*Story behind Onam
Onam is the biggest and the most important festival of the state of Kerala. It is a harvest festival and is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm all over the state by people of all communities. According to a popular legend, the festival is celebrated to welcome King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam.
The story goes that the beautiful state of Kerala was once ruled by an Asura (demon) king, Mahabali. The King was greatly respected in his kingdom and was considered to be wise, judicious and extremely generous. Looking at the growing popularity and fame of King Mahabali, Gods up in the sky became extremely concerned and jealous. They felt threatened about their own supremacy and began to think of a strategy to get rid of the dilemma.
It was said Mahabali was very generous and charitable. Whenever anybody approached him for help or requested for anything he always granted. To test the King, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf and a poor Brahmin (A brahmin is a member of the highest caste in the Indian caste system) called Vamana. He came to the Kingdom of Mahabali, just after Mahabali performed his morning prayers and was preparing to grant boons to Brahmins.
Disguised as Vamana, Vishnu said he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land. The generous King said, he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed.
A learned adviser of the King sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making the promise. But, the generous King replied that it would be a sin for a King to back on his words and asked the Brahmin to take the land. The King could not imagine that the dwarf Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself.
Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana began to expand and eventually increased himself to the size of cosmic proportions. With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the other step he covered the whole of the skies. He then asked King Mahabali where is the space for him to keep his third foot.
The King realised that he was no ordinary Brahmin and his third step will destroy the earth. Mahabali with folded hands bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise. The Brahmin placed his foot on the head of the King, which pushed him to patala, the nether world. There the King requested the Brahmin to reveal his true identity. Lord Vishnu then appeared before the King in his person. The Lord told the King that he came to test him and the King won the test. King Mahabali was pleased to see his lord. Lord Vishnu also granted a boon to the King.
The King was so much attached with his Kingdom and people that he requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year. Lord Vishnu was moved by the King’s nobility and was pleased to grant the wish. He also blessed the King and said even after losing all his worldly possessions, the King would always be loved by his people.
It is the day of the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala that is celebrated as Onam every year. The festival is celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. It is also a secular festival, celebrated by people of all religions and castes with the same zeal.
Traditional Feast (called ‘Sadhya’) and a grand kaleidoscope of floral arrangement (called ‘Pookalam’) are central to the splendour of Onam. Rice is the essential ingredient of the Nine Course Strictly Vegetarian Meals. All together there are 11 essential dishes which have to be prepared for ‘Sadhya’. Pookalam is an intricate and colourful arrangement of flowers laid on the floor. Tradition of decorating Pookalam is extremely popular in Kerala and is followed as a ritual in every household during ten-day-long Onam celebrations. ‘Pookalam’ consists of two words, ‘poov’ meaning flower and ‘kalam’ means colour sketches on the ground. It is considered auspicious to prepare Pookalam.
Onam* - Kerala's own festival (on September 16, 2013)
*Story behind Onam