When is Onam and how is the festival celebrated in Kerala and around the world?

Feasts, colourful masks, performances and boat races will be held during a 10-day celebration

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For 10 days starting Tuesday, Onam celebrations will take place across the South Indian state of Kerala as well as among Malayali communities around the world.

The important Keralite harvest festival falls in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, which corresponds to August or September in the Gregorian calendar. This year, it will be celebrated from August 30 to September 8.

Although it is a Hindu festival, it's taken on such cultural significance that people of all religions in Kerala now celebrate it to some extent.

History of Onam

A mahout sits between elephants which are participating in festivities marking the annual harvest festival of Onam at a temple on the outskirts of Kochi, India, September 11, 2019. REUTERS/Sivaram V     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The festival celebrates the return from the underworld of king Mahabali, who was considered a great ruler. Legend has it that when he ruled, there was no discrimination based on caste, and no corruption or crime.

It is said that the great king was later sent to the underworld by lord Vishnu (or Vamana), but was allowed to visit his people once a year, and Onam thus came about.

The Kerala government made it an official holiday in the 1960s. The area in Kochi called Thrikkakkara is particularly significant during the festival, because of its temple.

There are public holidays in Kerala every year for the festival; this year, there will be days off for Keralites from September 7 to September 9, which will extend to the weekend, with families spending time together and many people getting up early to pray.

The harvest festival of Onam is not to be confused with Vishu, which was in April this year, and marks the Malayali New Year.

What is Onam sadya?

Onam sadya consists of nine to 30 different dishes, all vegetarian, served during the festival. Photo: Address Dubai Marina

One of the highlights of the festival for many is the Onam sadya (feast). Vegetarian food is often served en masse in the community, in restaurants or at homes, and is always presented on a banana leaf.

The most important feast is served on Thiru Onam, the key date of the festival, which this year is on September 8.

Nine to 30 different dishes can be served, including curries, dal, pickles, poppadoms, banana chips and more.

This particular kind of feast is generally only served during weddings or Onam, and so is cherished by all at this time of year.

Pazhamkootan, a stew made from leftovers of the Onam sadya, is another popular dish in Malayali households.

The performances and events

This September 6, 2017 picture shows an Indian 'Theyyam' artist posing for a photograph while performing during the 'Kummati Kali' as part of the annual Onam festival celebrations in Thrissur district of southern Kerala state. - The Theyyam worship rituals are part of several thousand year-old traditions and customs celebrated in Kerala state. (Photo by ARUN SANKAR / AFP)

There are many different performances and events as part of the Onam celebrations. One major event is the snake boat races. The vessels are similar to dragon boats, and are the region's traditional war boats that date back about 500 years.

Another important event is the Kummati Kali dances through the streets, particularly in the Thrissur district. The dancers wear colourful masks and cover their bodies in grass. Theyyam performers — considered to be direct lines to the gods — are also commonly seen during the festival and often perform at temples.

Artists perform a traditional dance during the start of the 10-day-long Onam festival in Kochi, in the southern Indian state of Kerala. AP

On the fourth day of Onam, performers dressed as tigers and hunters entertain people with their colourful costumes, dancing along to drums, emulating the "hunt". It is believed that the Maharaja of Cochin introduced the tiger dance as an Onam tradition around 200 years ago, and that he appreciated the macho spirit of the event.

The flowers and the clothes

MUMBAI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 4: A group of girls in traditional saree takes selfie in front of a huge rangoli made by flower petals on the occasion of Onam at CST station on September 4, 2017 in Mumbai, India. Onam is an annual harvest festival of Kerala. The festival is mainly celebrated by Malayalees around the world with traditional folk dances, artworks, etc. According to the Onam story and its popular myth, Lord Vishnu in his Vamana avtar sents King Mahabali to hell as the gods becomes jealous of his popularity. But grants him a boon that the king can visit his subjects once in a year. Thus, it is believed that Onam is celebrated as King Mahabali's visit to the place. It is the only festival in which both the winner and the defeater are worshipped. Onam Festival falls during the Malayali month of Chingam (Aug - Sep) and marks the homecoming of legendary King Mahabali. Carnival of Onam lasts for ten days and brings out the best of Kerala culture and tradition. (Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Much like during Diwali, people place flower arrangements around their community, and outside their homes, called pookkalam. They are considered auspicious and are placed to welcome king Mahabali.

Women wear a kasavu two-piece set, or a sari, during Onam, which is cream-coloured with a gold border. They also wear flowers in their hair. Meanwhile, men wear the traditional mundu wrapped around their waist.

Other traditions

There are near countless colourful variations of traditions and dances during this time of year. But, to name a few, many people buy new clothes to wear during the holidays and, just like during Diwali, lamps are lit during this time.

After Onam, the pookkalam flower arrangements are often placed in the river.

— A version of this article was first published on September 2, 2019

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