From the Backwaters
A few years back I got an opportunity to celebrate Onam with my extended family in Kerala. My grandma, uncles, aunts, their kids, neighbours, almost everybody in the near vicinity, had gathered on the occasion.
Since I had never seen such grand festivities, I just hopped to my grandmother and asked her how many people had gathered there. She said, “Maybe about 100 or more.” The answer was surprising. Looking into my amazement, grandmother explained to me why the function was being organized.
Every year one of the families in the area organises the function. On the Onam day, everybody will assemble together to celebrate the homecoming of the legendary King Mahabali.
I was young then and for me, Onam meant new clothes and lots of food. I didn’t even know who Mahabali was. It was Nair uncle, our neghbour next door, who helped me find answers. Mahabali is the grandson of Prahlad and a great devotee of Vishnu, he told me, Later, I read about the legendary king, who ruled Kerala to prosperity and equality. But the popular king finally had to go to Patala to keep his words.
Despite being an Asura, Mahabali was a great devotee of Vishnu. However, afraid of his growing popularity and strength, Gods approached Vishnu and requested him to stop Bali from gaining more powers. Vishnu disguised as Vamana appeared before Mahabali and tricked him to Pathalam.
Vishnu granted Mahabali the rule of underworld. He has also been granted the wish of holding the position of Indra during the time of the eighth Manu. As the last gift, Mahabali was granted permission to visit his people once a year.
Malayalies around the world celebrate Onam to mark the homecoming of Mahabali. Though it was a Hindu festival, Onam later turned out to be the biggest festival of Kerala with people across religions celebrating it. It also symbolises a new beginning as we forget all our sectarian outlooks and join together to welcome the auspicious 'Thiruvonam'. Special prayers and masses are held in temples, churches and mosques.`
The 10-day festival begins with Atham (the first day of Onam celebrations), followed by Chithira, Chodi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Molam, Pooradam, Uthradom and Thiruonam. Onapookkalam, (carpet made out of flower petals or simply flower rangoli) with a traditional lamp placed at the centre are laid in front of the houses to welcome King Maveli.
The most important part of the celebration is the Onasadya, the grand feast prepared on the Thiruonam day. The meal served on banana leaves usually has about 15 to 20 different varieties of food items, followed by Payasam or other sweet dishes.
Other customs include Kaikotti kali and Thiruvathirakali, the traditional dance forms in which women dressed in gold-bordered off-white mundu-neriyathu perform around the Onapookkalam, singing praises of King Mahabali. Snake boat race called Vallamkali, and elephant processions are other spectacular events organised during the 10-day festival.
One thing that I learned from the celebrations was that no matter what religion or caste we belong to, festivals are always meant to bring us together as they teach us the real values of life. To this day I have missed the grand celebrations back home and just wish to return once again to enjoy the essence of the festival in the land of backwaters, which indeed is `God`s Own Country`.