Onam is the biggest festival celebrated by Hindus in the Southern state of Kerala. It falls in the first month of the Malayalam calendar, Chingam, which is usually August-September time. It reminisces Kerala’s agrarian past and so is referred to as the harvest festival. It is celebrated with great pomp in Kerala and by Malayalee Hindus all over the world, with Onam festivities incorporating a wide range of cultural elements.
Being a proud Malayalee, Onam is a time in the year I look forward to greatly. Having been able to celebrate it in my native hometown of Thiruvananthapuram from an early age, I have seen the importance the festival holds for Malayalee Hindus. So what is the story of Onam? Disclaimer: The story of Onam is one of my favourite stories told by my grandma as I was growing up, so please forgive the five year old in me as I recount the story the way she would say it!
There once lived a great King called Mahabali. All the people loved him in his kingdom, as he was a fair and just ruler. The land flourished under his rule and everyone lived prosperous lives due to his generosity. So loved was he that people would worship him as if he were God. Whatever his people asked for, King Mahabali would provide for them. When the Gods witnessed this adoration from above, they wanted to test Mahabali and so turned to Lord Vishnu, who the King was a great devotee of. Lord Vishnu decided to test whether King Mahabali was true to his word. He sought to give Mahabali an impossible request that would prove to his people that their King was not God-worthy. He came down to Earth disguised as a Brahmin dwarf, his Vamanan avatar.
Vamanan went to the King and asked him to give him land worth three of his steps. Mahabali, not realising Vamanan was Lord Vishnu himself, accepted the request. As Vamanan took one step he covered all of the Earth. With his second, Vamanan covered the Universe with no room left for the third. Mahabali soon realised that Vamanan was no ordinary man, but the Lord he so greatly worshipped. Without thinking, he knelt before Vamanan and offered him to take his third step on Mahabali’s own head. While Vamanan placed his foot on Mahabali’s head, the King started to go down into the Earth. Lord Vishnu knew that Mahabali would stay true to his word and would not deceive anyone. Before being completely removed from the Earth, King Mahabali asked to come back and see his people once a year and Lord Vishnu gladly agreed to the King’s request. This annual visit by Mahabali is what Malayalee Hindus celebrate as Onam today.
The festival of Onam lasts for ten days and it is the final day – Thiruvonam – that marks the return of Mahabali to Kerala, as per the boon he received from Vamanan, to meet his beloved people. Preparations start very early as people clean their houses, apply pookalam, a rangoli type flower decoration outside their houses, and wear new traditional clothing to welcome their much loved King. Onasadhya, a traditional Keralan meal is served on banana leaves. This meal constitutes of at least 26 dishes and each dish has its own significant place on the leaf. Women dance Thiruvathira Kali, men take part in the annual boat race and the story of Onam is reenacted through a Kathakali performance.
This year Thiruvonam falls on 14 September 2016.
NHSF (UK) would like to wish all Malayalee Hindus a very happy and prosperous Onam!
– Author: PR Team