Onam: God’s Own Festival
“Best of luck for the festival of Onam and may one celebrate the festival with a positive spirit-” so goes a popular greeting in Kerala.
It is harvest season again in the scenic state of Kerala; time to rejoice the regalities of the Onam Festival. Onam is celebrated in the honour of King Mahabali. It is believed that Mahabali returns every year on Onam to visit his former subjects. Onam is celebrated at the beginning of the month of
Chingam, the first month of the Malyalee calendar.
The festival usually lasts for four to ten days. The celebrations are very colourful and in full vigour. The first day, Atham, and the tenth day, Thiruonam, are by far the most important days. A carnival-like atmosphere infects the entire state during this period. Houses are decorated with beautiful
rangolis, huge feasts are arranged, elephants are decorated, boat races take place etc. It is an absolute fun filled atmosphere.
There is a legend behind the celebration of this festival- the legend of King Mahabali. Mahabali, who was a great king, was the grandson of Prahlad- a great devotee of Lord Krishna. His subjects were very happy in his rein and he loved and cared for them a lot. But he had one shortcoming: he was very ambitious.
He invaded heaven and conquered it. Thus he became the ruler of the three worlds-
Akash, Patal and Dharti. The Gods rushed to Lord Vishnu for help to get back what was lost. He incarnated as Vaman the dwarf and visited Mahabali when he was performing Ashwamedha Yagna. Mahabali had announced that he would give anything that anyone asked from him during the Yagna.
Mahabali asked the Vaman- what would he like to have? The Lord replied- he would like to have only the land covered by his three footsteps. Not knowing the repercussions, Mahabali granted him his wish. His guru Shukracharya understood that it was Lord Vishnu in disguise and he warned Mahabali. But the King told him,
“Prana (life) and Maana (honour) are like the two eyes of a person. Even if life goes, honour should be protected. Knowing that the person who has come now is the Lord Himself, I should be the most fortunate one as the Lord, who gives everything to mankind, is seeking something from me.”
The next moment the size of Vaman grew immensely, towering above the heavens. In two footsteps he covered the heaven and earth. When he asked where he should put the third step, Mahabali asked it to be put on his head. Lord Vishnu heeded him, and placed his third step on his head and pushed Mahabali to the underworld, the patal. He made him the king of the underworld.
But in return Mahabali asked for a wish. The wish was to be able to visit his subjects once in a year. Lord Vishnu granted him the wish and from that day Onam is celebrated in the honour of the return of the great king, Mahabali.
During Onam, the houses are decorated beautifully with flowers called
Onapookkalam. It is a very beautiful piece of work and involves high artistry. On the tenth day, Thiruonam, Mahabali is supposed to visit every house. So to welcome him, every house is cleaned and decorated with brightly lit lamps. Fireworks are organised all over the place, turning it into a feast for the eyes. Clothes are gifted to the young ones from the elders of the family.
One of the most important parts of this festival is the grand lunch or the sadya on the tenth day, Thiruonam. A Malyalee saying goes like this
“Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam”, which means one must have the grand lunch on Thiruonam even if he has to sell all his properties.
During this period of ten days, long processions of heavily decorated elephants are taken out, the famous snake boat races or Vallamkali take place,
Kathakali dancers in fantastic costumes showcase their talent. Masked dancers perform the famous Kummattikali dance and go from house to house. Another sight which is ubiquitous during this period is people painted in tiger stripes, dancing to the beats of musical instruments. Its called Pulikal.
The other delightful aspect of Onam is definitely the food and the feast. A whole lot of food and sweets are made to please the Lord Mahabali and the guests who turn up during this auspicious festival.
Avial, Payasam, Thoran, Tomato Rasam, Banana Halwa are only few of the delicacies that the taste buds are treated to.
The festival of Onam brings with it joy and celebration. But its uniqueness lies somewhere else. This is one festival that is celebrated throughout the state of Kerala irrespective of caste, creed and religion. This festival helps create a bond of brotherhood and develops an atmosphere of peace. With the number of games and sports people get involved in, this festival promotes the spirit of competitiveness.
The festival of Onam is a beautiful example of the rich and colourful traditions of the tiny Kerala fondly called
‘God’s Own Country’.