Late August or early September marks some highspirited celebrations down south. People in the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala go crazy over the state festival of Onam, with ten days of feasting, boat races, song, dance and merriment.
The Origin of Onam
Onam or Thiruonam originated as a joyous annual reminiscence of the golden rule of King Mahabali, a mythical king, who ruled Kerala a very long time ago. It recalls the sacrifice of the great king, his true devotion to God, his human pride and his ultimate redemption. Onam welcomes the spirit of a great king, and assures him that his people are happy and wish him well.
Facts and fables blend as Kerala celebrates this royal return, year after year with the festivities of Onam. Legend has it that the gods plotted against Mahabali to end his reign. For this they sent Lord Vishnu to earth in the form of a dwarf Brahmin. [Read the full story] But before being trampled down to the netherworld, Vishnu granted the king’s sole wish: To visit his land and people once every year.
A flower carpet called ‘Pookalam’ is laid in front of every house to welcome the advent of the vanquished king, and earthen mounds representing Mahabali and Vishnu are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards. Traditional rituals are performed followed by a lavish feast called ‘Sadhya’. Onam also means new clothes for the whole family, sumptuous home-cooked delicacies on plantain leaf and the lingering aroma of the sweet Payasam.
Spectacular parades of caparisoned elephants, fireworks and the famous Kathakali dance are traditionally associated with Onam. It’s also the season of many cultural and sport events and carnivals. All this makes Onam-time a perfect period to visit this coastal state, touted as “Gods Own Country”. No wonder the Government of Kerala has declared this time every year as Tourism Week.
The Grand Boat Race
One of the main attractions of Onam, is the ‘Vallamkali’ or boat races of Karuvatta, Payippad, Aranmula and Kottayam. Hundreds of oarsmen row traditional boats to the rhythm of drums and cymbals. These long graceful Snake Boats called ‘Chundans’ are named after their exceedingly long hulls and high sterns that resemble the raised hood of a cobra. Then there are ‘Odis’, the small and swift raiding crafts adorned with gold tasseled silk umbrellas, the ‘Churulans’ with their elaborately curled prows and sterns, and the ‘Veppus’, a kind of cook-boat. This traditional village rivalry on watercrafts reminds one of ancient naval warfare. Thousands throng the banks to cheer and watch the breathtaking show of muscle power, rowing skills and rapid rhythm. These boats – all pitted against their own kind – rip through the backwaters of Kerala in a tussle of speed.
Onam is For All
Although this festival has its origin in Hindu mythology, Onam is for all people of all class and creed. Hindus, Muslims and Christians, the wealthy and the downtrodden, all celebrate Onam with equal fervor. The secular character of Onam is peculiar to this land where unity had always coexisted with diversity, especially during festivals, when people come together to celebrate life’s unlimited joys.
Stories Behind the Onam Festival
A long long time ago, an Asura (demon) king called Mahabali ruled Kerala. He was a wise, benevolent and judicious ruler and beloved of his subjects. Soon his fame as an able king began to spread far and wide, but when he extended his rule to the heavens and the netherworld, the gods felt challenged and began to fear his growing powers. Presuming that he might become over-powerful, Aditi, the mother of Devas pleaded with Lord Vishnu to curtail Mahabali’s powers. Vishnu transformed himself into a dwarf called Vamana and approached Mahabali while he was performing a yajna and asked for alms. Pleased with the dwarf brahmin’s wisdom, Mahabali granted him a wish. The Emperor’s preceptor, Sukracharya warned him against making the gift, for he realized that the seeker was no ordinary person. But the Emperor’s kingly ego was boosted to think that God had asked him for a favor.
So he firmly declared that there is no greater sin than going back on one’s promise. He kept his word. The Vamana asked for a simple gift — three paces of land — and the king agreed to it. Vishnu in the guise of Vamana then increased his stature and with the first step covered the sky, blotting out the stars, and with the second, straddled the netherworld. Realising that Vamana’s third step will destroy the earth, Mahabali offered his head as the last step. Vishnu’s fatal third step pushed him to the netherworld, but before banishing him to the underworld Vishnu granted him a boon. Since he was attached to his kingdom and his people, he was allowed to return once a year from exile. Onam is the celebration that marks the homecoming of King Mahabali. It is the day when a grateful Kerala pays a glorious tribute to the memory of this benign king who gave his all for his subjects.
Story of King Mahabali & Vamana
worshipper of Lord Vishnu. He was sincere, honest, just and a good ruler. But he had one weakness — ego. And to eradicate his pride and redeem his beloved devotee of this one sin, Vishnu came to earth in the form of a dwarf Brahmin named Vamana. The king in his pride asked the Brahmin what he wanted for he could give anything. Vamana asked for three paces of land and the king agreed. To humble him Vishnu, as Vamana showed Mahabali that he is just a puny creature in front of God’s universal stature. Mahabali, who was a man of principles, realized God’s purpose and offered his head for Vamana’s footstep, as he was sent to another world. This fatal step proved a blessing in disguise for the good king — the foot salvaged and released him from the recurrent cycle of birth and death. That is why Onam is celebrated by wearing new clothes and resolving to lead a new life of truth, piety, love, and humility.