Growing up in Kerala, the festival of Onam was not just a harvest festival for me, but an accumulation of everything I loved about my home state. I would avidly watch the “King Mahabali” story whenever it was played on TV. Onam Sandya, the feast with family on Thiruvonam (the main day of the festival), was a meal I anticipated for weeks! Not to mention the thrill of the Pookalam competition (intricate and colourful arrangement of flowers laid on the floor) at school with my classmates.
Before I continue down memory lane, let me provide a basic overview of Onam! The festival is based on the Hindu story of King Mahabali – a just and kind king who ruled a kingdom in the coastal backwaters (modern day Kerala) where everyone lived in prosperity, well being and happiness. There was no class discrimination or thievery, but equality and honesty throughout the land. The King’s popularity grew to an extent that the Gods became concerned that the King was better liked by his subjects than the deities! It came to Lord Vishnu to act on this concern.
Vishnu is one of the three principal gods (“Trimurti”) of Hinduism. He’s taken different forms or avatars in various ages to walk among humanity. In this story, Vishnu takes the form of Vamana, a short pious brahmin, and goes to King Mahabali to ask for a piece of land. When the generous King says Vamana can have as much land as needed, Vamana responds that he would only need three steps of land. As soon as the King agrees, Vamana grows in cosmic proportions. With his first step, Vamana (or Lord Vishnu) covers the world, and the second step covers the whole of the skies. Vamana then asks King Mahabali space for his third step. With folded hands, Mahabali kneels to Vamana, who he now recognized to be no ordinary man, to place his last step upon his head so that he can keep his promise.
Vishnu, in the form of Vamana, places his foot on the head of the King, and pushes him to Patala, the netherworld. Pleased with the King’s generosity, Lord Vishnu grants him the boon of allowing him to visit Kerala and his people once every year. Onam is the celebration by Malayalees (the people of Kerala) for King Mahabali’s homecoming every year. The land is said to bloom at this time every year as a celebration of his homecoming. The resulting flowers are picked and arranged in front of homes in colorful and intricate patterns called Pookalam. A huge feast is held at every home – with an open invitation for King Mahabali to come and feast with them of course 🙂
Though it started as a Hindu story, the festival of Onam has crossed religious borders and became a time to celebrate for all Keralites/Malayalees. Thus, even growing up in a Christian household in Kerala, Onam was a huge part of my childhood. It is reminiscent of Kerala’s agrarian past and considered to be a harvest festival. The festival falls in the Malayalam month of Chingam, which is between Aug-Sep. There are ten main days in the festival, with the final 10th day being Thiruvonam (roughly translated to “sacred onam day”). The whole home is cleaned for Thiruvonam, alms are distributed to the needy, and a huge vegetarian feast is held on banana leaves with rice and up to 26 side dishes.
The date for Thiruvonam changes each year due to alignment of the Malayalam calendar with our modern Gregorian calendar, but this year it’s on September 7th – today!!
So Happy Onam everyone! Or as we would say in Malayalam – Onam Ashamsakal! Have a huge feast, be kind to the needy, and if you’re in Kerala – keep a lookout for King Mahabali 😉