Onam – Welcoming Mahabali
While festivals in India are generally divided on religious grounds, there is one particular celebration from God’s own country that breaks all these barriers. On this day, all the people of Kerala come together in a joyous celebration to welcome the magnificent King of Yore, Mahabali, and that festival is Onam.
Every house and street is decorated in festoons, and colourful Kolams as they wait expectantly for their one true King to visit them. Like Ganesh Chaturthi, the preparations for Onam also begin 10 days ahead.
Story Behind Thiruonam
Onam, or Thiruonam as it is called in Kerala, is a festival to welcome the Asura King Mahabali who visits his subjects once every year. King Mahabali was the ruler of Kerala in the Treta Yuga. He was an Asura, who was extremely fair and benevolent to his subjects. The Devas and other Demi Gods were jealous that an Asura had achieved so much respect and love by the people. They implored upon Lord Vishnu to bring an end to his rule. Vishnu knew that he could not vanquish such a pure soul. He knew of the bountiful nature of Mahabali, who could not deny those who came to him, anything. He decided to take advantage of this trait.
Vishnu took the form of a dwarf Brahmin priest, called Vamana. He approached Mahabali, who agreed to grant him his wish. Vamana asked for land that he could cover in three strides. Mahabali although surprised with this request readily agreed as he assumed it would just be three feet of land. Vamana immediately started growing till he was larger than the whole world. Within two strides he had crossed the earth and the heavens. Now he asked Mahabali where he could place his foot for the third step. Mahabali offered him his head, for he realised it was Vishnu who had come in the guise of the Brahmin priest. Vishnu placed his foot on Mahabali’s head and pushed him down into the Paatalaloka. Before this, Mahabali asked for one boon from Vishnu. He wanted to be able to visit his subjects one day every year. This was granted to him. This is the day that is celebrated as Onam.
Onam falls on the 10th day after the Atham Nakshatram day of the Malayalam Chingam month. The entire town is festively decorated and people dress up in new clothes. People flock to the streets to create huge colourful kolams of Flowers called Pookalams. Contests are held to choose the best pookalams.
The morning festivities are followed by the traditional feast, the Onam sadhya, or Onasadhya. This is a vegetarian feast with all the traditional dishes of Kerala served on a plantain leaf. There is a saying in Malayalam – Kanam Vittum Onam unnanum. It means that even if you have to sell off all the seeds for the following crop sowing, the feast should be prepared. Every family lays out this feast for Mahabali to eat and enjoy.
After partaking in the feast, there are more games that people indulge in. The women and Children perform folk songs and dances. Traditional swings are brought down and they play on it, called the Onam Oonjalaattam. The most popular of the folk dances are the Thumbithullal, Thiruvathiraikali or what is colloquially known as Kaikottikali.
Then comes the most awaited part of the Onam celebrations, the Onam Boat festival, called the Vallam Kali. Snake boat races are held throughout Kerala, and winners from different places come together to compete in the final races, organised by the state.
Cultural significance of Onam
Albeit divided by many barriers like caste, creed, religion, Malayalis come together at least once every year on Onam, to celebrate as one. It creates a sense of community and brotherhood between all Malayalis. The entire Malayali population across the world uniformly celebrates this festival as they all acknowledge their king to be Mahabali.
The 10 days of Onam are a much awaited time for all the people of Kerala. Families and friends are brought together. This year marks the celebration of Onam in the Pandemic. Preparations are being made to keep within the Pandemic guidelines. Share with us your Onam stories from the past years or this year in the comments section below.