Onam is one of the most popular and favorite festival of Kerala. It is celebrated during the Chingam month of Malayalam calendar which is also the first month. Irrespective or caste and religion, everyone in Kerala celebrate this festival with pomp and grandeur. Onam festival lasts from four to ten days. The major activities during this festival include prayers and worshiping, recreational activities such as sports, combats, dancing and racing and grand feasting on the last day. Elaborate decorations and celebrations are an essential part of this festival.
Onam festival is being celebrated in Kerala since centuries and the earliest records are found during A.D 800 when it was celebrated in the time of Kulasekkhara Perumals. The political history of Kerala is not known till the eighth century but it is generally said to have been ruled by the Kalabhras. Kalabhras probably mean Keralaputras who were mostly people of the Mahabali kingdom.
Onam festival has great significance in Kerala as it coincides with the harvesting season during the month of August-September. According to the history of Onam, the entire month of Chingam was celebrated for the bountiful yield and prayers were offered to God after a year of hard work. Elaborate feasts, popularly known as Onam Sadhya, were prepared from this yield which made the grand feast of Onam on the last day. Onasadya include different types of onam foods. Over the years, Onam sadya recipes undergo through changes and there go the different variations of Onam recipes.
Onam and King Mahabali – The Story of Onam
Onam is also the celebration and remembrance of King Mahabali whose spirit is supposed to visit the people of Kerala during this festival. According to the Onam story, a long time ago, a demon king called Bali or Mahabali ruled the nether land. He was invincible in battles and wars and had conquered the earth with his power. Lord Bramha had blessed him with a boon and with that he defeated the Gods and occupied Lord Indra’s place in heaven. He had become the undisputed king of heaven, earth and the nether world.
The Gods feared his fame and were jealous of his strength and dominance. They approached Lord Vishnu and asked their help to curtail Mahabali’s powers. Lord Indra’s defeat at the hands of a demon king upset his mother Aditi and she prayed to Lord Narayana sincerely. Lord Vishnu appeared before her and placed a child in her womb to help Indra. The son born to Aditi known as Vamana was Lord Vishnu’s incarnation.
Although King Mahabali had conquered the Trilok (three worlds), he was a most benevolent and kind king. His subjects loved him dearly and he was known to be wise, judicious and extremely generous. He was known to grant boons to farmers and Brahmins and no person who ever came to him had left empty handed.
Years later, Vamana, now a young man presented himself before the king when the king had just finished a sacrificial rite and was giving boons to Brahmins. King Mahabali received him warmly with traditional honors befitting a Brahmin person and asked him his wishes. Vamana asked for three paces of land. Shukracharya, Mahabali’s scholarly adviser warned him that this Brahmin is not an ordinary man and advised him against fulfilling his wishes. But the king was a man of his words and he agreed to the Brahmin’s wishes.
As soon as the king granted him his wishes, Vamana increased his stature to such a massive size that he covered the entire earth with his one foot, his other foot claimed all of the heaven. Bali then offered his head for Vamana’s third step to save the earth from destruction. Pleased with Mahabali’s devotion, Lord Vishnu in the avatar of Vamana granted Mahabali to rule over the nether world. However, king Mahabali dearly loved his kingdom of Kerala and asked Lord Vishnu to allow him to visit his people once a year. Lord Vishnu granted his wish.
The Tradition of Onam Festival
People believe that it is during Onam that King Mahabali comes to visit his kingdom of Kerala and with elaborate celebrations, decorations and feasts they want to show him that they are truly happy and content and prosperous as they were in his reign.