Ever heard of a festival celebrated on magnificent scale for a Demon King? Believe it or not, but there is one such festival celebrated in India as one of the biggest annual events of that state. Ironically the state that worships the demon king is also called “God’s own country”! Thats the Onam Festival in Kerala.
Legend has it that there lived a Demon King Long time ago, who was loved and respected by the people of his kingdom. He was considered one of the greatest kings, his reign was considered the golden era of this kingdom. He was a fierce warrior yet a humble person, dreaded by his enemies but revered like god by his own people. An Asura(Demon) by birth but a stout worshipper of Lord Vishnu – such was the incongruous charisma of this Great King.
But with power came greed, an ambition to become the most powerful king. So powerful that he waged a war against the Devas (Gods) and won. But he didn’t stop there. His greed had now become an obsession – an obsession to conquer all the three worlds – Earth, Heaven and Underworld. Gods saw him as a threat and requested Lord Vishnu to help.
Lord Vishnu took form of a dwarf Brahmin boy named Vamana and went to meet the King. The king was amidst a ritual which would help him acquire powerful weapons against the Gods and make him unconquerable in all of the three worlds.
For as generous as the king was, he was known for fulfilling all the wishes of his people. Vamana put forth a wish to be gifted a land equivalent to only three steps of his feet. The King agreed to his request. Vamana grew in size and became so huge that he towered beyond the heavens. With one step, he conquered earth, with the next, the heavens. He was left with one more step but the king had nothing left to give. So the king offered him his head, and Vamana sent the King to Patala (Underworld). And that’s how his reign ends. But before sending him, he was granted a wish by the Lord. A wish to visit his kingdom and his people once every year.
This might very well sound like a myth than an actual story, which has been passed on from generations. But the zeal and opulence with which the entire state, irrespective of caste and religion, celebrates this day every year makes one want to believe otherwise. There must have been a king so great that his greatness is remembered and celebrated by his people to this day!
The name of this King was Mahabali and the capital of his kingdom is the present day state of Kerala. The day he visits his Kingdom annually is celebrated as Onam.
Onam is a festival of prosperity and harmony. Onam is the celebration of New Year and also is the harvest festival. The ten day festivity begins in the first month as per the Malayalam calendar.
According to the myth, the first ten days of the new calendar year, King Mahabali prepares for his visit to Kerala from Patala. The first day is considered the day when the King starts with his preparation for visiting Earth. The ninth day is when he actually starts his journey from Underworld and on the tenth day he travels through his kingdom and visits the houses of his beloved subjects, blessing them.
Everything people do in these 10 days is in sync with this belief. Preparations starts with cleaning of house, buying of new clothes, gifting the loved ones, donating to the needy, cooking numerous traditional delicacies, singing and dancing, and decorating the door steps with Pookalam (Flower Decoration). Basically it can be considered the “Diwali” of Kerala with the difference that it is celebrated during the day time.
In India, caste and religion plays a major role in celebration of any festival. But Onam is the only festival that can be named as a State’s festival than a religious one. People from all faith, celebrates this festival the very same way. During the final day of this 10 day festivity, special prayer mass are held in churches, mosques and temples which highlights the secular nature of this festival.
When in Kerala during Onam, experiences not to be missed …
Onam Sadhya (Onam Feast): Kerala might be famous for its lush green backdrop and its backwaters, but when you are in Kerala, its cuisines can be equally enthralling to experience. Onam is one such occasion when you can taste, indulge and enjoy not just one but many of its traditional dishes. Onam also being a harvest festival, the meal symbolizes this harvest. The traditional meal is prepared on an elaborate scale adding up to 26 different varieties of dishes and served on banana leaf. The dishes are so varied that there is something for everyone’s taste preferences. Some dishes might be sour, others too sweet, some spicy, some might be tangy. Your taste buds are hit by such a bombardment of different tastes that you just indulge yourself in the joy of savoring your food. One way of enjoying this extravagant meal is by attending the Onam Sadhya at Thrikkakara Temple which is held at a very grand scale for all the 10 days of the festival.
Pookalam(Floral Decorations): It is an art of decorating the entrance of the house with beautiful floral patterns. It is a gesture to welcome Mahabali. The flowers are laid out in concentric circles. On the first day, only one circle of flower is put but with each day, more and more circles are added. Day ten Pookalam is therefore the biggest and most complex out of all the days. The amalgamation of delicate floral colors, the mix of aromatic fragrance from the flowers, and the stunning design patterns is one of the major limelight of this festival. Pookalam competitions have also become a new trend during Onam and the designs range from traditional concentric circle designs to various complex patterns.
Atthachamayam(The New year tableau): If you want to see the traditional art and folk of Kerala come alive together at one place, then you shouldn’t miss this grand procession which kicks off the official celebration of Onam across the state. It is held on the first day of this 10 day festivity. This procession starts from the historical town of Thripunithura in Ernakulam district and culminates at the Thrikkakara Temple in Kochi City. This temple is believed to be the place where Vamana had sent Mahabali to Patala.
The Maharaja of Kochi used to head a magnificent military procession from his palace to Thrikkakara Temple during his reign. This was the time when the people could greet him and watch their king closely. Post-independence, this event was taken over by the people but has continued with the same grandeur. The procession includes caparisoned elephants, various folk dances of Kerala like Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Attakavadi, Pulikali. It’s further embellished by the overwhelming musical performances using Kerala’s cultural musical instruments like Chendamelam, Panchavadyam, Pambamelam. The traditions, its insignias and the exuberance of Kerala comes alive in this event. It is one of the most colorful and vibrant events and in recent times have attracted a lot of tourists from worldwide.
Vallamkali (Snake Boat Race): India’s image worldwide is that of a cricket loving nation with people going gaga over this sport, which is absolutely true. But during Onam, in Kerala you would witness a very unique sport the people of go crazy about. The Aranmula Boat Race, one of the oldest snake boat races of the country, has a greater effect than cricket for the people of Kerala. Thousands of people gather at the banks of river Pampa where this event is held. When the banks get too crowded, the trees on the banks of this river become the stadium. You would see more people on the branches of the trees than the leaves!! Such is the whim everyone has for this sport.
These 100 to 140 feet long boats, made of wood and has a capacity to seat about a 100 men. The tail of the boat is raised and can go up to 20 feet and the front portion is flat and tapering. It looks like a snake with its hood raised and therefore nicknamed as snake boat. The shape of the boat, the golden lace shining at its head, and the colorful tinseled silk umbrellas bejeweling it, adds to the extravagance of this magnificent vessel. The synchronized swaying by oarsmen, the traditional boat song sung with full might by the singers on board and the boisterous calling of the slogan “thi tai taka tai tai thom” by the rowers, fuels up not only the spirit of participants but also the entire crowd gathered to watch this pride of Kerala.
There are many other traditions one might come across during this festival and the best way to experience all of it is to visit Kerala during this time. The spirit of Kerala reaches its zenith booming with its art, dance, music and other rituals during this festival. It is the time to experience the Kerala’s ancient traditions in the modern times. It might be an off season for tourist visits but if someone loves to understand and learn about traditional Kerala, then Onam is the time to be here.