Onam is one the most anticipated festivals celebrated with much fanfare and merriment by the people in Kerala, irrespective of one’s caste or creed.
Usually coinciding with crop harvests in the region, the story behind how the festival came into being goes all the way back to Vedic and Puranic ages.
The mythical King Mahabali, considered to be one of the greatest kings to have ever ruled Kerala, is believed to ascend to Earth from the netherworld to meet his subjects once every year.
It is his homecoming that is celebrated as the festival of Onam, as we know it today.
The king remains quite popular in Kerala even to this day, as testified by the folk song, Maaveli Naadu Vannidum Kaalam (When Maveli, our King, ruled the land), that speaks of his reign being one where all were equal.
According to the traditional legend, the king’s growing popularity amidst the common people became a rising concern for the jealous gods, Indra in particular.
According to Hindu beliefs, when a king or an emperor has a considerable number of fair and just deeds to his credit, he has the power to dethrone even Indra, who is the god of the gods.
Threatened by Mahabali’s rising greatness, they decided to hatch a scheme against the king and rope in the supreme god Vishnu.
Taking the form of a poor Brahmin monk named Vamana, Vishnu approached the king and asked to be granted a boon. Mahabali, who was known for his altruistic qualities, readily agreed to the monk’s request.
Vamana wished for a parcel of land that he could cover in three paces or steps. Amused by such a trivial request, the king granted his wish. However, the ‘simple’ monk soon transformed into a giant – and covered all of the king’s lands in just two steps.
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Where to put the third step? The king could not go back on his word. Having nothing left that he could pledge, Mahabali offered his head to the monk as the third step. Vamana’s final step pushed the king to the netherworld, thus robbing him of his earthly commitments and his throne to heaven.
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Vishnu offered the king a chance to visit his kingdom once every year, for his attachment to his subjects was well known even amidst the gods.
And thus, the festival of Onam came into being, marking the homecoming of the noble king, who is lovingly called Maaveli by his people.
Different rituals are practised even today that celebrate the reign of the king, which is considered to be a golden era in the history of Kerala.
Interestingly, despite the role that Vamana had in the banishment of Mahabali, he is not written off as a villainous character in the state.
In fact, one of the major instalments of the festivities includes statues of both figures. These are circulated in homes of people as a representation of the king’s visit as well as the god’s.
While the statue of Mahabali is known as Onathappan, Vamana’s form goes by the name of Thrikkarayappan, the lord of the land covered in three paces. And both make way into the floral arrangement of Pookalam on Pooradam, the eighth day of Onam.
And as the month of Chingam falls by year after year, the people of Kerala continue to await the visit of their beloved king and seek his blessings.