The Kerala Harvest Festival Onam transcends religion and region, making it one of the most important festivals of the state. All signs of abundance and prosperity are incorporated into the celebrations: Elaborate pookalams (mandalas made of flowers and leaves, shown below) adorn the courtyards of homes and business; and elaborate multicourse meals called Onamsadya are served on banana leaves.
The festival celebrates a story, not unlike the Greek myth of Persephone when she was kidnapped to the underworld but allowed to return once a year for the spirit of rebirth in spring. The Kerala story is about a beloved king during a time of great prosperity who sacrificed himself, saving the earth from an avatar of Vishnu. For his devotion he is granted the boon of being able to return to his country once a year to visit his people, who prepare for his coming with an abundant harvest to assure their King that the land still flows with milk and honey.
Like the North American Thanksgiving, Onam represents the “groaning board” of communal feasting. Families and friends gather together, wearing beautiful new clothes like the traditional sari and mundu with gold trims that represent prosperity.
These symbols of abundance last for all 10 days of the festival, with the exciting snake boat races, majestic elephant processions and elaborate dances with men painted like tigers enacting the hunt, or with women performing elegant clap dances around the pookalams.
By nature a festival is about community and collaboration. But the elaborate festival of Onam celebrates more than just the traditional meals and activities. It represents a golden age of equality, joy and plenty within all castes and religions. Definitely something to be thankful for.