Sunday, August 19, 2012





 Onam is a   Kerala festival dear to the heart of every Malayalee irrespective of his caste or creed or even religion more often than not. It is their greatest festival for grand celebrations. This festival comes in the Malayaalam month of Chingam (August—September).  This is celebrated in honor of the mythical King named Mahaabali who was vanquished by Lord Vaamana the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. It is also believed to be the day on which the land lying between Gokaman in the North and Kanyakumari in the South between which the present day of Kerala State lies was reclaimed from the sea. It is an ancient and religious festival as the name Tiru-vonam suggests. Tiru means sacred or holy and Onam is the star of the day that is Sravanam. Some of the festivals are considered as  more sacred by people of Kerala as well as Tamil Nadu than others as the name suggests—Thiruvaadirai, Tirukaartigai, Thiru-aadip-pooram, Tiru-onam etc. Onam is a festival of great social events. The social fabric in Kerala is so knitted that no human activity is segregated from the divine inspiration. This is a general trend with all Hindu festivals but this is particularly noticeable in Kerala the way it is celebrated with everyone’s participation.
Onam festival comes at the end of the rainy season in Kerala when bright and blue skies are seen with pretty flowers blooming all around and the air filled with sweet fragrance and melodious music of the birds. Kerala farmers living very close to nature feel the surge of new life in the soil and in the air and therefore it is but natural they celebrate this festival with lots of merriment with music, dance and boat race, a common feature in Kerala on great festive days. To many American-Hindus Kerala is the Florida of India.
Onam festival Needs lot of preparation well ahead   of the Onam Day. Ten days before Onam, courtyard of every house will have carpets with flowers. This increases in size progressively as the day of Onam approaches, also in its complexity of design and richness of colors, taking full advantage of the flowering and harvest season which reaches its peak on the Onam Day. This is the season when paddy is almost harvested and bananas especially the variety called “Nendran” is seen in plenty all over.
Those who participate in this colorful as well as joyous festival cannot afford to miss the ballad in Malayalam language in glorification of King Mahaabali, which incidentally describes the golden days of Kerala during his rule which makes him so popular:
[“Maavelinadu vaneedum kaalam……………….balamarangal kalappumilla”]
When Maveli ruled the land all the people were equal
And people were joyful and merry; they were all free from harm
There was neither anxiety nor sickness: deaths of children were unheard of
There were no lies; there was neither theft nor deceit
 And no one was false in his speech either; Measure and weights were right
No one cheated or wronged his neighbor
When Maveli ruled the land; all people formed one casteless race
[Maveli is Mahaabali]
The above ballad is the greatest tribute paid to King Mahaabali on this day. It is worth recalling the mythological story behind it here:
 Kerala was ruled by the demon King Mahaabali in days of yore. His administration was perfect and everything seemed to be ideal. There were no robbers, cheats or other social bad elements, no epidemics and people were cheerful, happy, generous and contented. It was a land flowing with honey and milk. The Devas were envious of such a rule and were afraid that this king might attain the divine status like his grand-father Prahlaada, a devotee of Lord Vishnu.  So, they pleaded to Lord Krishna to settle the matter as he threatened the very existence of their King Indra. So, Lord Krishna came to Kerala disguised as Vaamana, a dwarf Brahmin boy and met King Mahaabali, begging for charity from the benevolent king.  Mahaabali being a generous king asked him about his need which he would be able to fulfill at any cost. Vaamana asked him to grant three feet of earth. Suspecting no trickery the king granted his wish immediately.  Vaamana assumed the divine gigantic form of Viraat Purusha covered the earth and heaven in two feet measure. Finding there was no place for the third, the king requested him to place the third on his head. The king was quick to realize that Vaamana was none other than Mahaa Vishnu sent by Devas to vanquish him and restore the world to the rightful ruler Indra. Mahaabali was about to be sent down to Paataala with Lord’s foot on his head. Submitting himself to the Lord he requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala, his erstwhile kingdom, once a year. Lord had no hesitation in granting him this request at once. Mahaabali, on the basis of this privilege granted to him is believed to visit Kerala every year on the day of Onam. This is therefore the day of welcoming Mahaabali in Kerala, when his subjects greet him by a show of prosperity and feasting similar to what they enjoyed during his golden rule. This is the day of commemoration of his golden period.  The grand festival lunch on this day is called Tiruvona Sadya. A proverb goes to say “Kanam vittu Onam unnanam”—we should have Tiruvonam lunch even if we sell off all our properties!
