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Onam is Kerala’s major annual festival, celebrated in the lunar month of  Chingam (August-September) by people of all religions and castes.

This year it begins around August 27th. The ten day celebration marks the annual homecoming of the mythical demon King Mahabali who ruled Kerala in the far-off Golden Age when everybody was happy, prosperous and peaceful. Mahabali is so attached to his erstwhile kingdom that he returns from the underworld (patala) each Onam to check that his people are living happily. It is also the harvest festival and the Festival of Rain Flowers and is celebrated with processions, snake -boat races, dance, drama, music and team sports. The festival kicks off with The Royal Parade at the Thrikakkara temple in Kochi, which is believed to be Mahabali’s ancient capital. This is an extremely colourful affair depicting all the elements of Kerala culture, including royally caparisoned elephants and numerous floats and tableaux. Today also sees the start of the Pookalam  - a mandala of flowers on the ground – that is built up each day throughout the festival resulting in huge, complex and beautiful designs. Images of Mahabali are also installed in many houses.

Being a Malayali affair, food is never far away throughout Onam, but the climax is the grand feast called Onasadya, celebrated on the last day. This is a slap up nine-course meal consisting of a dozen or more essential dishes, particularly the Keralan staple of assorted fish curries, served in the traditional way on banana leaves and eaten sitting on the ground.   

All sectors of Keralan society celebrate Onam with great enthusiasm and thus it serves a valuable role as a social harmoniser. It is also a boost for the economy, as the whole state is gripped by a shopping frenzy, with new outfits and jewellery for all the women and presents dished out liberally in all directions. Best of all, Onam is several days of paid holidays - even the full-time job of being on strike is suspended!

by Alistair Shearer

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