Onam is the state festival of Kerala. It is celebrated in honour of Mahabali, the mythical Asura king of ancient Kerala. Malayalees believe that on Onam day Bali visits his subjects. This harvest festival falls in August / September.
Onam has been part of Malayalee psyche for centuries. There are records of Onam being celebrated during the Sangam Age. The earliest record of the festival is found during the reign of Kulasekhara Perumals around AD 800. Onam has two specific significances. First it is the memory of community at large and celebration of past history as enunciated in the Mahabali legend – a story of how paradise was lost. Second 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 was celebrated as Onam season. After the rain-drenched month of Karkidakam, with its privations, Chingam is a welcome month for people in the state of Kerala. The festival is the harbinger of spring — signalling the start of the harvest season. Onam epitomises the newfound vigour and enthusiasm of the season, and is celebrated with traditional fervour with visits to temples, family get-togethers, gifting of clothes called Onakkodi and lots of merrymaking. The Keralites perform the Mohiniattam Dance, dedicated to the female form of Vishnu Mohini. There is also the Krishnanaattam dance. Many Keralites also worship Narayani. Sri Narayani Peedam and Sri Bangaru Adigalar of Kerala and their followers claim that these two figures are a forms or avatars of the goddess Sri Narayani. Thiruvathira kali is another dance form performed at the time of onam.Onam is celebrated with flower,and sadhya(Kerala food).The flowers are decorated on the floor to welcome Mahabali
Kashyapa had two wives, Diti and Aditi, who were the parents of demons and demigods (Asuras and Devas) respectively. Indra, the king of demigods, went to war with the king of Asuras. Mahabali, the King of Asuras, defeated Indra and proceeded to occupy Indra's territory. Kashyapa, who had gone to the Himalayas to do penance, on his return found Aditi weeping over the defeat of her son, Indra. By divine insight, Kashyapa recognised the cause of grief. Kashyapa tried to console Aditi who was wailing in grief, saying that nothing happens in the world without God's will and people should go on doing their duties. Kashyapa asked Aditi to pray to Lord Narayana and taught her Payovrata, a ritual that has to be observed from the 12th day of the bright half of Karthika (Sukla-paksha Dvadasi). Since Aditi carried out the Vrata with a pious heart, Lord Narayana 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, "Vamana-murti", demonstrated his divine powers by doing marvellous deeds even when he was a child.
Balichakravarthi (Bali, The Emperor) or Mahabali, was the grandson of Prahlad (son of Hiranyakashipu who met Vishnu in his Narasimha Avatar. Prahalad, despite being an Asura, had great faith in Vishnu. One cannot miss the series of warfare between Vishnu and the Asuras - those born of the breath of God. Bali Maharaj, sat in Prahlad's lap as a child and learnt love and devotion of Lord Vishnu from Prahlad.
Mahabali's rule was considered as the golden era of Kerala. The celebration of Onam resounds and chants the following song all over Kerala:
When Maveli, our King, ruled the land, All the people had equality.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Death of the children was never even heard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbor.
When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless race.
The gods were very annoyed as Bali became the ruler of all the three worlds having defeated the Devas. Violence was inflicted upon the Devas. The gods approached Vishnu and asked for his help them. Mahabali, who was performing the sacrificial rite of Viswajith Yagna or Aswamedha Yagna on the banks of Narmada River, declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yagna. He Vishnu, incarnated in the form of Vamana, a dwarf to defeat the Daityas.
Vamana came to the Yaga-shala. As he was approaching them, the sages assembled there perceived the extraordinary effulgence form of the young lad. Mahabali went forth to receive the Brahmin boy with all traditional honours and gave him an eminent seat befitting the status of a holy person. Bali with the usual courtesy given to the people who come to ask for help told him Master! It is my good fortune that you have chosen to honour me with your presence. Whatever you desire, I am here ready to fulfill the same. Vamana smiled and said: "You need not give me anything great. It is enough if you give me that extend of land covered by three footsteps of mine".
On hearing him, Bali's preceptor, the Brahmin Shukracharya (a Daitya priest) who had vision of the future told Bali that the one, who had come to take alms from Bali was not an ordinary Brahmin but Lord Narayana Himself who had assumed this form. He advised Bali not to promise the lad anything. But Bali was a king who would never go back on his word. He told his Guru that he would never break his promise as it was a sin. Shukracharya insisted that he should not fulfill the demand of Vamana as he had come to deprive Bali of all his possessions.
Bali, however, was determined to honour the word given to Vamana, begged pardon of his Guru for disregarding his advice. Earlier, while Bali was embarking on the war with Indra, he had prostrated at the feet of his preceptor, Shukracharya, and on his advice he performed the Vishwajit Yagna from which he secured very powerful weapons. It was only because of Shukracharya's help that he was able to conquer Indra. On this occasion, Bali was not prepared to heed the advice of the same preceptor. Shukracharya cursed Bali, saying: 'As you have not heeded your Guru's words, you will be reduced to ashes'. Bali was firm and replied: 'I am prepared to face any consequence but will not go back on my word'.
Saying so, he asked Vamana to measure the three feet of land as desired by him. All attempts of Shukracharya to dissuade Bali from offering the land desired by Vamana proved futile. Bali considered everyone who came to him as god himself and never refused anyone anything that they have asked. Bali told his Guru: "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 that 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." Bali boasted that even in Vishnu himself were to come to his sacrifice and ask for anything, Bali would deliver it.
Vamana grew in size 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. Bali asked to place the final step on his head as the third step of land which Lord Vamana had asked for as alms. Vamana placed the third step on the head of Bali and suppressed him to Patala, the underworld. For the devotion of this Daitya Mahabali, Lord Vishnu (Vamana) granted him rule over Patala. Vamana aka Vishnu granted Bali the boon that he would hold the position of Indra for one Manvantara , thus fulfilling his devotee's desire (the office of Indra being a rotating position , changing every Manvantara ) .
