Onam is the biggest and the most important festival of Kerala. Festivities of Onam continue for ten long days. From atham to thiruvonam.
The first day of Onam is known as Attam. On this day, the women of individual homes wake up early in the morning, take a bath and dress up in clean attires. Generally new clothes are specially bought for the occassion. Then they adorn themselves with jewellery, usually gold ones. Children also get up very early on this day and, after bathing, gather flowers and flower petals for AthaPookalam, the main ritual of the day. The women clean the ground on the east side of their house and make it smooth before spreading cowdung evenly over it. Then the flowers or flower petals are placed on the cowdung
in a way which is beautiful to behold. This flower decoration is known as Pookalam and is prepared to welcome the spirit of King Mahabali in whose honour Onam is celebrated. A lump of cowdung, symbolizing Lord Ganesha, is placed in the middle of the decoration. In the following days of the festival, more and more flowers are added to the decoration, as a result of which, the Pookalam turns out to be of massive size on the final day. Traditional Onam songs (Onappattukal) are also sung on the Attam day to welcome King Mahabali and usher in well-being and prosperity to individual homes and express the desire to sustain them till the next Onam.
The swinging ceremony or Oonjal is another important part of Onam festivities. In the days to Thiru Onam, the climactic day of Onam celebrations, a swing is slung on a high branch of a tree and beautifully decorated with flowers. It is a ritual of great delight for youngsters who get on the swing and ride it by turns. Melodious songs are sung simultaneously during the oonjal and a large number of folk songs have been dedicated to this particular tradition.
On the third day of Onam, feasts are arranged by families at lunchtime and everyone is invited in one home or another. The menu consists of vegetarian foods. Rice forms the main dish with many types of vegetable curry, curd and kheer. Food in Kerala is served on banana leaves. There is also a set breakfast consisting of steamed bananas and fried pappadam (pappad). This remains the same till the day of Thiru Onam, the final day of Onam celebrations.
The Utradam is the ninth day or penultimate day of Onam celebrations. The "Onakazhcha" is one of the big traditions of this day. On Utradam, the dependents and tenants of a Nair( upper Hindu Caste of Kerala) family give presents to Karanavar, the eldest member of the family. The gifts are called 'Onakazhcha' and usually consist of the produce of their farms consisting of vegetables, coconut oil, plantains etc. In return for Onakazhcha, the Karanavar offers a sumptuous treat to the bringer of presents to him.
The "Aranmula Uthrittathi Vallom Kali" or 'Snake Boat Race' is another important custom observed in Kerala during Onam. It is perhaps the most exciting and popular of all Onam events. Alappuzha in Kerala witnesses the grandest observance of "Vallom Kali" with a large number of big and decorated boats called "chundan vallams" participating in the race with hundreds of boatmen. There is a good arrangement of music in the boats with at least seven drums being carried in each boat along with a good number of singers and musicians sitting in the middle. They provide entertainment to the boatmen and encourage them to row fast by singing Vanchipattu, boat race songs with high beats. The rowing of boats on the rhythm of Vanchipattu makes for a captivating extravaganza for thousands of onlookers who gather by the riverside to catch the event. A large number of people and even tourists from all parts of the country and abroad come to Kerala annually to watch this joyous event. The "Vallom Kali" commemorates the mythical story of the crossing of the Pamba river by Lord Krishna on a similar day as Onam.
On Thiru Onam, the final day of Onam celebrations, the entire state of Kerala decks up in the grandest manner possible. A number of cultural events are held all around the state with music and feasts being the order of the day. Everywhere in Kerala, there are high festivities and everybody takes active participation in them. 'Trikkakara Appan' is one of the foremost rituals of Thiru Onam and is observed by making figures in various forms are prepared from sticky clay. These are then painted red and decorated with a paste made of rice-flour and water. The clay figures, which are often conical in shape, represent figures of Gods and are placed in the front court yard and other important places in the house. The figures in the shape of a cone are called, 'Trikkakara Appan'.
Onam is the perfect occassion for family get-togethers and feasts are a given in such merry gatherings. The 'Onasadya' is the grand traditional feast that forms the main part of Thiruvonam. After completing the morning rituals, it is time for all the assembled members of the family to get ready for the grand meal called Onasadya. True to the Keralite tradition, the meal is served in banana leaves and on Thiruvonam, the dishes are served from the left end of banana leaf. The traditional feast includes rice and delicacies such as Parippu Curry, Sambar, Avial, ery, Kalan, Olan and Thoran.