The Festival of Onam and the Significance of Gifting New Clothes

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MaveliOnam is the National festival of Kerala.  This is a festival of unity and is celebrated with great enthusiasm throughout the state. Onam is also considered a harvest festival.  According to legends, Onam celebrates the annual visit of the noble king Mahabali from the underworld ‘Pathala’.

But how did Mahabali end up in Pathala? Who sent him and why? Here is the story.

The Story of Onam

Legends say that the reign of King Mahabali was the time when the land of Kerala saw its peak prosperity and unity. During this time, people were happy and the land was prosperous. The King was loved and respected by all.

Watching this respect and devotion of people towards Mahabali, even the Gods became jealous. Lord Indra feared that this love and respect from the people might make Mahabali equally powerful as him, which could lead to an imbalance in the world.  He also feared that he might eventually lose his throne to Mahabali.  So the Gods approached Lord Vishnu to do something about the growing acceptance of Mahabali.

To help the ‘Devas’, Lord Vishnu took his fifth avatar as Vamana, a Brahmin boy. As Vamana, Lord Vishnu approached Mahabali.

VamanaWhen Vamana walked into the palace, King Mahabali was involved with some Yajna. As part of this Yajna, it was a tradition to offer charity for brahmins. So when Mahabali saw Vamana, he was ready to give anything to this poor brahmin boy.  All Vamana asked for was three foot of land that his feet could measure.  Mahabali was easily convinced and agreed to give Vamana what he had asked.

Hearing this, Vamana started to grow. With his two steps, he measured all of the Earth and the heaven.  For the third step, there was no place left.  But Mahabali had to keep his word.  But there was no land left for Mahabali to offer. So he offered his own head for the third step. Vamana agreed and placed his foot on the head of Mahabali to send him to the underworld ‘Pathala’.

However, before sending Mahabali to exile, Lord Vishnu, in the avatar of Vamana, granted him a boon. He was allowed to visit his people once every year. And it is believed that from that year onwards, Mahabali visits people of Kerala once every year and this day is celebrated as Onam.

Celebrating Onam with Sadya, Gifts and Pookalam

Onam falls on the day of ‘Thiruvonam’ in the month of ‘Chingam’ and the celebrations lasts for almost ten days. ‘Chingam’ is the first month according to Malayalam calendar. Ten days before ‘Thiruvonam’, on the day ‘Atham’, the celebration starts. Each day from Atham to Thiruvonam has its significance in the celebration. Although the story of Onam is related to the Hindu mythologies, people from every religion celebrate this festival.

What make Onam even more special are the different kinds of activities during this festival. The most popular one is the preparation of ‘Pookalam’. Every house and every family prepare Pookkalam in front of their house with freshly picked flowers. The size and layers start to increase with each day from Atham to Thiruvonam. Family members, especially kids, come together to enjoy the spectacle of creating Pookkalam. This Pookkalam is also considered a symbol of secularism.

Onam Sadya, the grand feast on the day of Thiruvonam is another specialty of this celebration. Everyone in the family come together on this day to have a grand feast. The homemakers prepare various dishes and the Sadya is served on a banana leaf. Other activities during Onam include traditional art forms and games like Kummattikali, Pulikali, Vallamkali, Kathakali etc.

Gifting is also an important part of Onam celebrations. On the day of Thiruvonam, the eldest member of the family distributes new dresses, called Onakkodi, to the family members. Even the maids of the house get new clothes from the family head.

The Significance of Onakkodi

There are different beliefs about the significance of Onakkodi.

Onapookalam and Onakkodi

On the day of Onam, it is believed that Mahabali visits every home in his land. So the first group believes that when he visit our home, we should greet him with abundance and joy by wearing new clothes. This will make the King happy and give him a reason to visit us again the next year.

According to another belief, Onam is also the beginning of something new. It is the start of a new year in Malayalam calendar. It is also the start of a new harvest season. On this joyous occasion, people gift and wear new clothes as a symbol of the start of a prosperous year.

Usually, the traditional wears of Keralites, ’mundu’, ’saree’ etc, are given as Onakkodi. Pure white ‘Mundu’ and ‘Sarees’, with golden stitching works on it, are especially popular on Onam. Kids get the small version of the Kasavu Mundu, called ‘Chittada’. However, today, trends are changing and people are looking for dresses that are more modern as Onakkodi, because of their practicality and utility.

Although Onakkodi is the most popular gift for this prosperous festival, other kinds of gifts too are popular. For example, simple jewelry, gold or silver, is a good gift for this occasion. Small Diyas, idols of deities, traditional home décor products etc are also popular Onam gifts.

Now, it is your turn. Have you ever bought new clothes for someone on Onam? Did you know the significance of buying new clothes? What gift are you planning to buy this Onam? Share your comments with us.


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About Harikrishnan G

Harikrishnan is the Chief Content Writer at He loves to hang out on the internet and make friends on Facebook. You can connect with him on Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.

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