Onam – 2009

So what is the most popular festival in God’s own Country. Yes, undoubtedly its Onam,  being an important festival of Kerala, it is celebrated in the beginning of the first month of Malayalam Calendar (Kolla Varsham) called Chingam. This month corresponds to Bhadrapada (August-September) of Hindu calendar.

kathakaliThe earliest record of the festival is found during the reign of Kulasekhara Perumals around AD 800. It has two specific significances. First it is the memory of community at large and celebration of past history as enunciated in the Mahabali legend – a story of how paradise was lost. Second it is the celebration of the harvest, tied with the memory of the golden age of prosperity.

It is believed that there once lived a wise and generous demon king, Mahabali. He was highly regarded by his subjects and everybody was happy in in his kingdom.

Gods felt challenged with the growing popularity of Mahabali. They seeked help from Lord Vishnu who was worshiped by King Mahabali. Lord Vishnu took the avatar of a poor and dwarf Brahmin, called Vamana and came to the kingdom of Mahabali just after his morning prayers, when the King gave boons to the Brahmin.

The disguised Lord Vishnu asked for as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King made a promise to do so. Suddenly, Vamana increased to a massive size. With his one step he covered the whole of the sky and with the other he covered the whole of earth. He then asked for a place to put his third step. King realised that the boy was no ordinary Brahmin and asked Vamana to to put his third step on his head.

The boy did so, pushing Mahabali in the nether world, the patala. For the devotion of this Daitya Mahabali, Lord Vishnu (Vamana) granted him rule over Patala. Vamana aka Vishnu granted Bali the boon that he would hold the position of Indra for one Manvantara , thus fulfilling his devotee’s desire ( the office of Indra being a rotating position , changing every Manvantara ). It is this homecoming of King Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam every year. As a last wish Mahabali was granted the permission to visit his subjects once a year. Thus, Keralites celebrate Onam festival to commemorate the memory of a Great King Mahabali who would keep his promise. Mahabali fulfilled his name as the great martyr for the sake of Truth (“Satya”). The name “Mahabali” itself means Great Sacrifice.

The most important things about Onam are the onakkodi, the new clothes worn on this day and onam sadya, a feast which is quite elaborate. This is usually a feast served on banana leaves and serves rice along with at least an array of 4 dishes. Traditional pickles and papadam are also served. Dessert is usually ‘payasam’, a sweet dish made of milk, sugar and other traditional Indian savories.

Onam Activities
During Onam, people create a multi-coloured floral decoration on the ground in the front of their home called pookkalam. Young children especially girls are often entrusted with the task of gathering and laying out the flowers in elaborate patterns. Competitions are held on onam day to create this floral design. It is usually 1.5 m in Diameter usually in circular shape. A lamp is usually placed as part of the design. In the recent years, the floral designs have evoloved from the traditional circular shape to unique designs depicting different cultural and social aspects of Kerala life.

onambotraceThe Vallamkali (the snake boat race) is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. About 100 oarsmen row huge and graceful snake boats and men and women come from far and near to watch the snake boats skim through the water.

During the Onam, Keralite Hindus install an image of Thrikkakara Appan (Vishnu in the form of Vamana) in their home just as Hindus install images or murtis of Lord Ganesh on the Ganesh Chaturi festival.

This festival is also important because of its popularity with all communities within Kerala. Although the festival of Onam originated with, and is connected to the Hindu religion, it is celebrated today with equal fervour by the Hindus, Muslims and Christians of Kerala.

Many lamps are lit in Hindu temples of Kerala during this celebration.A palmyra tree is erected in front of temples and surrounded with a wooden balustrade and covered with dry palmyra leaves. It is lit with a torch and burned to ashes to signify that Mahabali went to hell as a sacrifice

The 2009 Onam falls on 2nd September.

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