Like Jayadeva of Orissa, people in Kerala often think that Lord Krishna is the Lord of the Universe who guides everything and do not consider him as an avatar of Vishnu. Therefore is the narration that Krishna came as Vaamana to vanquish Mahaabali. Onam is a great day of worship at Guruvayur Temple like New Year day.
Onam is also believed to be the day on which Lord Parasurama reclaimed the land of Kerala from the sea bed by throwing his battle axe. The axe traveled from Gokaman in the North to Kanyakumari in the South to recover a slice of land. The land also looks like a slice cut out.  It is also interesting to note that Lord Parasurama is most celebrated in Kerala and Kerala is also often called Parasurama Kshetra. Exclusive temples for Parasurama can be found only in Kerala. 
Picking flowers is the job of the young, which they do with songs and laughter in the afternoon. Designing the laying out of flower carpet is the work of girls with the help of experienced ladies. Thus there is continuous training in the art of “Pookaalam” and Kolam (Rangoli) to preserve the ancient culture. The women of the house are busy preparing the sumptuous lunch during Onam. After early morning bath which is part and parcel of Kerala life style, the worship of the Onam deity by the family  “Thrikkakarappan”  is the first and foremost task. The site where Vaamana placed his holy foot first is the village Thrikkakara. Therefore the Onam Lord is called Thrikkaakarappan (father of Thrikkaakara). Lord of the Onam is usually made of clay or mud, in almost a shapeless shape, with a square bottom, four faces and a pointed top. The four faces stand for the four–phased life of a full-grown man. The ascent from the square bottom to the pointed top indicates the ascent of animal-man (four footed) to the one infinite point Godhood (tadekam) passing through four stages of life.
The Malayalees throughout Kerala make this festival an occasion for family reunion. Relatives from distant places visit their homes and  the family members get new clothes as presents from their elders.  The farmers bring present to their land-lords and in turn get huge presents in the form of clothes, cash and food.   “Onathallu” is a favorite sport for the occasion. This is the wrestling competition.  The participants get rewarded by the head of the house.  Dressed in white cloth,  done up Kerala  style with a short sleeved blouse and neatly coiled tresses decked with flowers and henna dyed feet buxom  beauties dance with a twist and turn with melodious music called Kummiattam. This set in charming rural simplicity is bewitching to Visitors to Kerala during this period.
All these external expression of merriment and hilarity and customs has an everlasting effect of bringing the sense of oneness among the people. Creativeness of the various talents in the grown-ups finds a new thrust. The bright side of life gets enough exposure.  Man thus learns his lesson of Unity in Diversity.  It is indeed a joyous occasion to watch local bards and the womenfolk in Kerala go about in this season, from house to house, singing and dancing the glory of the Lord.  For a spiritual thinker Mahaabali in Sanskrit means great sacrifice. This day calls for a sacrifice on the part of every individual to keep the society happy drawing inspiration from the noble life of the King Mahaabali.

1)      Mukundan, T.K., A Concept of Hinduism, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.
2)      Swami Nityanad, Syumbolism in Hinduism, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai, India.


(Courtesy: Reading Corner)
The festival has two specific significances. One, it is the celebration of the harvest, tied with the memory of the golden age of prosperity. Secondly and most importantly, it is believed to commemorate the Mahabali legend.
India is a land of diverse religions and every state of the country witnesses the celebration of varied festivals. Onam is one such important festival and is celebrated in the months of August-September in the state of Kerala. In Kerala, Onam sees a three-day celebration and is the state festival. Onam has been a part of Malayalee psyche for centuries. The earliest record of the festival is found during the reign of Kulasekhara Perumal  around AD 800.
The festival has two specific significances. One, it is the celebration of the harvest, tied with the memory of the golden age of prosperity. It is believed that during those days the whole of Chingam (the month of Malayalee calendar that corresponds to the August- September time of Gregorian calendar) was celebrated as Onam season. After the rain-drenched month of Karkidakam (July-August), with its deprivations, Chingam was welcomed with much enthusiasm by the people in the state of Kerala. The festival is the harbinger of spring — signaling the start of the harvest season. Onam epitomizes the newfound vigor and enthusiasm of the season, and is celebrated with traditional fervor with visits to temples, family get-togethers, gifting of clothes to all family members i.e. Onam Kodi.
