A monsoon festival, primarily celebrated in the Indian state of Kerala, Onam or Thiruvonam, is one of pomp and joy. Celebrated across ten days, it starts on Atham, followed by Chithira, Chodi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradom, and finally ends on Thiruvonam.
According to legend, the mythical king named Mahabali, even though a demon by birth, was kind, generous, and a devotee of Lord Vishnu. Due to his altruistic qualities, he was much loved and adored by the masses. This irked the Gods who wanted him removed and asked Lord Vishnu for help. Due to Mahabali’s devotion to Lord Vishnu, the latter agreed to aid them but only in a non-violent way.
One day, Lord Vishnu took the form of a frail and small Brahmin named Vamana and visited Mahabali requesting him to grant three wishes. When asked by Mahabali what were the wishes, Vamana asked for a piece of land that measured three paces, which was agreed to by Mahabali.
As soon as the wish was granted, Lord Vishnu, transformed into his own self and started to grow in size. In his first pace, he covered all of Earth, in the second pace, he covered all of the skies, and there was no place left for his third pace. Seeing this, and in order to complete his wish-granting, Mahabali offered Vamana to place the third pace on his head. With this sacrifice and devotion to Lord Vishnu, the god granted him a yearly visit to earth to visit his kingdom and its people. From that day onwards, Onam is celebrated as the homecoming of Mahabali from the depths of the earth.
In contemplating a deeper meaning of this myth, we understand that that humility and devotion can help anyone transcend the ego, which has the capability to outgrow the earth and the skies. Our ego (Mahabali) can be conquered in three simple steps (taken by Vamana)
- Observe the Earth and appreciate all that coexists with us
- Look up at the skies and realize its vastness and our own existence in this infinity
- Crush the ego by being humble and devoted to Supreme Consciousness
Celebrations and Events
The most recognized image of Onam is that of the snake boat races, but there is so much more to this festival than that. On the day of the festival, Pookalam, or a carpet of flowers is laid out at the entrance of houses to welcome Mahabali. The festival is not complete without a lavish spread of Sadya – a nine-course meal – served on banana leaves. There are traditional dances and music, known as Onakalikal performed in towns and villages.
Several well-known events are also held across the state:
Pookalam competitions: The flower arrangements are a lavish affair where the designs are elaborate and each day a new layout is prepared. This has given rise to friendly neighbourhood competitions for the most complex and appealing flower designs.
Onasadya: In short, Sadya is a special meal that is prepared at each household and shared with each other. This nine-course meal served on banana leaves consists of rice, varieties of vegetables and payasam – the final dessert.
Onakalikal: These are various games that are played by children and adults alike. There is Talappanthukali, a ball game played by men and Ambeyyal, which showcases archery skills.
Vallamkali: The famous snake boat race is another friendly competition held on this day. The boats which are decorated in various patterns, some consisting of around 100 boatmen, paddle their way to find glory.
Elephant procession: In the temple town of Thrissur, elephants are decorated in elaborate garb of flowers, ornaments, and other metals and taken in a procession around the whole town.
Folk dances: Traditional music and dances add to the merriment, where women perform Kaikottikali, a dance to the beat of claps and Thumbi Thullai, which involves dancing in a circle.