Centre for South Indian Studies

Onam and its Historical Perspective

Dr. Sandhya J Nair


Onam, the official festival of Kerala, is celebrated with Great Spirit and enthusiasm. The role of festivals in the cultural integration of a region is significant. Those are an integral part of the cultural heritage of all communities worldwide. Sometimes they are mainly centered on some characteristic aspects of a community, and sometimes their religious features. The stories or myths of Onam are mainly related to Hinduism. Individuals from Kerala celebrate Onam. The festival is observed during the Malayalam month of Chingam. The event represents a celebration of cultural unity and harmony.  While considering Onam from a historical perspective, Madhuraikkanchi of the Sangam period, a 9th Century Pathikas and Pallads by Periyazharwar, an 11th century Trikkakkara inscription, a 12th century Tiruvalla temple inscription are very important documents on Onam festival.

Etymology of Mahabali

The main story in connection with Onam is related to Mahabali and Vamana. Mahabali is considered as a ruler of Kerala. When Mahabali ruled the land, it was prosperous, and the people lived in harmony. The festival is celebrated in Kerala to remember the golden rule and period of Mahabali. The episode of Vamana is deeply connected with the story of Mahabali and is narrated in detail in the 8th Skandha of Srimadbhagavata.  Mahabli-Vamana’s story can be seen in several other Puranas, e.g., Vamana Purana, Padma Purana, and the Harivamsa Purana. Sometimes references like Mavelinad, which denotes the land of Kerala, are connected with the story of Maveli and Vamana. Even though there are no official records concerning the name Mavelinad, certain folk songs rely on the name and believe that the land of Maveli or Mahabali is Kerala.

The Authenticity of Mahabali as a Ruler

Whether Mahabali was the king of Kerala can relate to many stories and myths. First among them is the folksong glorifying the ruling of Mahabali. The folk song carries the title Maveli means Mahabali, and it is believed that he ruled the land of Kerala. Scholars are of different opinions about the origin and age of the song, even though it is very prevalent all over Kerala. The language and words of the song are of very near origin, which means it originated in the 16th or 17th centuries. If Mahabali ruled from an unknown time, singing a song with a polished language is impossible. Several terms in the folk song were of later origin. Those terms can connect with the central Travancore region, Mavelikkara or Onattukara, where Maveli ruled.

Another folksong related to Maveli is believed to be written by Pakkanar. This song has a mixed language of Tamil and earlier Malayalam, which is more realistic. In this song, Maveli is coming from the northern side. He is coming to see the prosperous life of his people. On his arrival, the people modify their surroundings; paths will be cleaned, mud houses will be renovated, new clothes, particularly Veshti or Mundu, will be purchased, lamps to be hung for more than five days, and a feast to be prepared. The song replicates the people’s joyful attitude and happiness in welcoming Maveli.

Mavelikkara, a central Travancore region, possesses the title of maveli indicates the connection with the title of Maveli. Some scholars think that the region’s rulers and nobles celebrated their harvest season harmoniously in the earlier period. This region of Travancore is popularly known as Onattukara or Odanad.   The Sravana month region went through its harvesting season, where the famous Onattan, a particular crop popular in the central Travancore region, is cultivated. Some scholars believe that from the titles Mavelikkara and Onattan (Onattukara) Maveli and Onam originated.