 Secondly and most importantly, it is believed to commemorate the Mahabali legend. The people of Kerala observe the occasion in honour of Mahabali, the mythical Asura king of ancient Kerala. The story of King Mahabali is found in the Bhagavata Purana (also known as Srimad Bhagavatam), the most sacred Hindu text. According to it, long long ago there lived King Mahabali,  a powerful demon who ruled the nether world (underworld).
 Bali, or rather King Mahabali, was very strong and extremely pious. Powered by a boon granted to him by Lord Brahma, Bali was invincible and even gods failed to defeat him in battles. He had conquered the whole earth and became its master. Soon Mahabali became a threat to the Gods by his position and huge popularity among his subjects. Once he went to war with Lord Indra, the king of demigods. A fierce battle followed whereupon Mahabali, the King of Asuras, defeated Indra and proceeded to occupy Indra's territory.
 Having defeated the Indra and the other gods, Bali became the King of Heaven. Thus, he rose to be the undisputed ruler of all the three worlds. Violence was inflicted upon the Devas (demigods). To save themselves, the demigods collectively approached Lord Vishnu and asked for his help. Aditi, the mother of Lord Indra, was very much upset over her son's defeat at the hand of the demon king. On the advice of Kashyapa, her husband, Aditi prayed to Lord Narayana and observed a special ritual (Payovrata) with utmost sincerity. Pleased with Aditi's devotion, Lord Vishnu appeared before her and informed her that he would himself place a child in her womb and help Indra. Later, on the 12th day of the bright half of the month of Bhadrapada, Aditi gave birth to a son of uncommon effulgence. That child, known as Vamana, was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Even when Vamana was a child, he demonstrated his divine powers by doing marvellous deeds.

Now, there was another side to Bali's character. Though a demon by birth, he rejoiced in doing good deeds and giving alms to the poor. No person coming to his door ever left empty-handed.
Once, while performing the sacrificial rite of Viswajith Yagna or Aswamedha Yagna on the banks of Narmada River, Bali declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yagna. Vamana, a young man by this time, was waiting just for this opportunity. He went to the place where Mahabali was observing the ritual. Once he reached there, he was warmly welcomed by Mahabali who received him with all traditional honors and gave him an eminent seat befitting the status of a holy person. Bali was already warned by his spiritual master that the boy was actually Lord Vishnu and that he would not promise the lad anything. But Bali was a king and a man of honor. He was not a one to go back on his word. In spite of his master's warning, Bali promised to Vamana to fulfill whatever he desired.
The small-statured Brahmin demanded three paces of ground measured by his own foot. Bali boasted that he would surely deliver it. He asked Vamana to measure the three feet of land as desired by him. At once, the little Vamana started to grow in size. He grew and grew until he towered above the heavens. With one foot, he measured all of the earth. With the other, he claimed all of the heaven. There was still one foot of territory that Bali owed him. There was no place for his third step. Bali surrendered his head and asked him to step on it so that the Lord could have some place to put his foot and he too could save his respect. Vishnu was pleased at the devotion of Mahabali. So he granted him rule over nether land. But Bali had a great affinity for his earthly kingdom. So he requested Lord Vishnu to allow him to visit his kingdom to see his people once a year. The Lord fulfilled this wish of Mahabali. He granted Mahabali the permission to visit his subjects once a year.
 Mahabali's rule was considered as the golden era of Kerala. It is said that the demon king had brought great peace and prosperity to the land. The people believe that Onam is the time when Mahabali comes to Kerala annually to see his subjects. Till today, the Keralites celebrate Onam festival to commemorate the memory of the great King Mahabali who gave everything to keep his promise. True to his name "Mahabali" (meaning Great Sacrifice), Bali fulfilled his name as the one who gave a great sacrifice for the sake of "Satya" (Truth).
This, in brief, is the history of the Onam festival. According to an alternate legend however, Onam is believed by many Malayalees to be the occasion when Parasurama visits Kerala. It is held to be the time when Parasurama recovered Kerala from the sea. All Keralites in the Morning prepare Onam-Pookkalam i.e. Floor Decorated with Flowers wear new clothes & then go to the Temple. In the afternoon all family members together have a good feast on banana leaves with 10 curries & 2 Payasam (Kheer). In the evening there is program in Temple like Kathakali. During the week there is a boat race in many places.
(A Kerala Version)