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Intricately decorated Pookalam,Onam 2009
|Official name||Malayalam: ഓണം|
|Type||Harvest Festival/Indian festival|
|Significance||On Thiruvonam damnmmnmy, King Mahabali is believed to visit every Malayali home and meet his people.|
|Date||Onam Nakshatra in the month of Chingam|
|Observances||Sadya, Thiruvathira Kali, Puli Kali, Pookalam, Ona-thallu|
Onam is the biggest festival in the South Indian state of Kerala. It falls during the Malayalee month of Chingam (August–September) and marks the homecoming of the legendary King Mahabali. The festival lasts for ten days and is linked to many elements of Kerala's culture and tradition. Intricate wreaths of flowers, food, Snake Boat races and the Kaikottikali dance all play a part in the festival. For this festival, people wear new clothes: men a shirt and mundu, a skirt-like bottom, women mundu and a gold top, a nariathu. Girls wear a skirt called Pavada, and a blouse. Vishu is the harvest festival in Kerala.
Onam is an ancient festival which still survives in the Modern times. Kerals's rice harvest festival and the festival of rain flowers which fell on the Malayalam month of Chingam celebrated the annual visit from pathalam of King Maveli. Onam is unique since king Maveli is reverred by people of Kerala from prehistory.
According to the legend, Kerala witnessed its golden era during the reign of King Mahabali. Everybody in the state was happy and prosperous and the king was highly regarded by his subjects. Apart from all his virtues, Mahabali had one shortcoming. He was egoistic. However, for all the good deeds done by Mahabali, God granted him a boon that he could annually visit his people with whom he was so attached.
It is this visit of Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam every year. People celebrate the festival in a grand way and impress upon their dear King that they are happy and wish him well.
The rich cultural heritage of Kerala comes out in its best form and spirit during the ten day long festival. The most impressive part of Onam celebration is the grand feast called Onasadya, prepared on 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 enchanting feature of Onam is Vallamkali, the Snake Boat Race, held on the river Pampa. It is a colourful sight to watch the decorated boat oared by hundreds of boatmen amidst chanting of songs and cheering by spectators.
There is also a tradition to play games, collectively called Onakalikal, on Onam. Men go in for rigorous sports like Talappanthukali (played with a ball), Ambeyyal (Archery), Kutukutu and combats called Kayyankali and Attakalam. Women indulge in cultural activities. They make intricately designed flower mats called, Pookalam in the front courtyard of the house to welcome King Mahabali. Kaikotti kali and Thumbi Thullal are two graceful dances performed by women on Onam. Folk performances like Kummatti kali and Pulikali add to the zest of celebrations.
Mahabali's rule is considered the golden era of Kerala. The following song is often sung over Onam: (Translation)
|“|| When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people had equality.
Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlad (son of Hiranyakashipu who was slain by Vishnu in his Narasimha Avataram). Prahlad, despite being an Asura, had great faith in Vishnu. Mahabali learned the love and devotion of Vishnu from Prahlad's lap as a child.
Mahabali Conquers The Three Worlds
Kashyapa had two wives, Diti and Aditi, who were the parents of the demons and the gods (Asuras and Devas) respectively. Kashyapa, who had gone to the Himalayas to do penance, on his return found Aditi weeping. By divine insight, Kashyapa instantly recognised the cause of her grief. He tried to console her saying that nothing happens in the world without divine will and people should go on doing their duties. He asked her to pray to Vishnu and taught her Payovrata, a ritual that has to be observed from the 12th day of the bright half of Karthika (Sukla-paksha Dvadasi). Since Aditi carried out the Vrata with a pious heart, Vishnu appeared before her and informed her that he would help Indra.
Alternatively, the Devas were very annoyed as Mahabali became the ruler of all the three worlds having defeated the Devas. Violence was inflicted upon the Devas. The gods approached Vishnu and asked for his help. Vishu said to the Devas that Mahabali is doing good things to his subjects and is eligible to become sura (devas). You devas should not be jealous about that. Being jealous wiould make you asuras. Vishu decided to test Mahabali.
In the meantime, Mahabali was performing the sacrificial rite of the Viswajith Yagam or Aswamedha Yagam on the banks of Narmada River. He also declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yagam.
