malayalam Calendar. This corresponds with the month of August-September according to Gregorian Calendar.  The festival lasts  from four to ten days. The first day, Atham and tenth day, Thiruonam are most important of all.

During the celebrations, people enjoy a grand feast called Onasadya, prepared on Thiruonam. It is a nine course meal consisting of 11 to 13 essential dishes. 

Onasadya is served on banana leaves and people sit on a mat laid on the floor to have the meal. The meal consists of chips, especially banana chips, pappadam, various vegetable curries such as Avial, Sambhar, Rasam, Dal served along with a small quantity of ghee, curd, erisheri, ishtu,  pickles,  buttermilk, sweet appam,  a series of dessert called payasam (a sweet dish made of milk, sugar, jaggery), pal payasam, semiya payasam, ada pradhaman, palada payasam. and other traditional Indian savouries. While in Kerala dont forget to try out some of the favourite snacks like Uzhunnu Vada, Parripu Vada, Kerala Aloo Bonda, Acchappam (Rose cookies), Kuzhallappam (Rice flour canolies), Pazham Pori (Banana Fritters), Iddiyappam (Rice Noodles), Madakku San( Coconut filled crepes), Murrukku, Kerala Mixture, Jackfruit and Tapoica chips. Last but not the least breakfast consists of Dosa, Masala Dosa, Idli, Pallappam, Uttapam, Vermicelli and Semolina Upma.  

Another important aspect of this festival is Vallamkali, the Snake Boat Race, locally known as Chundanvallams is held on the river Pampa. This boat race is a very colourful sight as the boats are decorated in a traditional fashion of Kerala and cheering of the spectators make the participants more excited. 

The beautiful boats are decked with golden laces and ornate umbrellas to celebrate the day Lord Krishna crossed the river. As a tribute to the traditional snake boat race, a similar snake boat race is also held by the Malayali diaspora in Singapore annually during Onam at the Jurong Lake. 

Playing the traditional games of Kerala collectively called Onakalikal also mark this festival. The houses are decorated with flowers and lights and intricately-designed flower mats called, “Pookalam” in the front courtyard of house to welcome King Mahabali. The folk dances of Kerala add to the enthusiasm of celebration. Traditional dance forms like Mohiniyattam, Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal, and Kathakali are performed during Onam.  Thiruvathirakali is a women’s dance performed in a circle around a lamp, where ladies wear traditional “kasavu” weaved saree with golden floral pattern is given special importance during Onam. Kummattikali is a famous and colorful-mask dance. The procession consists of decorative “nettipattam” caparisoned elephants.  Kathakali dance is commonly performed during this time, with dancers enacting famous mythological legends. Pulikali, popularly known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. 

This dance showcases performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, who dance to the beats of instruments like Chenda and thakil.

  The most important part of Onam is that though it is mainly a festival of Hindus it is celebrated by the all the people of Kerala irrespective of their religion, caste and creed. This represents communal harmony, secularism and brotherhood for which our country is known for. ‘Unity in diversity’ is portrayed during the celebration of Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala. 

Coordinator, Class IX, MP Birla Foundation HS School