Onam, an Annual festival of South India
With globalization steadily and inevitably growing more and more, people in areas widely separated by geography but sharing a common cultural interests are becoming interested in festivals with origins in the hoary past. Onam is one such festival celebrated by people of all faiths in the strip of land in south India enclosed by a mountain range called the Western Ghats in the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. This lush, green , small state of India with the sobriquet, God’s Own Country, has a unique history and geography. The mother tongue is Malayalam. Famous art forms that have now become internationally acclaimed originated here: Kathakali, Thiruvathirakkali and Mohiniattam. With the internationalization of these performing arts it is time that the most important t festival of the region should also get some international publicity.
The history of Onam goes back to the ancient times of cultural India, and the legends have their origin in the scriptures of the Vedic times. We shall briefly refer to one of the popular legends and then come to the social explanation of the festival which is now steadily increasing in importance in the political and national fields.
The popular legend goes like this: A king called Maha Bali ruled the region in ancient times. Ethnically, he belonged to the Asura race. A king who loved his subjects greatly and was ardently loved and respected by his subjects made the domain of his rule prosperous and, socially impeccable. He was so powerful in his fame and eminence that the gods in heaven (Devas) began to envy him as they could not hold a candle to his aura in the world. They complained to Lord Vishnu who was the personification of the power that sustains the universe to help them regain the respect and love of the people of Kerala which was now completely with Maha Bali. Vishnu said that Maha Bali was such a virtuous and nearly perfect individual that he could not think of harming him. Nevertheless the king had certain blemishes in his character which he would make use of to remove his influence on the Devas. They heaved a sigh of relief and began waiting for Lord Vishnu to carry out his promise. Vishnu then incarnated as a diminutive Brahmin boy called Vamanan on earth and went to Maha Bali’s palace. The king welcomed him with respect and affection, as a Brahmin that time meant only one who has obtained supreme spiritual knowledge. He asked him what he could do for him and offered to give him any thing just for the asking. The boy said that he had no ambitions in the physical world and all that he wanted was three steps of land as measured by his tiny feet. Though a little surprised by this humble demand, the king readily agreed. The diminutive boy then began to grow to gigantic proportions and with just two steps he covered the entire empire of the King and asked where he would put his feet for the third step. Knowing by that time that the person standing before him was none other than the personification of the power that manifests as the universe, and honoring a promise which he would never break, the king bowed before him and said the third step could be taken on his head. Greatly pleased by the unfailing virtue of the king, Vamanan said that he was sending him to a beautiful world called Suthalam. The king then said that he had a request. He wanted to visit his subjects once in a year. Vamanan readily agreed to it. The legend has it that Onam is the time when Maha Bali makes his annual visit to Kerala.
There are some other esoteric, spiritual interpretations for this festival into which we will not go here.
Socially, Onam is a harvest festival. Kerala gets two monsoon seasons, one during June-September, the other during November-December. Onam is determined by the lunar calendar and falls usually in August-September. This is the interval between the two monsoons. A balmy, breezy weather characterizes this season. Kerala which at one time used to produce rice as its main grain crop has two harvest seasons for this grain: August-September and April-May. Onam comes during the harvest season in August-September and socially must have started as a harvest festival. People clean up their houses and their premises. There is large-scale feasting, playing traditional games, and staging of performing arts such as Kathakali, and Thiruvathira. People wear new clothes and visit each other to renew the strength of the family ties.
Recently, this festival has been accorded the status of the predominant State Festival of Kerala and the government and many non government organisations, especially the entertainment media and commercial establishments, run special programs to mark this auspicious occasion. The festival is celebrated by people of all faiths and political leanings.