According to the legend, Onam is celebrated in commemoration of the reign of Mahabali an Asura (Demon) King. He propitiated Brahma the Creator and held unlimited sway over Bharathavarsha (Bharatha the ancient name of India) . It was a period of peace, prosperity and plenty. Theft, robbery and other crimes were unknown. There was no bad season even.
Devas (The Gods) nurtured hatred, and jealousy towards Mahabali. They requested Lord Vishnu and HE acceded to the request. He appeared as Vamana, the Dwarf in all glory. The King welcomed Vamana. He asked him what he wanted. The boy replied “just three feet of land”. Mahabali conceded the demand at once. The boy grew unassumingly huge and the whole of the land measured slightly less than three feet. For the rest, Vamana trod upon the head of Mahabali and pushed him to the infernal regions. Consequently, his subjects pleaded Vishnu. The Lord allowed the ex ruler to visit his subjects once a year. It was fixed as for Malayalam month Chingam on the asterism of Thiruvonam.
During the ten-day long festival, people decorate their houses to receive Mahabali. In the courtyard, they make floral carpets. They put on new clothes. It commences on the asterism Atham that falls ten days before Thiruvonam.
The children at dawn go in groups to collect flowers. On this pleasant errand, they sing songs, bring their colorful spoils, and decorate the floral carpet. Shoe flower, marigold, the yellow aster, scarlet button flower, common thakara (wild cassia), and oleander of all shades. The quickly perishable carpet is protected from direct Sun, by erecting a temporary roof, decorated with festoons.
The important part of the festival however begins on the eve of Uthradam. The houses are spruced up. They make all arrangements for the sumptuous feast. Even the poorest of the poor celebrate Onam. The tenants of family holding the land present before the Karanavar the head of the family the fruits of their labor-called Thirumulkaazhcha.
On the day of Thiruvonam, after the ritualistic bath
people visit the temples near by. The head of the family distribute new clothes to the family members, dependents and others.
What follows next is the feast. In front of an oil lit lamp, a fresh plantain leaf is spread and all dishes are served. This is for Lord Ganesa, to partake. The family members relish the sumptuous feast. There will be several varieties of curries, pickles, sweets, payasams.
Post lunch sessions are meant for fun and frolic. The sedate ones prefer cards or dice. The younger and the robust indulge in merry making. They swing mad. Some engage in Thalapandu (head ball). An extensive open space forms the playground. Equality in strength and not in number is the rule. Hence, there will be a difference in the number of members. Kayyankali or combats and archery are other games.
Mirth and hilarity mark the life of the female members. The younger ones decked in their gayest and finest attire, wearing jewels spend the days in dancing and singing. It continues until the shades of evening fall and the festivals conclude.
Recently, with the breaking up of the joint family system and the onslaught of Visual media, the celebration has attained different color. Children no more enjoy the thrill of gathering flowers. The market is flooded with flowers from Thovaalai and Madurai. Women no more labor in the kitchen. Ready-made mixes are available. In some places, people depend on catering services. After the feast, it is time for a siesta. People celebrate Onam along with the TV Channels.