Onam (Malayalam: ഓണം) is a harvest festival celebrated by Malayalees (people from the Indian state of Kerala ) all around the world. The festival commemorates the Vamana avatar of Vishnu and the subsequent annual homecoming of the legendary King Mahabali from the underworld (Patala). He is affectionately called as Maveli or Bali /Onathappan by Keralites. Onam is celebrated during the first Malayalam month of Chingam(August–September) and lasts for ten days starting on Atham and ending on Thiruvonam. This year Onam is celebrated on the 29th of August 2012. The word Onam or Thiruvonam is derived from the Sanskrit word Shravanam. Thiruonam is one among the 27 nakshatras/constellations and is believed to be the avatara nakshatra of Vishnu. The rich cultural heritage of Kerala comes out in its best form and spirit during the ten-day festival. Women indulge in various cultural activities. They make intricately designed flower mats called, Pookalam in the front courtyard of the house to welcome King Mahabali. The central feature of Onam is the grand feast called Onasadya, prepared on the 10th day i.e. Thiruonam. It is a nine-course meal consisting of 11 to 13 essential dishes. Onasadya is served on banana leaves and people sit on a mat laid on the floor to have the meal. Another popular feature of Onam is Vallamkali, the Snake Boat Race, held on the Pamba River, in which decorative boats oared by hundreds of boatmen, race amidst chanting of songs and cheering, by spectators.
Mahabali or Bali was the son of Devamba and Virochana and grandson of Prahlad, the devout son of the demon King Hiranyakashipu. Though he belonged to the Asura (demon) dynasty he was an ardent worshipper of Lord Vishnu. He grew up under the tutelage of his grandfather, Prahlad, who instilled in him a strong sense of righteousness and devotion. Bali eventually succeeded his grandfather as the king of the Asuras, and his reign was characterized by peace and prosperity. He expanded his realm by fighting the great Indra thus bringing the three worlds under his benevolent rule (Earth, Underworld and Heaven). The Devas, after their defeat at the hands of Bali, approached their patron Vishnu and entreated him to restore their lordship over Heaven. In Heaven, Bali, on the advice of his guru and advisor, Sukracharya, had begun the Ashwamedha Yaga so as to maintain his rule over the three worlds. He had already completed 99 yagnas. He was about to perform the 100th Ashwamedha Yagna.
VAMANA VISITS MAHABALI
Mahabali was performing the sacrificial rite of the 100th Aswamedha Yagna on the banks of the Narmada River. Bali, very much known for his kind nature made a declaration that he would offer anything that anyone sought during this Yagna. If he completes the 100th yagna he would be eligible for the post of Devendra – he can now throw out Indra. Indra approached Vishnu and asked him to restore his position. Vishnu, assured that Indra’s pride has been contained, promised to help Indra. Taking advantage of the Yagna and Mahabali’s declaration, Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf Brahman carrying a wooden umbrella and kamandalam, came to the Yaga-Shala. As he approached the Yaga-shala, the sages perceived the extraordinary effulgence from the young lad. A learned advisor of the King, Shukracharya sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary Brahmin but Lord Vishnu himself and warned the King against making any promise. But Mahabali ignoring Shukracharya’s warning went forth to receive the Brahmin boy with all traditional honours and gave him an eminent seat befitting the status of a holy person. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear this, but knowing that it is none other than the Lord Himself, felt most fortunate to honor His wish against his guru’s warning.
MAHABALI’S REIGN ENDS
Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana, took a form to stride over the three worlds. His form was so huge that he could step from heaven to earth, and earth to the lower worlds in two simple steps. King Mahabali unable to fulfill the promise of three paces of land to the Supreme God offered his head for the third step. And, Vamana placed his foot on King Mahabali’s head and sent him down to the Netherworld. There the King requested the Brahmin to reveal his true identity. Lord Vishnu then appeared before the King in his true form. Mahabali was overwhelmed and he prayed to the Lord.
To honor the devotion of Mahabali, Lord Vishnu granted his wish to hold the position of Indra for one Manvantra. He orders him to rule over the underworld till tehday he could be the next Indra. Vishnu himself served Mahabali as a gatekeeper in Patala.
KING MAHABALI REQUESTS TO VISIT KERALA
The King was so much attached to his Kingdom and people that he requests that he be allowed to visit Kerala every year. Lord Vishnu was moved by the Kings nobility and granted him the wish. Mahabali visiting his subjects is celebrated as Onam every year. The festival is celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. Every year people make elaborate preparations to welcome their King whom they affectionately call Onathappan to impress upon their dear King that they are happy and wish him well. The tenth day, Thiruvonam is the biggest and the most important day of this festival. It is believed that King Mahabali visits his people on the day. Onam in Trikkakara, a place 10 km from Kochi (Cochin) on the Edapally- Pookattupadi road is considered to be the centre of Onam celebrations over the world, as Thrikkakara is considered to have been the abode of the King Mahabali. The temple houses the main deity Lord Vamana. During the Onam celebration period, a pyramidal statue symbolizing Lord Vamana is installed as a symbol of honour, and named Onathappan or Thrikkakara-appan. The temple is the site at which the king Mahabali is said to have been sent to the underworld Patala by Lord Vamana . The etymology of the name Thrikkakara (‘place of the holy foot’) is also derived this way.