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Onashamsakkal! The Legend of Onam

Onashamsakkal! The Legend of Onam

As a Malayalee brought up outside Kerala, Onam has had a special place in my heart. Not only has the festival brought me closer to my extended family, but has also taught me the significance of various familial rituals and functions. From donning the set mundu or mundum-veshti to preparing the ever elaborate and delicious Onasadhya, this is one day in the year I’ve always looked forward to not just because of the food (well, there is that) but mainly for the stories that resonate within every household - about the benevolent demon king’s encounter with Vishnu, the anticipation of the king’s annual visit, the royal subjects waiting to greet him and welcome him into their homes for a feast.

Onam is full of stories!


Onam is a 10-day harvest festival that is celebrated in Kerala and by Malayalees around the world. It is celebrated in the month of Chingam, which is the first month in the solar calendar. It brings together a riot of colours and flavours to commemorate the return of the demon king. But who is he? Why is his return a much-anticipated event for Malayalees?

Let’s find out:

Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlada, the asura king who was saved by Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar. Mahabali, like his grandfather, was a great devotee of Vishnu. He came to power and took over the three worlds by defeating the Devas. The latter approached Vishnu to help them in their battle, but Vishnu said He wouldn’t go against His devotee and refused to participate. After being crowned king, Mahabali decided to perform a sacrifice and declared that he would grant any request (to anyone) during the sacrifice. On the day of the sacrifice, Vishnu took on the form of a dwarf monk (Vamana – his fifth avatar) and approached Mahabali. The king promised Him whatever he’d ask for. Vamana replied – ‘I do not want more than what I need. I only need three paces of land.’

Mahabali agreed.

Immediately, Vamana grew to a gigantic size and covered all of Mahabali’s kingdom in just two steps. When He asked where should He place His third step, Mahabali offered his head as he had understood that this was no mere dwarf but Vishnu himself.

For his devotion, Vishnu granted Mahabali a boon. Such a kind king would surely be missed by his subjects. So, Vishnu declared that Mahabali would be allowed to visit his people and lands once every year. This yearly visit of Mahabali along with its celebrations is known as Onam.


Onam is celebrated differently across Kerala. Each region brings its own ingredients and flavours to the famous sadhya. Folk songs and dance are also unique to each region. Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal, Onam Kali, Kathakali and so many other regional and intricate dance forms take over the 10 festive days. By far the most popular and considered to be sacred is the annual snake boat race, locally known as Vallamkali, loosely translating to ‘water sport/play’.

Grand feasts, beautifully intricate flower rangolis (known as pookkalam or onapookkalamm, athapookkalam), elaborate music and dance, grand parades from Thrippunithura to the Thrikkakara temple in Kochi – Onam is a stupendous celebration!

Sequentially, the 10 days of Onam are named after the stars (nakshatram) in the Malayalam calendar.

They are:
The first day of Onam, people decorate their homes with pookkalam and visit temples. The famous Onam parade is flagged off from Thrippunithura to Thrikkakara.

House cleaning day!
The pookkalam gets a second layer of fresh flowers.

It’s time to shop Onakodi (new clothes) and jewellery. The pookkalam gets a few more layers of fresh flowers.

Considered to be the most auspicious day, on this day preps for the grand feast Onasadya begin. Traditionally, every member of the household is supposed to contributeIt can even be something as small as cutting veggies or drawing water from the well. The pookkalam gets bigger!

Anizham (roll your ‘r’ here)
Vallamkali (snake boat race) day
The race kicks off from Aranmula, a small temple town on the banks of the sacred Pampa river.
Another layer is added to the pookkalam.

On this day, people visit their ancestral family homes with gifts for their dear ones. The pookkalam is brimming now.

The most culturally vibrant day; processions of Pulikali begin – pulikali is a wonderful storytelling session of tigers, goats and hunters with dancers wearing masks and body-paint. The famous Kaikotti Kali or Thiruvathira Kali is performed in temples by women wearing traditional set mundu (the cream two-piece saree with gold/coloured border)Some families also set up floral swings in their backyards.

Small statues of Mahabali and Vamana are placed inside in the centre of the pookkalam. This is an invitation to Mahabali; the great King can now come in and partake in the festivities. From this day, Mahabali is lovingly referred to as Onathappan.

The penultimate day is reserved for last minute shopping and running errands before the grand feast. Some parts of Kerala also celebrate this day as Children’s Onam

He’s here! Mahabali is here! Let the feast begin.
On this day, everyone wakes up early, and after bath and offering prayers, dons their new clothes (Onakodi) and sits down to the grand feast. Served on a banana leaf laid on the floor, in spite of the numerous items on the menu, the feast serves as a lesson in humility and equality.

Two bonus days:
AvittomThird Onam
Some families immerse Mahabali’s idol bidding adieu to the King.

ChatayamFourth Onam
The last of the boat races and pulikali performances take place across the state.


Growing up, my favourite thing about Onam used to be the penultimate day of the festival. Popularly known as Children’s Onam, it is similar to Chhoti Diwali and is filled with lots of sweet treats for little ones. My favourite – the delicious laddoo, of course!



• King Mahabali is popularly known as Maaveli.

Thrippunithura is believed to be the place from where Mahabali was banished from Earth by Vishnu.

Thrikkakara temple is dedicated to Vamana, Vishnu's fifth avatar.

• Parashurama, Vishnu's sixth avatar,  pledged to rid the earth of the injustice at the hands of the kings and warriors. After the war, he threw his axe and where it hit the earth, the sea retreated, and the land of Kerala was carved out along with India's western coastline.


Onashamsakkal to everyone!
Here’s wishing you have an absolutely sumptuous Onasadhya.


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