The lush, green state of Kerala is gearing up to celebrate its most important festival, Onam. It is also preparing to welcome Mahabali, the legendary and beloved king who once ruled Kerala. Every year, Mahabali returns from the netherworld to visit his dear subjects and see for himself if they are doing well. To welcome him, Kerala hosts a 10-day cultural extravaganza of dance, music, and folk arts that attracts tourists from India and abroad in large numbers. Malayalis from all over the world try to make it to Kerala during this time and celebrate Onam with family and friends.
Who was Mahabali, actually? He was an Asura king who became too powerful for the Gods’ liking. Feeling threatened by Mahabali’s growing power, the Gods decided to neutralize the threat by sending him underground. And the God who took up this task was none other than Lord Vishnu. Hindu mythology says that Vishnu took his Vamana avatar for the purpose of cutting Mahabali down to size. Ironically, for this, he took the avatar of a dwarf Brahmin.
An ancient sage called Kashyap had two wives, Diti and Aditi. The Asuras were born to Diti and the Gods or Suras to Aditi. Hence, they were actually related. Their gurus were Brihaspati (for the Gods) and Shukracharya (for the Asuras). The two gurus were good friends, but the same cannot be said of their proteges.
In popular iconography, Mahabali is often portrayed as a large, dark-hued man with a bushy mustache, looking resplendent in regal attire, gold, and gems. A gold crown sits on his head, and he stands reverently, with folded hands before a simply-clad dwarf, who represents Vamana.
Vishnu appears before King Mahabali and humbly asked the generous king to grant him a piece of land that could be covered in three strides. The Asura king readily agreed, quite unsuspecting of the wily dwarf’s real identity and intentions. As soon as his wish was granted, Vamana began to grow in size. Then he measured the sky and the Earth in two steps. “Where shall I put my foot next for the third step?” he asked Mahabali innocently. The totally flummoxed Mahabali replied, “You may keep it on my head!” He had no choice as it did not behove a king to break his promise.
So Vamana placed his foot on the king’s head and pushed him into the nether world, effectively disposing of the threat to the Gods. But to compensate for the trickery that he underwent, Mahabali was given a boon that allowed him to return to his former kingdom once a year. In Kerala, the occasion is celebrated as Onam.
Kerala celebrates Onam for 10 days. During these 10 days, Kerala decks up like a bride. Floral rangolis can be seen before most homes, people wear new clothes, and many cultural events featuring dance forms like Mohiniyattom, Kathakali, Thiruvathirakkali, Pulikkali, etc., are held to showcase Kerala’s traditional arts. Schools and colleges are closed during the 10 days. A traditional feast called the Ona Sadya featuring several dishes, including 3 kinds of payasams, is a highlight of the festival. The men and women wear the traditional Kerala attire, the mundus and saris with gold borders, called kasavu mundu and neriyathu. The trees lining the broad avenues of major cities are lit up with illuminations, and on the concluding day, firecrackers are burst to give Mahabali a grand send-off.
The most heartwarming thing about the Onam festival is that all the communities who have made Kerala their home come together to celebrate it, irrespective of religion, caste, creed, language, and region. It is a state festival and the most important festival for Malayalis who leave no stone unturned to show their beloved king that they are indeed doing well. The saying, ‘Kaanam vittum, Onam Unnanam’, meaning that ‘one must eat the Ona sadya even if one has to sell one’s property,’ says it all. Mahabali was known to be a benign king under whom the people of the kingdom prospered. So even the descendants of his erstwhile subjects regard him with great affection and gratitude. If one visits Kerala during this time, one can see a person dressed up as King Mahabali going around enquiring of people if they are doing well. Such was his concern for his people.
Onam Festival 2021 is from August 12 – 23. The main day, Thiruvonam is on Aug 21. On Onam, an auspicious day for wealth and abundance, AstroVed will be sponsoring a special Fire Lab and elaborate Poojas for Vishnu’s Vamana Avatar, following a century-old Kerala tradition. According to traditional practice, it is believed that this Fire Lab and Poojas can help you overcome financial challenges and receive the gift of 8 types of wealth blessings.
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