Onam, one of the most important festival in Kerala is celebrated to enjoy the beginning of the harvesting season. It’s a 10-day long festival. The 1st day is Atham, but the most important day is the 10th day also known as Thiruvonam. It’s a festival, which is celebrated and enjoyed across all the communities in Kerala. It is believed to be celebrated with grandeur to welcome the Legendary King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala on this day. Onam brings back so many fond memories of my childhood during which we used to celebrate this mostly in Kerala with our family and relatives.
At the first blush of the morning, I remember my mother waking up my brother and me; looking beautiful in a traditional Kerala set saree (2 piece pure cotton cloth with pure gold lining on the border, worn like a half saree) with the ever-fragrant Mullapoo (Jasmine flowers) on her wet hair and adorning the traditional Kerala jewelry. Once we were up, we had to get ready in our traditional attire and go to the local temple for morning prayers…and then came the fun part ….to run to our beautiful flower garden, to pluck flowers of different colors and sizes. These flowers were then used to make Pookallam (Flower designs) in the front yard.
My mother and aunts were mostly busy in the kitchen making Onam Sadhya (Typical Kerala feast with 11 – 13 vegetarian dishes served on a banana leaf). I used to wait to eat the Sadhya even though it was quite a mouthful for my tiny tummy…but the best part was Payasam (Sweet rice or gram lentil pudding).
Post the grand lunch came some fun games with family called Onakalikal (games like ball games, archery, Kabaddi, chess etc.).
Ladies of the house would gracefully dance Kaikottikalli (Traditional Kerala folk dance with rhythmic and symmetrical dance which involves clapping of hands) in the front yard. We cousins never missed a chance to see the famous Vallam Kali (Boat race) that was conducted in our village.
Grandmother often told us to be happy and strictly warned us against any kind of sibling rivalry as King Mahabali would come and visit us. That created curiosity amongst us and thus she would often begin telling the story of why we celebrate Onam.
The story goes that the Asura (demon) King Mahabali once ruled the beautiful state of Kerala. Unlike other Asuras, the King was extremely generous. It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali. There was no discrimination between rich, poor, caste or creed. There was neither crime, nor corruption. People did not even lock their doors, as there were no thieves in that kingdom.
Looking at the growing popularity and fame of King Mahabali the Gods under the leadership of Lord Indra became extremely concerned and jealous. They collectively pleaded with Lord Vishnu, who agreed to help them. Disguised as Vamana, Vishnu visited King Mahabali. He pretended that he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land. The generous King said he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted enough land that could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed.
With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the other step he covered the whole sky. He then asked King Mahabali where is the space for him to keep his third foot??
The King realized that he was no ordinary Brahmin and his third step will destroy the earth. Mahabali with folded hands bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise. The Brahmin placed his foot on the head of the King, which pushed him to Patala, the nether world.
The King was so much attached with his Kingdom and people that he requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year and thus his wish was granted by Lord Vishnu.
After so many years …now being a mother myself, I want my kids to enjoy and cherish all the wonderful moments of celebrating Onam. Things have changed though…like wearing plastic flowers on our hair, plastic flower arrangements, eating our feast on a plastic banana leaf, to ordering the full course Sadhya meal online and showing the Mahabali story on Youtube. But the essence of Onam still remains the same ….Celebration, Happiness and Joy.
How I wish. …King Mahabali could visit us daily…So that we could all live in peace and harmony FOREVER…. Is it too much to ask???