The title of Mavali can be seen in various other places. The inscription found from Kanjirappalli in Changanassery refers to the name of Mavali.  Madhurameenakshi temple at Kanjirappalli inscription of Tamil refers to Mavali as Samarakolahalan and Mudiyedamannamanavalan, denominated as Mavali Vanadiraya.   K.A.Neelakanta Sasthri, in his Pandyan Kingdom, refers to Mavalivanadirayan or Vanadirayan as a contemporary king of Veerapandya and Maravarmman Kulaseskharan (C.E. 1250). After the decline of the Pandyan kingdom, certain regions came under the nobles of Madhurai, known as Vanadirayans, and they annexed some regions of Tirunelveli. The inscriptions of Jadavarman Sundara Pandyan (C.E. 1276) reference Parakramapandya Mavali Vanadiraya. His children were referred to as Nayanar and Pavanagakaraa. Mavalivanadiraynans were considered higher nobles under the Pandya kingdom and possessed a large region near the river Palaar during or later Maravarmman Kulaseskharan. They believed themselves as the successors of Mahabali and Bana and titled themselves Baandadhiraja or Mahabali. One of their settlements was at Mahabalipuram in Madras. Malladeva Nandivarma Jagadarbhakamallan, Mahabli Banaraja Sree paraman, Banavidyadharan were certain names of their ancestors. The Mavalivanadirayans mentioned above ruled the regions of Madhurai and Ramanathapuram. One among them extended his kingdom to the west and established his supremacy in the regions of Kanjirappali or Mavelikkara. Another piece of evidence about Mavali or Maveli is about Mavalivanadirayan, a contemporary of Jadavarman Sundarapandyan. He was the head of Keralasimhavalanatu.  Valanadu is a term used to refer to the administration of the combination of many small kingdoms. The regions of Changanassery, Peerumed, were near the Ramanathapuram district and Keralasimhavalanadu of Tamil Nadu. All these references show the connection between Mavali and Banadhirajas, who ruled over the regions of Kanjirappalli and nearby areas.

Another assumption is that the Pandyan kings or their subordinates may control the regions from Mavelikkara to Pandhalam and Poonjar, known as Mavalivanadirayans.     The region from Kayamkulam to Mavelikkara, popularly known as Onad or Odanad, can be traced to this Pandya relationship. So, the rulers of Poonjar, Pandalam, and Kanjirappali regions have a Pandyan connection. Again, Madhurameenakshi temples in Kanjirappalli, Chirakkadavu, and Kumaranalloor are believed to be originated during this time.     Later the names of Pandyan were carried out by certain Venad rulers also. It shows their relationship with the Pandyan kingdom. The folksong carries the glories of Maveli, which may be originated because of the presence of a ruler who ruled the central Travancore regions.

Similar to the story of the homecoming of Mahabali is the annual visit of Parasurama to the region of Trichur or Trikkakkara, but the tradition is wholly unfounded. Another story indirectly connected with the Onam myth is about the ruler Paari of Parambumala. He was a benevolent ruler, and the people enjoyed a peaceful life during his time. Later, the Moovendar stole his land, and the people worshipped him and wished for his return every year. The story of Paari has no direct connection with the story of Onam, yet it can be traced as a story of a king who ruled his subjects with utmost care and affection.

The three stories of Mahabali-Vamana, Parasurama, and Paari are directly connected to the ownership of land with a ruling cum controlling power and its grant given to the persons who were in need. The land is always under the custody of the ruler.   It simply indicates the distribution of land into the hands of powerful people. Moreover, persons in need can be assumed that the powerful people distributed the land to those who wished to use it. ‘Use’ in the sense of using for cultivation or other purposes. Because, at that time, the land was the major source of income. Through productive measures and perfect land distribution, the social hierarchy has functioned.

Onam and outside Kerala

Onam is believed not confined to Kerala but extended over Tamil Nadu in early times. There are references to Onavizhavu in Tamil literature. The earliest reference to Onam can be seen in the Madhuraikkanji written by Mankutimarutanar during the Sangam period. In the 2nd century C.E., according to Mankudi Maruthanar,  Onam was celebrated in the regions of Madhurai during the period of Nedumchezhiyan the Pandyan king, which forms the sixth poem in the Pattupattu collection contains a significant passage describing the story of Maveli and Vamana. The story indicates that several ancient social customs of the Tamils continue to flourish intact in Kerala. At the same time, they have disappeared in other parts of Tamil Nadu, and this is one of them. Onappiran, the Lord of Onam, is one of the names of Vishnu in Tamil. This celebration was highly rich, and the festival was conducted in the same style as the Chera rulers celebrated it. In Madhurai, it was celebrated for seven days. According to N.V.Krishnavarrier, Avani Avittam, a festival celebrated in the Tamil region, has similarities with Onam in Kerala. He substantiated the references in the Irainar Akapporul, an ancient Tamil grammar text. He stated that Hindus, Buddhists, Vaishnavites, and Jains celebrated Onam without religious differences.