As a last wish Mahabali was granted the permission to visit his subjects once a year. Thus, Keralites celebrate Onam festival to commemorate the memory of a Great King Mahabali who would keep his promise. Mahabali fulfilled his name as the great martyr for the sake of Truth ("Satya"). The name "Mahabali" itself means Great Sacrifice.
During Onam, the feast and festive mood of the people, dressed in their best, is considered reminiscent of the prosperous and truthful life of the subjects during Bali's flawless reign. People wear new clothes (Vastra) during Onam. The 'Vastra' also stands for heart. Thus the significance of wearing new clothes is about making the heart new by removing all bad thoughts and feelings. People forgetting their sectarian outlooks, join together to welcome the auspicious 'Thiruvonam' day.
The celebrations of Onam start on Atham day, 10 days before onam. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vishnu are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house and beautifully decorated with flowers. Known as ‘Onapookkalam’, it is a carpet made out of the gathered blossoms with one or two varieties of foliage of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to serve the decorator's purpose. It is a beautiful work of art accomplished with a delicate touch and a highly artistic sense of tone and blending. (In a similar manner North Indians make something called "Rangoli" which is made of powders of various colors.) When completed, a miniature pandal, hung with little festoons is erected over it.
The important part of the festival opens in some localities on Thiruvonam day and in others on the previous day known as Utradam. On Thiruvonam day, King Mahabali is believed to visit every Malayalee home and meet his people. Houses are cleaned and decorated with flowers and traditional lamps. A fabulous display of fireworks turns the capital Thiruvananthapuram into a veritable fairyland. Sumptuous feasts are prepared in every household. The eldest member of each family presents clothes to all the members of the family. Even the poorest of the poor manage to find something for himself to celebrate the national festival in his own humble way.
Onam comes in the month of "Chingam" according to the Malayalam calendar. People put flower mats in front of their houses, to welcome King Mahabali. There will be competition for the laying of flower mats; Keralites all over the world will be celebrating this ten days with pomp and gaiety. They wear new dresses, visit as many temples as they can, perform dances like Thiruvathira kali Thumbi Tullal etc. to name a few. The most important thing is the grand lunch on the Thiuruvonam day, which is also called the Second Onam. Whatever may happen they will not miss the Grand lunch (sadya). There is a saying in Malayalam that "Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam" which means "We should have the Thiruvonam lunch even if we have to sell all our properties" which shows the importance of the grand lunch on the Thiruvonam day.
Onam is celebrated with a focus on different cultural aspects at different places. Athachamayam- a cultural procession takes place in the royal town of Tripunithura near Ernakulam-Kochi, on the Atham day of Chingam, which also marks the beginning of Onam celebrations. At the Vamanamoorthy temple in Thrikkakara, the annual temple festival coincides with Onam. The temple is dedicated to Vamana|Lord Vamana and is directly linked to the mythological background of Onam.
The celebrations begin within a fortnight of the Malayalam New Year and go on for ten days. The last day called the Thiruvonam is the most important. All over the state, rituals along with new clothes, traditional cuisine, dance, and music mark this harvest festival.
In Thrissur, a vibrant procession with resplendently caparisoned elephants is taken out while at Cheruthuruthy, people gather to watch Kathakali performers enact scenes from epics and folk tales. Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. Performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and thakil.
The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappaattu, or Onam songs, and rock one another on swings slung from high branches.
The most important things about Onam are the onakkodi, the new clothes worn on this day and onam sadya, a feast which is quite elaborate. This is usually a feast served on banana leaves and serves rice along with at least an array of 4 dishes. Traditional pickles and papadam are also served. Dessert is usually 'payasam', a sweet dish made of milk, sugar and other traditional Indian savories.
During Onam, people create a multi-coloured floral decoration on the ground in the front of their home called pookkalam. Young children especially girls are often entrusted with the task of gathering and laying out the flowers in elaborate patterns. Competitions are held on onam day to create this floral design. It is usually 1.5 m in Diameter usually in circular shape. A lamp is usually placed as part of the design. In the recent years, the floral designs have evoloved from the traditional circular shape to unique designs depicting different cultural and social aspects of Kerala life.
The Vallamkali (the snake boat race) is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. About 100 oarsmen row huge and graceful snake boats and men and women come from far and near to watch the snake boats skim through the water.
During the Onam, Keralite Hindus install an image of Thrikkakara Appan (Vishnu in the form of Vamana) in their home just as Hindus install images or murtis of Lord Ganesh on the Ganesh Chaturi festival.
This festival is also important because of its popularity with all communities within Kerala. Although the festival of Onam originated with, and is connected to the Hindu religion, it is celebrated today with equal fervour by the Hindus, Muslims and Christians of Kerala.
Many lamps are lit in Hindu temples of Kerala during this celebration. A palmyra tree is erected in front of temples and surrounded with a wooden balustrade and covered with dry palmyra leaves. It is lit with a torch and burned to ashes to signify that Mahabali went to hell as a sacrifice.
Lot of questions has been asked why Lord Vishnu punished mahabali, who like his grandfather (Prahlada), was one of the greatest devotees of Lord Vishnu (Bali became the greatest) on Earth as he sacrificed his kingdom for the Lord.
Even though at a glance we think Mahabali was punished for his good deeds, the reverse is the case.Mahabali got the blessings from Lord Vishnu for being remembered for eternity by way of Onam. He also got the opportunity to keep his head under Lord Vishnu's holy feet thus all his sins were wiped away by Lord Vishnu.