With Kerala being promoted as God's own country, Onam has to be God's own festival ! This is *the* festival of Malayalis.
Also, a festival only celebrated in these traditions. Nothing corresponding to it, around this time, in other Hindu traditions. Let us explore its origins. Read anecdotes related to it.
This is one of the few festivals to be observed based on nakshatra. On the Thiru-Onam nakshatra (Sharavana in Sanskrit) in the Sauramaana month of Chingam (Simha in Sanskrit). August or September of each year.
Now, how did Simha become Chingam? Simham ~ singam ~ chingam. If you know Tamil, the si-chi transition will be obvious.
How did Sanskrit Shravanam become Thiru-Onam? Shravanam ~ avanam ~ Onam ~ Thiru-Onam. "Thiru" being prefixed to say it is special.
Why special ? Shravana/ Thiru-Onam nakshatra's devata is Vishnu. Vishnu is, of course, special. Hence the "Thiru" prefix.
Vishnu, as the avatara Vamana, banishes Bali. Bali visits his people once a year. In Malayalam traditions, thats Onam.
Vamana was born in Shravana (Thiru-Onam) nakshatra in the month of Shraavana (described in the Bhagavata Purana).
Now, Shraavana maasa is the fifth month of the Chaandramaana system. And Chingam (Sauramaana month) happens around the same time. Vamana's birth seems to be a basis for this festival.
Maybe Shraavana maasa Thiruonam nakshatra combination changed to Chingam Thiruonam over time ?
Bali's visit is commemorated in Kannada and Marathi traditions too. But that happens around Deepavali. One to two months after Onam.
I asked my ex-boss, Dr C N Krishnan, about his childhood Onam celebrations. Here is a summary of what he said:
My native house was in Nadathara, Thrissur. Onam is the post-harvest time. Time to relax and celebrate.
It was time for fun and games. I used to play football and swim. Especially swimming, with all the ponds being full after the monsoon rains. Elders used to play cards.
People dressed in grass and with painted faces used to visit house to house to dance [called Kummaatti kali].
The women used to dance and arrange pookalam [flower decoration on the courtyard floor]. Trikkaakara-appan was placed and worshiped. In the form of a clay block.
Trikkaakara is about 10kms north-east of Ernakulam/ Kochi (Cochin). There is an ancient Vamana (Trikkaakara-appan) temple there. Old enough to be sung on, by Nammalvar - one of the twelve Alvars.
Inscriptions of the temple state, Onam being celebrated from the Thiru-Onam nakshatra of the previous month (Karkidam/ Karkata) to the same nakshatra of Chingam month. That was 28 days of celebration !
Was it a temple festival that later spread out? Or was it a well established festival throughout the region that happened to be celebrated elaborately in Trikkaakara?
Either way, Trikkaakara-appan was in the minds of people of nearby regions. Hence his depiction in clay form.
Arranging flowers on the floor in colorful designs is an important event during this time.
Most of my school age, I have been in Kerala (Vellore, Kottayam). Our school would have Pookalam competition a few days before Onam. We had four houses. And each house got to make a Pookalam for the competition.
It started with collecting flowers the previous evening after school. Searching and plucking flowers was an adventure. In search of flowers, hillocks were climbed. Rubber estates were crossed. Waded around bushes.
Next day, we are back at school with the loot! Each house is alloted a classroom, emptied off its furniture, to do the Pookalam. For the next 3-4 hours flowers were arranged. At the end of the day, it was fun. And a joy to look at all the Pookalam.
There is an interesting history behind Boat Race being part of the celebrations. It all started in Aranmula.
Aranmula has a temple of Krishna (as Parthasarathi) on the banks of Pampa. Every Onam, a Nambuthiri family used to host a feast in the temple. They would bring food stuff from their place upstream down to the temple by boats.
Over the years, the boats in the entourage increased. And the entourage converted into an informal race. They later became competitive races.
Slowly, many other regions started hosting Boat Races during this festival.
Celebrating the annual (Maha)Bali visit? Or expressing the post harvest joy? Whatever be the origins, Onam is unique that only Malayalam traditions observe it.
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