Some Onam Thoughts

 Onam was my most favourite festival in my childhood.It is the favourite festival for most people of Kerala too. Why?
Is it because it is the time when we as children get new dressess?
Is it because of the 10 days of holidays we get to play and roam around?
Is it because of the 10 days of Pookalams [floral carpets] that we used to arrange on Onam days?
Is it because of the Onam feasts which may last for 3 to 4 days with some delicious preparations?
Is it because of the celebrations we used to have in campuses in the form of contests and cultural programmes?
Is it because of the 4 days of special programmes in Radio/TV?
Is it because of the Onam special editions of  newspapers and periodicals which will showcase the best works of  writers of Kerala?
Is it because of the yearly re-union of most of the family members?

On this Uthradam day morning [ Uthradam in the month of Chingam is considered as the first Onam day]  my thoughts were wandering around these questions.


Mahabali was supposed to be the grandson of Prahlad (son of Hiranyakashipu who was slain by Vishnu in his Narasimha Avataram). Prahlad, though an Asura, was a great devotee of Vishnu. Mahabali learned the love and devotion of Vishnu from Prahlad.
Mahabali became a great emperor and conquered all the ‘three’ Worlds.The ‘Devas’ did not like an Asura King conquering the World.They approached Vishnu and he came to the earth as ‘Vamana’.
Mahabali was performing the sacrificial rite of the Ashwamedha Yagam. He  declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yagam. Vamana asked for an extend of land covered by his 3 foot steps. Mahabali agreed.
Vamana grew in size until he towered above the heavens. With one footstep, he measured all of the earth. With the second, he claimed all of heaven. There was still one foot of territory that Mahabali owed him. Mahabali requested Vamana to place the final step on his head as the third step of land, for he had no other left. Vamana did so and in doing so, pushed him down to Patala, the underworld.
As a last gift, Mahabali was granted permission by Vishnu to visit his subjects once a year. Thus, Keralites celebrate the Onam festival to commemorate the memory of the Great King Mahabali who would keep his promise to visit. Mahabali fulfilled his name as the great martyr for the sake of Truth (“Satya”). The name “Mahabali” itself means Great Sacrifice.


There is mention of Onam celebrations in Sangham Literature dating back to 300 BC. Many European and Arab travellers who came to Kerala between 500 and 1500 AD have mentioned Onam celebrations in their travelogues.
Even though the legend of Mahabali is well known throughout India, the yearly return of the King is never celebrated anywhere else in India.Why?
Was it because Mahabali ruled only in Kerala?
No explanations is readily available from history or mythology.

The folk songs of Onam describes the rule of Mahabali like this.

When Maveli  ruled the land,
All the people were equal.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
There were no illnesses.
Death of the children was never even heard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated others.
When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people were equal.

Did such an utopian rule by a King ever exisited in Kerala?

Most probably a popular King of Kerala must have been defeated  [may be by treachery] by a conquerer from other part of India.The new rulers must have connected it to the Vamana legend so as to legitimise their rule.

Is Onam celebrations a protest against Vishnu’s action of dethroning a benevolent ruler?

The pyramid shaped idols made of mud/wood that is put up in front of most of the houses of Kerala on Thiruvonam day is called Thrikakara Appan.It is generally believed that Trikakara Appan is Vamana The temple at Thrikakara is a Vamana Moorthy temple.Many believe that the idols were originally meant to be that of Mahabail. The new Rulers who de throned Mahabali might have changed the rituals.The spread of Brahmanical Hinduism may have slowly changed the practice of offering ‘pooja’ to Mahabali to that of offering ‘pooja’ to Vamana,the original ‘villain’of the myth. It is also said that originally Thrikakara temple was a Buddhist shrine.

 It is believed that Mahabali will visit each and every home in Kerala on that day.So the houses are cleaned,new dresses are worn and beautiful floral designs are put up in front of each and every house to welcome him. So certainly Mahabali is the hero here,receiving a hero’s welcome from his country men.

Onam can thus be called a festival celebrating sub-nationalism of Malayalam speaking people of India. Is this the reason why Hindu Nationalistic organisations like RSS always downplays Onam? They always try to project Sri Krishna Jayanthi and Ganesholtsvam in Kerala which occurs around the same time,which are mainly North/West Indian festivals unheard of in Kerala before 1970s.

So why I like Onam so much?

Onam is a colorful festival in many ways. It is more of a celebration of life than most other festivals. It is not related to a religion as such but to a region. It was closely related to agriculture and harvest. It has a powerful mythology behind it. It is mostly about reminiscenes of a real or imaginary past in which Kerala was an utopian land with everybody happy and contented.



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