Vamana Visits Mahabali
Taking advantage of the Yagam and Mahabali's declaration, Vamana (Mahavishu disguised as a Brahmin) came to the Yaga-shala. As he approached them, the sages assembled there perceived the extraordinary effulgence form of the young lad. Mahabali went forth to receive the Brahmin boy with all traditional honours and gave him an eminent seat befitting the status of a holy person. With the usual courtesy given to the people who come to ask for help, Mahabali told him that it was his good fortune that Vamana had chosen to honour him with his presence. Whatever Vamana desired, Mahabali was ready to fulfill. Vamana smiled and said: "You need not give me anything great. It is enough if you give me that extend of land covered by three footsteps of mine".
On hearing him, Mahabali's preceptor, the Brahmin Shukracharya (a Daitya priest), who had visions of the future, told Mahabali that the one who had come to take alms from him was not an ordinary Brahmin but Lord Vishnu Himself having assumed this form. He advised Mahabali not to promise the lad anything. But Mahabali was a king who would never go back on his word, considering it sinful to do so. Shukracharya insisted that he should not fulfill the demand of Vamana as he had come to deprive him of all his possessions.
Mahabali, determined to honour the word given to Vamana, begged the pardon of his Guru for disregarding his advice. Earlier, while Mahabali was embarking on the war with Indra, he had prostrated at the feet of his preceptor, Shukracharya, and on his advice had he started the Vishwajith Yagam from which he secured some very powerful weapons. It was only because of Shukracharya's help that he was able to conquer Indra. Mahabali's refusal angered Shukracharya. He cursed Mahabali, saying: 'As you have not heeded your Guru's words, you will be reduced to ashes'. Mahabali was firm and replied: 'I am prepared to face any consequence but will not go back on my word'.
Mahabali's Reign Ends
Saying so, he asked Vamana to measure the desired three feet of land. All attempts of Shukracharya to dissuade Mahabali proved futile. Mahabali considered everyone who came to him for help as god himself and never refused them anything. Mahabali told his Guru: "Prana (life) and Maana (honour) are like the two eyes of a person. Even if life goes, honour should be protected. Knowing that the person that has come now is the Lord Himself, I should be the most fortunate one as the Lord, who gives everything to mankind, is seeking something from me." Mahabali boasted that even if Vishnu himself were to come to his sacrifice and ask for anything, he would deliver it.
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 (the kingdom beneath the earth).
For the devotion of this daitya, Mahabali, Lord Vishnu (Vamana) granted him rule over the underworld. It was also granted that he would hold the position of Indra for one Manvantara, thus fulfilling his devotee's desire (the office of Indra being a rotating position, changing every Manvantara).
As a last gift, Mahabali was granted permission 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.
During Onam, the feast and festive mood of the people, dressed in their best, is considered reminiscent of the prosperous and truthful life of the subjects during Mahabali's flawless reign. People wear new clothes (Vastra) during Onam. The 'Vastra' also stands for heart. Thus the significance of wearing new clothes is about making the heart new by removing all bad thoughts and feelings. People forgetting their sectarian outlooks, join together to welcome the auspicious 'Thiruvonam' day.
It would seem unfair that Lord Vishnu punished Mahabali, who like his grandfather (Prahlada), was deemed one of the greatest devotees of Lord Vishnu, and a very just king. However, Mahabali is not considered penalized by Vishnu, since he was granted the blessings of Vishnu and his remembrance allowed to be observed for eternity by way of Onam. He was also given the opportunity to keep his head under Lord Vishnu's holy feet, thus allowing all his sins to be wiped away.
It is believed that Mahabali became the greatest earthly devotee of Vishnu by sacrificing his kingdom to him.
Sura means good people and asura means bad people. According to Hinduism, sura will become asura by doing bad deeds and asura can become sura by doing good deeds. Mahabali, being an asura, wanted to become sura. For that, he has done all the good things to his people. To test Mahabali's altruism and unselfishness, the Mahavishu has taken the form Vamana and had sent him to Patala, which Mahabali had accepted gracefully. Thus, Mahabali become sura or god and the Onam symbolizes the advaitha principles of Hinduism.
The Ten Days of Celebration - Atham Patthinu Ponnonam
The celebrations of Onam start on Atham day, 10 days before onam. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vamanan(an Avatar of Vishnu) are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house and beautifully decorated with flowers. Known as ‘Onapookkalam’, it is a carpet made out of the gathered blossoms with one or two varieties of foliage of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to serve the decorator's purpose. It is a beautiful work of art accomplished with a delicate touch and a highly artistic sense of tone and blending. (In a similar manner North Indians make something called "Rangoli" which is made of powders of various colors.) When completed, a miniature pandal, hung with little festoons is erected over it.