In addition to Madhurai, Onam was celebrated in certain regions in Andhra, particularly in Tirupati. It was their annual festival. In the works of the famous Vaishnava saint Periyalwar, Tiruvaymozhi refers to the celebration of Onam in Tirupati, Madhurai, and Kottiyoor. Before the Tamil and Malayalam people did the seven days of Onam, the practice of Mulayidal is why the roots of Onam can be seen in the Mooladravida period. From this Mooladravida origin, N.V. Krishnavarier references Mahabali with the Assyrian rulers. However, Perumal Thiruvaymozhi Onam is mainly connected with lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna. The hymns refer to the special feast and sacrifices conducted in the Onam festival in Tirupati and Tamil Nadu.  Tirupati is among the 108 sacred centers of Vaishnavites, like Trikkakkara in Kerala. In both temples, the Trivikrama style of Vamana is incarnated.

In the Tulu region, the Brahmans of Seevalli, Havyak, and other notable c communities like Bands, Billar, Cheriya, Padarthi, and Sthanik also celebrated Onam. In Uduppi temple, the day is celebrated with various specialties. Temples at Byndoor, Kunthapura, Kollur, Honnavaram, and Gokarnnam celebrate the festival. Certain lower communities of people used to dance in special dresses practiced from Gokarna to Gangavali and in the northern regions at Sirasi of Canara, especially celebrated Onam. In Dharmasthala, the Jain center celebrated Onam in earlier times.

Onam: Festival of Harvest or Commercial Festival

It is considered that Onam is a harvest festival. There are differences of opinion about this, yet, the festival rejoices for ten days from Atham to Thiruvonam. It is to be believed that a memory of a historic agrarian past of Kerala. However, it is to be analyzed differently. Because in Kerala, the harvest season is connected with the two monsoons. In the middle of the monsoons, Kerala’s harvest season happens. It is popularly known as Kannikkoyth and Makarakkoyth for paddy cultivation. However, in the month of Chingam in Kerala, another event in connection with paddy cultivation is conducted; Niraputhari. It means the grains will cultivate, and some pieces of the Nelkkathir are ritually brought to temples and homes for fruitfulness and future prosperity. The ceremony is to welcome prosperity after getting rid of Karkkidam.  Since it was an agricultural culture, a filling of paddy in the month of Chingam means there will be prosperity for the whole year.   The saying Onathinu Puthariyunnuka is associated with agricultural prosperity and culture. Another saying, Atham Karuthal Onam Velukkum, indicates that if there is rain in the days of Atham, the Onam days, i.e., Uthradam, thiruvOnam (I and II Onam days) will be full of colour and warm. Another saying, Onam Kazhinjal Olappura Ottappura, means that after the celebrations of Onam, the homes of the poorer section again will become poorer. All the popular sayings of Onam indicate its connection with prosperity and fertility.

Another practice of Onakkazhcha was practiced all over Kerala. It is the submission of various agricultural or forest items to the regions’ temples, kings, and lords. The tenants and customary ones practiced it. After receiving the products, the landlord gave the tenants Onakkodi, a new dress, and an Onam feast. Still, it continues in certain regions of Kerala. Kazchakkula Samarppanam practice of submitting bananas to temples continues.

