An important festival of Kerala, the festival of Onam is a very colourful affair. People celebrate by decorating their house with various floral arrangements and woman wear the gorgeous white and golden border sarees. The festival is marked by Kathakali dances and theatrical plays of artist dressed as tigers and hunters. Onam is an ancient Hindu festival of Kerala that celebrates rice harvest. The significance of the festival is in Hindu legends, of which two are more common. According to the Hindu mythology, Mahabali was the great- great-grandson of a Brahmin sage named Kashyapa, the great-grandson of demonic dictator, Hiranyakashipu, and the grandson of Vishnu devotee Prahlada. This links the festival to the Puranic mythology of Prahlada of Holika fame in Hinduism, who was the son of Hiranyakashipu. Prahlada, despite being born to a demonic Asura father who hated Vishnu, rebelled against his father’s persecution of people and worshipped Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu tries to kill his son Prahlada, but is slain by Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar, Prahlada is saved.
Prahlada’s grandson, Mahabali, came to power by defeating the gods (Devas) and taking over the three worlds. According to Vaishnavism mythology, the defeated Devas approached Vishnu for help in their battle with Mahabali. Vishnu refused to join the gods in violence against Mahabali, because Mahabali was a good ruler and his own devotee. He, instead, decided to test Mahabali’s devotion at an opportune moment. Mahabali, after his victory over the gods, declared that he would perform a Yajna (homa sacrifices/rituals) and grant anyone any request during the Yajna. Vishnu took the avatar – his fifth– of a dwarf boy called Vamana and approached Mahabali. The king offered anything to the boy – gold, cows, elephants, villages, food, whatever he wished. The boy said that one must not seek more than one needs, and all he needed was “three paces of land.” Mahabali agreed.Vamana grew to an enormous size, and covered everything Mahabali ruled over in just two paces. For the third pace, Mahabali offered his head for Vishnu to step on, an act that Vishnu accepted as evidence of Mahabali’s devotion Vishnu granted him a boon, by which Mahabali could visit again, once every year, the lands and people he previously ruled. This revisit marks the festival of Onam, as a reminder of the virtuous rule and his humility in keeping his promise before Vishnu. The last day of Mahabali’s stay is remembered with a nine-course vegetarian Onasadya feast.
According to Nanditha Krishna, a simpler form of this legend, one without Mahabali, is found in the Rigveda and the Vedic text Shatapatha Brahmana where a solar deity is described with powers of Vishnu. This story likely grew over time, and is in part allegorical, where Bali is a metaphor for thanksgiving offering after a bounty of rice harvest during monsoon, and Vishnu is the metaphor of the Kerala sun and summer that precedes the Onam. According to Roshen Dalal, the story of Mahabali is important to Onam in Kerala, but similar Mahabali legends are significant in the region of Balia and Bawan in Uttar Pradesh, Bharuch in Gujarat, and Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. The story is significant not because Mahabali’s rule ended, but it emphasizes the Hindu belief in cyclical nature of events, that no individual, no ruler and nothing lasts forever, except the virtues and self-understanding that overcomes all sorrow. The floral carpet, known as Onapookkolam or just Pookkolam, is made out of the gathered blossoms with several varieties of flowers of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to design and decorate patterns on floor, particularly at entrances and temple premises like a flower mat. Lamps are arranged in the middle or edges. It is a work of religious art, typically the team initiative of girls and women, who accomplish it with a delicate touch and a personal artistic sense of tone and blending. When completed, a miniature pandal (umbrella) hung with little festoons is erected over it. The pookkolam is similar to Rangoli which is made of powders of various colors and is popular in North India.
Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. This dance showcases performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, who dance to the beats of instruments like Chenda and Thakil. The Vallamkali (the snake boat race) is another event that is synonymous with Onam. Well-known races include the Aranmula Uthrattadhi Boat Race and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. The Onam sadya (feast) is another indispensable part of Thiruvonam, and almost every Keralite attempts to either make or attend one. The Onasadya reflects the spirit of the season and is traditionally made with seasonal vegetables such as yam, cucumber, ash gourd and so on. The feast is served on plantain leaves and consists of nine courses, but may include over two dozen dishes…