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Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: August-September
Where Celebrated: Kerala, India
Symbols and Customs: Boxing, Flower Carpets, Kathakali, Snake-Boat Races


Onam is a four-day Hindu festival held in the state of Kerala, India. Many scholars regard Hinduism as the oldest living religion.The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

The Onam festival is explained in a legend known to the people of Kerala. According to legend, the ancient King Mahabalia, also known as Bali, was so powerful and his subjects so prosperous that those who worshipped the Hindu god Vishnu were afraid of losing their status. So Vishnu, disguised as a dwarf named Vamana, decided to trick Bali into giving up his kingdom. Bali was conducting a great sacrifice and told Vamana he could have anything he wanted as a sacrificial gift. Vamana asked only for a piece of land he could cover with three strides. Bali readily agreed, but as soon as he poured the sacrificial water into Vamana's hands to confirm the gift, Vamana suddenly transformed himself into a giant. His first step occupied the entire earth, his second step took him all the way to heaven, and there was nowhere left for him to take his third step. Seeing no other alternative, Bali offered his own head. As Vamana placed his third step on Bali's head, he pushed him down to the underworld as king of the Ashuras (demons). Bali asked if he could be allowed to return once a year to make sure that his people were well and happy, and Vamana agreed.

To welcome him, the people of Kerala clean their houses and yards, which they then decorate with flowers and leaves. The first day of the festival is devoted to feasting, exchanging gifts, singing songs, and dancing. The second day of the festival, known as Thiruvonam, is the day of Bali's return to his former kingdom. Celebrations include BOXING demonstrations, the traditional clapping dance (kyekot- tikali) around a brass lamp, and reenactments of stories from the lives of epic heroes (see KATHAKALI ). There is also a spectacular procession of caparisoned elephants, SNAKE BOAT RACES , folk dancing, and fireworks displays.



Thallu or open-palm boxing is a martial art indigenous to Kerala. The boxers use the flat of their palms instead of closed fists, although this does not necessarily make the competition any less brutal. Even those who end up bleeding profusely are often reluctant to give in.

During the Onam festival, every village organizes boxing tournaments, and local dignitaries distribute prizes to the winners. The dexterity of the boxers and the skill with which they fight are exceptional.

Flower Carpets

One of the festival's more unusual features is the displays of elaborately designed carpets made entirely out of flowers. These offer a symbolic welcome to the returning King Bali.


The Kathakali is a pantomime dance that begins shortly after sunset and continues throughout the night. The theme of the dance is an episode from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, both Hindu religious epics, and it usually tells a story with a moral. The headgear worn by the dancers indicates which role they play-a king, a god, a demon, etc.-but all other expressions of character are limited to gestures and miming. The control that a skilled Kathakali dancer must have over the muscles of his or her face is considerable; the Nava-rasas or Nine Emotions must be accurately portrayed through facial expressions and supported by the appropriate gestures.

Background music is provided by a small orchestra consisting of the Chenda (a drum peculiar to Malabar and noted for its shrill sound), Chengalam (gongs), and Elathalam (a pair of big cymbals), in addition to wind instruments and voices.

Snake-Boat Races

The so-called "snake boats" or Kalivallaigal are rowing boats with a high, narrow stern that resembles the neck of a serpent. The largest is 100 to 130 feet long and requires sixty pairs of rowers. Its ornate stern is decorated with brass and rises fifteen to twenty feet above the water. Smaller versions are manned by crews of about thirty. As many as 100 boats enter the competition in different categories. Success in the races depends on a perfect sense of timing and the strength of the crew. If one oarsman is out of synch, the entire boat may capsize, throwing everyone into the water. An elevated platform in the middle of the boat holds a small group of musicians who provide a rhythm for the rowers with cymbals and drums.

Wealthy patrons commission the building of the boats, and the colorful silk umbrellas hung with gold coins and tassels that provide shade on the boats are considered an indication of the owner's economic status. The more umbrellas a boat holds, the wealthier its patron.

The most spectacular snake-boat races are held at Aranmula, Champakulam, and Kottayam.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Sanon, Arun. Festive India. New Delhi: Frank Bros., 1986. Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Festivals of India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. Thomas, Paul. Hindu Religion, Customs, and Manners. 6th ed. New York: APT Books, 1981. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India www.onamfestival.org


August-September; four days during Hindu month of Bhadrapada
A harvest festival and a celebration of ancient King Mahabali in the state of Kerala in India. This is Kerala's biggest festival, lasting 10 days and featuring dancing, feasting, and displays of elaborately designed carpets of flowers. It's famous for the races of the so-called snake boats held at Champakulam, Aranmulai, and Kottayam. The boats are designed in all shapes—with beaks or kite tails—and have crews of up to 100 men who row to the rhythm of drums and cymbals.
The festival honors King Mahabali, who was sent into exile in the nether world when gods grew jealous of him. He's allowed to return to his people once a year, and the boat races, cleaned homes, carpets of flowers, clapping dances by girls, and other events are the welcome for him.
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
Rm. No 123, Transport Bhawan, No. 1, Parliament St.
New Delhi, Delhi 110 001 India
91-11-23715084; fax: 91-11-23715084
Kerala Department of Tourism
Park View
Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, 695 033 India
91-471-232-1132; fax: 91-471-2322279
BkHolWrld-1986, Sep 15
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 111
RelHolCal-2004, p. 173
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