In the former days, weaving was not popular in Kerala due to the scarcity of cotton. In the 17th and 18th centuries weaving became popular in Kerala after various kings brought weavers from different parts of south India. Hence, the weaving of Kerala has an inextricable connection with the other South Indian weaving communities in their language and customs even today. Several Tamil traders regularly arrived in Kerala with new trunks in the month of Chingam, Sravanam, or Avani. The reason for this is that the poverty of Karkkidakam has changed, and there was an abundance of paddy, rice, and coconut. Wearing new dresses in Onam is general in Kerala and is termed Onakkodi for children and adults on Onam. The small Mundu for children to wear is yellow, known as Onamundu.   So, it can be concluded that Onam has a commercial connection. Today, the market of Kerala reaches its heights in the Onam season, particularly the textile market. Compared with the Deepavali season in North India and the other regions of South India, the market gets maximum profit in the days of Onam in Kerala. Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam indicates we must celebrate Onam at its maximum level. The market, particularly the textile market today, opens its doors in the month of Karkkidakam, i.e., the Aadi sale indicates the earlier practice of textile sales by Tamil traders. Whether it is a harvest or trade is a question is continues, but it can be concluded that it is a festival of prosperity or Niravu.

Onam – A cultural Symbiosis

Edward B. Tylor and Lewis Morgan propound the unilinear school of cultural evolutions, stating that all societies passed through the stages of primitive savagery and barbarism, culminating ultimately in complex civilizations. However, this school was later replaced by scholars like Leslie A. White and Julian Steward, who propounded a theory of multi-linear school of evolution through the Diffusions school in the late 19th and early 20th century. They believed cultural change began in a particular region and spread to other regions. Another school of Historical Particularism proposed by Franz Boas rejected the uni-cultural school and believed that cultural attributes were primarily due to unique historical factors. In the case of Onam, various theories of cultural evolution can be attributed. Because if it originated in another place, it later entered this region and evolved differently.

Moreover, still, it is celebrated from a wide angle. A different type of cultural symbiosis can be seen here in the case of Onam. Even though there are so many celebrations in Kerala, Onam became the official festival of Kerala in 1961. How Onam became the official festival of Kerala is very interesting. It can be connected with various cultural theories.

Furthermore, we can finally conclude with the term symbiosis. Before the state formation, the land was divided into three regions; Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar. These regions with different types of festivals were celebrated warmly. However, Onam possessed a different aspect here. In all these regions, Onam was celebrated with different cultural activities. In northern Malabar, particularly in Kannur, a Theyyam form of Onappottan or Oneswaran arrives at every house in the Uthradam and ThiruvOnam days. The person is fully decorated with different types of natural colours and dresses. The Malaya communities practice it. By not opening their mouths, they visited the houses and blessed the people. The Onappottan was rewarded with rice and provisions. In Thrissur, Palakkad, and Malappuram, the practice of Kummatti is famous. It is covered with banana leaves with full makeup. It also visits the Desams of the region with music and sounds. The practice of Pulikali in Thrissur shows another picture. Also, making Onathappans in Thrissur, Ernakulam, and Kottayam’s northern regions shows Onam’s connection with Thrikkakkara. The festival of Athachamayam in  Trippunithura is another peculiar type of activity. In Pathanamthitta, particularly Pampa’s shores, welcome Onam with Aranmula Sadya and boat races. In the Alappuzha district also, we can see the boat races. In the southern corner of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram, Maramadi is very popular. Another notable practice is making Onavillu popular in the present Kanyakumari district and Palakkad regions. There were various cultural practices all over Kerala in the time of Onam. In all these cases, we can see that the different sections of people are deeply interconnected. Without any caste discrimination, all these are practiced. All practices have a deep connection with the nature they belong to. For example, the Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha boat race is practiced because of the big rivers and backwaters. This cultural assimilation may be why Onam became the official festival of Kerala.

Traditional Indian floral garland with marigold flowers and mango leaves. Decoration for Indian hindu holidays or wedding. Isolated on white. Vector illustration.

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