Meaning and Origins of Onam and Other National Festivals
every other culture, the Kerala culture also celebrates some important
festivals. Since Kerala is composed of several ethnic and
religious groups, the country has a wide variety of festivals.
Some of these are not just special for Keralites, but common feasts,
like Christmas and Easter, which are celebrated by Christians
of all denominations all over Kerala, India, and the world.
Like-wise, Muslims celebrate their festivals of Id and
Bakrid all over India. The Hindus also celebrate certain
festivals like Divali, Dasara, and Holi in most parts of India
while certain regions have their own special feasts like Pongal
in Tamil Nadu and Durga Puja in West Bengal. Keralites celebrate
one festival as their national festival irrespective of caste
and creed; Onam. There are a few other minor festivals
that are dear to certain sections of Keralites like Thiruvathira,
Vishu, Teyyam and Sabarlmalai Pilgrimage which will be briefly
described below. It is impossible to describe all the other
important local festivals; their name is legion; every temple
and church have their own annual festivals.
Onam (from Sravana?) is celebrated in the second half of August
(the Chingam month of Kollam Era) when the August monsoon rains
come to an end and the summer heat gives way to the pleasant warmth
of the Kerala autumn. Anthropologists see in Onam a great
fertility rite, the ceremony of Thanksgiving for a plentiful harvest.
For Keralites Onam is the celebration of the return of Mahabali,
their once and future king. This king once ruled over the
Keralites during the Golden Age before caste existed, "when all
men were equal, when no one was poor, when there was neither theft
nor dread of thieves" (Maveli natu vanitum kalam/Manusharellam
onnu pole ... ). The complete folk-song is given below
in its English version:
Maveli, our King, rules the land,
celebration of the return of Mahabali takes four days for the Hindus.
The house and yard are cleaned; a temporary mud stall is put up
and washed with cow-dung solution for the royal visitor; flowers
are strewn over it for the king to sit upon; pyramid-shaped images
of the king called Trikkakarappan, made of wood or clay, are placed
upon it as the onlookers applaud and cheer in sheer welcome.
Pujas (worship service) are performed during the four days of Onam
every morning; parents give children presents, especially dresses
on the occasion. Large scale feasts are held at this family
reunion -- increasingly Onam is becoming a holiday like Thanksgiving
which is characterized by family reunion and feasting. Three
foods used to be essential for the festival: split bananas, pappadam
(wafer) and payasam (rice pudding). After the sumptuous
midday dinner, all the family members dressed in fine clothes amuse
themselves: adults and boys play hand-ball, chess, dice, and/or
cards -- wrestling and display of swordsmanship are not common any
more —; women and girls sing and dance. In the backwaters
of Kerala, young men race the long snake-boats (chundan vallom)
— a reminder of snake-worship (?).
All the peoples form one casteless race.
And people live joyful and merry;
They are free from all harm.
There is neither theft nor deceit,
And no one is false in speech either.
Measures and weights are right;
No one cheats or wrongs the neighbor.
when Maveli, our King, rules the land,
All the peoples form one casteless race.
celebrates the legendary King Bali. Only two versions are
told these days. According to the orthodox Brahminical version,
Mahabali was a wicked demon (asura) king who was yet "good" enough
to become a yogi by virtue of his austerities (tapas).
He controlled earth and heaven; the gods, of course, felt threatened
by Bali. So they sent Vishnu to get rid of this menace;
Vishnu assumed the form of a holy beggar, the comical dwarf Vamana,
and asked for the gift of as much land as he could cover in three
paces. Vamana grew into cosmic size and in three strides
encompassed the whole earth and heaven and Bali was forced to
retire to the only space left,
patalam, the nether world.
the Kerala version, Bali is Mahabali, the benevolent ruler who
aroused the jealousy and envy of the gods. He gave up his
kingdom not just because he was the victim of a trick but because
he was too generous to refuse a request and too honorable not
to fulfill a promise. He asked Vamana to place the third
stride on his head; Vamana-Vishnu kicked him down into the nether
world. Mahabali, however, was granted the wish, before he retired,
that on a day each year he be allowed to return to his dear people,
the Keralites, to see them and to be with them as father and friend.