Onam – The Legend

The word festival conjures in one’s mind myriad images – fun, festivity, good food and most often a religious connotation / connection. India being the land of festivals, we practically have a festival in a day, every day of the year. Don’t we Indians love to celebrate!

If ever there is a festival that transcends even religious barriers, it is Kerala’s own festival of Onam. Other than being a harvest festival at a time when Nature is at it best in beauty and bounty, there is also a well known legend connected to it. Like any other story there is long long ago to begin this one too. 🙂 The legend of Mahabali is narrated in the VIIIth canto of the ancient text of Mahabhagavatham.

Long, long ago Kerala was ruled by the Asura King, Mahabali. True to the lineage he was coming from, (Mahabali’s great grandfather was the illustrious and devout Vishnu devotee, Prahalada of the Narasimhavatara fame) Bali was an ideal ruler – benevolent, compassionate and most importantly true to his word. He was generous and charitable. Though an Asura (Demon), Mahabali was an ardent devotee of Lord Mahavishnu, the Preserver of the Hindu Trninty of Brahma (Creator), Vishnu and Maheswara or Siva (Destroyer). Naturally his fame and munificence spread everywhere. A folk song of the times goes like this:

“മാവേലി നാട് വാണീടും കാലം
മാനുഷരെല്ലാരും ഒന്നു പോലെ
ആമോദത്തോടെ വസിക്കും കാലം
ആപത്തങ്ങാർക്കുമൊട്ടില്ല താനും
ആധികള്‍ വ്യാധികള്‍ ഒന്നുമില്ല
ബാല മരണങ്ങള്‍ കേള്‍ക്കാനില്ല
കള്ളവുമില്ല ചതിയുമില്ല
എള്ളോളമില്ല പൊളിവചനം
കള്ളപ്പറയും ചെറു നാഴിയും
കള്ളത്തരങ്ങള്‍ മറ്റൊന്നുമില്ല “

When translated it means:

When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people were equal.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Death of children was unheard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbour.
When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless band.

His valour, administrative prowess and strength of character got him the title of Chakravarthy or Emperor. This confidence in himself is said to have made him ambitious. He wanted to rule the Earth, Swargaloka or Heaven and Pathaal or the underworld. The Devas (Gods) who inhabited the Heaven came to hear of this and shuddered with fear. Besides Bali’s name and fame made them extremely jealous and insecure. They ran to Lord Mahavishnu and beseeched Him to save them by doing away with Mahabali.

Mahavishnu is said to have taken the form of a poor brahmin named Vamana (dwarf) and appeared before Bali. Mahabali asked him what he wanted. “Three steps of land that can be covered by my foot”, he said. Mahabali told him he could take as much he wanted. As soon as his wish was granted, the Vamana began to grow in size. With one step he measured the Heaven and with the second, the Earth. There was no place to keep the third step. Mahabali knowing that this was no ordinary person before him, knelt in front of the Vamana, bowed his head and asked the third step to be taken on his head. As he was pushed down to the underworld or Paathala, Mahabali is said to have asked the Vamana for a boon. Since he dearly loved his land and people, he said he would love to visit them once every year. The King’s nobility moved Mahavishnu and he granted the boon, wherein he could visit his land once a year and that he would always remain one of the most loved of kings. In the Malayalam month of Chingam (in August / September as the Malayalam calendar is a lunar calendar) it is believed that Mahabali visits Kerala – and that is Onam time. All houses are decked to receive the King. Among other things homes are decked with floral carpets called Pookkalam. Courtyards are adorned with clay pyramids decorated with wet rice flour. And Mahabali is said to visit homes on the second Onam day – Thiruvonam.

Mathevar is placed on a wooden platform decorated with flowers and rice flour designs: My Mother's handiwork!

Mathevar is placed on a wooden platform decorated with flowers and rice flour designs: My Mother’s handiwork!

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