Legendary King Mahabali once ruled Kerala and had sacrificed everything to make his people prosperous and happy. To this day he is remembered for his magnanimity as the 10-day Onam festival is celebrated
WORDS: MADHURI. Y
Onam is one of the biggest cultural festivals of Kerala celebrated to commemorate the Vamana (dwarf) avatar of Lord Vishnu.
A festival of elaborate colours and rituals, the flower carpet or ‘Pookalam’ is the cynosure of all eyes. Women are attired in traditional sarees called “Mundum Neriyathum” while men in dhotis wear brocaded angavastram over their shoulders.
The first day of Onam starts with an early bath and prayers. The floral decorations continue leading up to Onam festival or Thiruvonam. Lots of cooking take place culminating in a grand feast called Onam Sadya. In Thrikkakara Temple (temple for Vamana) Onam Sadya is served daily with thousands participating in this feast.
This is one of the cultural festivals in India which has plenty of events like grand processions, boat racing and Kaikottikali (one of the most famous group dances of Kerala performed by women).
Onam is derived from the Sanskrit word Shravanam, which is one of the 27 stars and is called Thiruvonam nakshatra in Kerala. “Thiru” refers to Lord Vishnu and Thiruvonam is the day when Lord Vishnu sent the great king Mahabali to the underworld placing his foot on the king’s head.
This year the festival falls in the Chingam month (the first month of the year) of the Kerala calendar and begins on August 25 and goes on till September 4.
To some, Onam is a religious festival; for others, it is a harvest festival. It is believed that King Mahabali ruled from Kerala and Onam celebrates his return each year to the land. The first day marks the welcome to the King who is believed to meet his people on the second day.
Courtyards are plastered with dung and mounds of earth that look like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vamana.
The 10 days of celebrations begin with Atham, the first day, then Chithram, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradam, and ends with Thiruvonam. Of these, Atham and Thiruvonam are important.
Beautiful flower arrangements, called onapookalam or pookalam are made in temple premises and at other entrances. Lamps are placed in the centre and at the edges and an umbrella placed over the arrangement. On Atham, only yellow flowers are used in a simple circular design. With each day, the pookalam’s size increases. Traditionally, 10 varieties of flowers were used.
Dance forms traditional to Kerala, including the Thiruvathira, Kummattikali, Pulikali, Thumbi Thullal, Onam Kali as well as Kathakali are performed. Women perform the Thiruvathira in a circle around a lamp. Kummattikali is performed by dancers in colourful masks. In Thrissur, these dancers go in a procession along with elephants. For Onam Kali, dancers arrange themselves in circles around a pole, a tree or a lamp, dancing and singing songs from the epics.
People painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance the Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali. The Theyyam dance too is part of Onam.
Vallamkali, the snake boat race, is part of Onam celebrations. Particularly well-known are the races held on the Pampa river, the famous one being in Aranmula.
Onam sadya marks the harvest festival with a lunch on Thiruvonam, the last day. Seasonal vegetables like yam, cucumber and ash gourd, among others are used to prepare a nine-course meal that is served on plantain leaves along with the traditional boiled Kerala rice. The full meal can include fried banana wafers, fried banana pieces coated in jaggery, papad, soups, vegetables and lentils, pickles and chutneys. Traditional dishes like thoran, mezhukkupuratti, kaalan, olan, avial, sambhar, erisheri, moloshyam,
rasam, puliseri, kichadi, pachadi and moru are part of the meal, ending with payasam for dessert.
The eleventh and twelfth days, that is, the two days after Thiruvonam are celebrated as third and fourth Onam. Avvittom, the eleventh day signifies Mahabali rising to heaven. On this day, the Onathappan statue, that is, Mahabali’s statue, which is surrounded by flower arrangements throughout the festival, is immersed in water and the flower arrangements are removed. Thrissur is famous for Pulikali, with men in lion masks, dancing through the city on this day. On Chatayam, the 12th day, all celebrations end.
Mahabali, who was Prahlada’s son, defeats the devas and begins to rule the three worlds. The devas then approach Lord Vishnu, but he refuses to help since Mahabali was not only a just ruler, but also his devotee.
Lord Vishnu comes down as Vamana, a dwarf boy, to test Mahabali’s devotion. Mahabali was performing a yajna and was known to grant any request made during the yajna. Vamana refuses all other material gifts and asks for just enough space for him to place three of his footsteps.
The king’s advisor, Shukracharya advises him against granting the wish, but the king chooses not to go back on his word. When Mahabali agrees, Vamana grows to a tremendous size and in one step, covers the entire earth and in the second step, he covers the entire sky. With nothing left to offer, Mahabali offers himself and Lord Vishnu places his foot on Mahabali’s head, pressing him down to the netherworld, that is, pataal.
He also offers him a boon that the king can visit his lands every year. This is celebrated as Onam, marking his just rule and his humility. King Mahabali is also called Maveli or Onathappan in Kerala.