The important part of the festival opens in some localities on Thiruvonam day and in others on the previous day known as Uthradam. On Thiruvonam day, King Mahabali is believed to visit every Malayalee home and meet his people. Houses are cleaned and decorated with flowers and traditional lamps. A fabulous display of fireworks turns the capital Thiruvananthapuram into a veritable fairyland. Sumptuous feasts are prepared in every household. The eldest member of each family presents clothes to all the members of the family. Even the poorest of the poor manage to find something for himself to celebrate the national festival in his own humble way.
Onam comes in the month of "Chingam" according to the Malayalam Calendar. People put flower mats in front of their houses, to welcome King Mahabali. There will be competition for the laying of flower mats; Keralites all over the world will be celebrating this ten days with pomp and gaiety. They wear new dresses, visit as many temples as they can, perform dances like Thiruvathira kali Thumbi Tullal etc. to name a few. The most important thing is the grand lunch on the Thiuruvonam day, which is also called the Second Onam. Whatever may happen they will not miss the Grand lunch (sadya). There is a saying in Malayalam that "Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam" which means "We should have the Thiruvonam lunch even if we have to sell all our properties" which shows the importance of the grand lunch on the Thiruvonam day.
Onam is celebrated with a focus on different cultural aspects at different places. Athachamayam- a cultural procession takes place in the royal town of Tripunithura near Ernakulam-Kochi, on the Atham day of Chingam, which also marks the beginning of Onam celebrations. At the Vamanamoorthy temple in Thrikkakara, the annual temple festival coincides with Onam. The temple is dedicated to Vamana|Lord Vamana and is directly linked to the mythological background of Onam.
Onam Pookkalam is considered as a symbol for secularism. Various kinds of flowers combine together to form a great-looking pookkalam. So, it shall reflect those old good days during King Mahabali. It's a great pleasure for people in Kerala to make Pookkalam from Atham to Thiruvonam, especially for children.
The celebrations begin within a fortnight of the Malayalam New Year and go on for ten days. The last day called the Thiruvonam is the most important. All over the state, rituals along with new clothes, traditional cuisine, dance, and music mark this harvest festival.
At Valluvanad(mainly Ottapalam, Shornur regions), Kathakali dancers in gorgeous costumes enact the legends. A strikingly impressive procession of caparisoned elephants is taken out at Thrissur, where masked dancers also go from house to house performing the colorful Kummattikali dance. At Cheruthuruthy, people gather to watch Kathakali performers enact scenes from epics and folk tales. Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. Performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and thakil.
The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappaattu, or Onam songs, and rock one another on swings slung from high branches.
The most important things about Onam are the onakkodi, the new clothes worn on this day and onam sadya, a feast which is quite elaborate. This is usually a feast served on banana leaves and serves rice along with at least an array of 4 dishes. Traditional pickles and papadam are also served. Dessert is usually 'payasam', a sweet dish made of milk, sugar and other traditional Indian savories.
During Onam, people create a multi-coloured floral decoration on the ground in the front of their home called pookkalam. Young children especially girls are often entrusted with the task of gathering and laying out the flowers in elaborate patterns. Competitions are held on onam day to create this floral design. It is usually 1.5 m in Diameter usually in circular shape. A lamp is usually placed as part of the design. In the recent years, the floral designs have evoloved from the traditional circular shape to unique designs depicting different cultural and social aspects of Kerala life.
The Vallamkali (the snake boat race) is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. 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.
During the Onam, Keralite Hindus install an image of Thrikkakara Appan (Vishnu in the form of Vamana) in their home just as Hindus install images or murtis of Lord Ganesh on the Ganesh Chaturthi festival.
This festival is also important because of its popularity with all communities within Kerala. Although the festival of Onam originated with, and is connected to the Hindu religion, it is celebrated today with equal fervour by the Hindus, Muslims and Christians of Kerala.
Many lamps are lit in Hindu temples of Kerala during this celebration. A palmyra tree is erected in front of temples and surrounded with a wooden balustrade and covered with dry palmyra leaves. It is lit with a torch and burned to ashes to signify that Mahabali went to hell as a sacrifice.
- ↑ P. 161 Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia By Paula Richman
- ↑ P. 368 Śrīmadbhāgavatam =: Srimad Bhagavata, the Holy Book of God By Tapasyananda
- ↑ P. 66 Path to the Soul By Ashok Bedi
- ↑ P. 30 Know the Puranas By Pustak Mahal
- ↑ 5.0 5.1 5.2 P. 179 Genealogy Of The South Indian Deities By Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, Daniel Jeyaraj
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