Onam is the major festival of Kerala. It comes around the harvest time of August or September and is considered a harvest festival. Harvest festivals are a kind of thanksgiving for another successful harvest.
Onam is also a festival of flowers. Starting ten days before Onam day, children gather flowers. Every morning, patterns are created using the flowers at a marked space on the front yard.
Long ago, Kerala was ruled by a demon king, Mahabali, who was far from demonic. He was a fair and just administrator who ensured that every person was treated equally in his kingdom. Nobody went hungry or was harmed by others. And nobody stole or told lies. Even illnesses dared not harm the people of this king.
Alarmed at the increasing power and popularity of the king and the prosperity of his kingdom, the elite dwellers of the upper world complained to their patron, Lord Vishnu.
Apparently the Lord believed the words of his favored elite, and decided that this demon Mahabali must be driven away.
Periodically, Lord Vishnu comes down to earth to rid the world of evil-doers. He comes in different forms - animal, human, or even half-animal-half-human - suited to the situation. In this particular instance, he decided to come as a short-statured, simple brahmin boy.
King Mahabali received the brahmin boy with all due respect. Kings observed a practice of giving donations to brahmin guests, who, being scholars, often did not have any other income. Following tradition, the king asked the boy, Vamana, what he desired as a donation.
Vamana's desire was simple (in fact, too simple to the minds of the king's advisors). The boy wanted just three feet of land, to be measured by his own tiny feet. Despite his advisors' objections, the king did not hesitate to grant the request.
As soon as the king made his promise, the boy began to grow. He grew and grew. With just two steps of his feet, he had measured all the lands that the king ruled. Seeing no other alternative to meet his promise, the king bowed and offered his own head for the third step.
And Vamana took the third step, pushing the king down to the netherworld of demons.
At this, the king's subjects began to weep. The king himself made a request to be allowed to visit his people once a year.
The Lord granted this wish, and people celebrate the king's visit every year as Onam.
There are several stories behind the origin of Onam festival. The most widely enjoyed mythical story is narrated in the box to the right.
The stories could be glorified elaborations of some historical event. The widely accepted theory is that they represent the ascendancy of the aryan brahmins over local people and customs. Aryan invaders might have defeated and exiled a much-loved local ruler. Onam celebrations could be an attempt of local people to pay homage to their exiled ruler and his good rule.
As is the case with all stories passed through word-of-mouth from generation to generation, the events acquired mythological dimensions in the course of the transmission.
One version has it that Onam is a buddhist celebration. According to it, an old ruler of Kerala had converted to Buddhism. Aryan invaders from the north conquered the ruler and sent him into exile. As brahmin traditions were imposed on the local populace, they retained some old memories through Onam celebrations. The dominance of yellow (a color important to buddhists) during Onam celebrations - yellow clothes, yellow flowers - is advanced as proof of this.
There are also stories and practices that treat Onam as a kind of acceptance of aryan dominance. Onam is considered the day the aryan god Vishnu (or the brahmin Parasu Rama)visits the land. There is a temple at Thrikkakkara where the deity is Vamana, the incarnation of Vishnu as a brahmin boy. The annual festival at this temple coincides with Onam. And the celebrations associated with Onam have an important place for the deity of this temple, Thrikkakkarayappan, shown in the pic.
Thus the historical basis for Onam festivals is a little vague. It could simply be a harvest festival around which many stories were spun, under different influences, historical and political.
Starting ten days before Onam day, people gather flowers and create patterns on their frontyards every morning. On Onam day, before the sun is up, images of Thrikkarayappan, surrounded by plucked plants of Thumba, are installed (pic left) at the spot where flowers were being laid. A traditional lamp is lit and eatables like ada and banana are placed before the deity. A coconut is broken and its water poured over the image.
What is described above is just one tradition. There are other traditions, such as installing Thrikkarayappan from day one and continuing the flower laying beyond Onam day. The traditions differ from locality to locality.
The celebrations follow certain traditions. The main ones that were being practised widely were:
In olden days, Ona Thallu (a traditional form of fighting using open palms by two duellists) was also popular. However, modern sensibilities have put a stop to this practice.
These days, the traditions have been converted into competitions and grand spectacles. There are flower-laying competitions, organized boat races attracting huge crowds and elephant parades. Hotels serve Onam sadyas (traditional lunches).
And of course there is much shopping and drinking. Onam season is the shopkeepers' dream (time).
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