The harvest festival of Kerala, Onam, falls on Shravan day in the month of August or September. After a lush harvest, Onam is the time for the farmers to celebrate the bounties of nature and make merry. Like most festivals of India, Onam too has a legend associated with it.
The story goes: A long time ago an Asura king named Mahabali ruled Kerala. He was dearly loved by his subjects and was known to be a just and wise ruler. His popularity soon spread far and wide. Mahabali, however, incurred the wrath of the gods when, besides earth, he extended his rule to the heavens and the nether world. Indra, the king of gods, did not appreciate the growing power of the asura king. The gods approached Lord Vishnu the preserver in the Hindu trinity — to help them out of the situation and to curb the growing power of the asura king. Lord Vishnu in the guise of Vamana (a brahmin dwarf) approached Mahabali for alms. Now Mahabali was a very generous man. He told Vamana to ask for anything. The Vamana asked for three paces of land and the king agreed to it.
Immediately the Vamana increased his size, till he grew as big as the universe. And with one step he covered the earth. With the second step he covered the heaven and the nether world. He did not have any land to place the third step. Mahabali, who was a man of principles, offered his head as the third step. And the Vamana placed the third step on Mahabali’s head and sent him to nether world. However before placing the final step, Mahabali was granted a boon. Mahabali was allowed to return to his country once a year and visit his people. And Onam is the day when Mahabali comes to visit his people. In memory of the happy days of Mahabali’s rule, a grateful Kerala celebrates his annual home-coming with all the pomp and grandeur it can command.
The glory of those ancient times is recaptured in a popular folk song, which is sung all over Kerala:
When Mahabali ruled the land
Everyone was equal
Happily they lived
Danger befell none
There was no falsehood, or fraud
And no untruth
Onam basically celebrates the mythical king Mahabali, his golden rule and his sacrifice. It welcomes the spirit of King Mahabali and assures him that his people are happy and wish him well.
Ten days of feasting, boat races, songs and dance are part of the festivities. Pookalam or floral decoration at the entrance of each house marks each day. Earthen mounds, which look like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vishnu are also placed in the dung-plastered courtyards. After traditional prayers and worship, the head of the household presents new clothes to the family and friends. This is followed by a lavish feast.
Dancing and sports also takes precedence this week. Certain dances like Kaikotikalli, are traditionally associated with Onam. Caparisoned elephants in spectacular procession, fireworks are also an integral part of the festivities. The Vallamkalli or the boat race is another event that is synonymous with Onam and is best seen at Aranmulla and Kottayam. 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.
This festival is also important because of its secular character. It is celebrated with equal fervour by the Hindus, Muslims and Christians.