Kerala was once ruled by Mahabali, who was an asura (Demon). Now being a demon, evil and sinful practices were expected of him, but he was completely the opposite. Mahabali was a mighty king who worked for the prosperity of his people. During his reign, everybody was happy and prosperous. But the Devas (Gods) were jealous and felt that he may surpass them and so they urged Lord Vishnu to help them. Mahabali was about to perform a ritual and he had announced that he would fulfill everyone’s wishes. Vishnu decided to use this opportunity and disguised himself as a dwarf, poor Brahmin called Vamana and went to Mahabali. He asked Mahabali to give him a piece of land which he could measure with three footsteps. Generous Mahabali granted his wish. But everybody was in for a shock when the tiny Vamana grew into a giant. He then took his first step and covered all land, and in his second step he occupied the whole of the sky. He then asked Mahabali where should he keep the third step. Unable to find any more land, the noble king then asked Vamana to keep the third step on his head. Lord Vishnu was pleased with Mahabali’s dedication and so he granted him a wish. Mahabali, who unconditionally loved his people, asked for permission to visit his people once a year. And so Onam is celebrated in his honor and people believe their Mahabali visits them on the day.
I’m a firm believer in stories, that stories make people and places. I began listening to them before I could even crawl, often cradled in the arms of the grandmother or watched by a grandfather as he stood sentinel over my bed, telling them. And of all the tales, the one about Onam and a pot-bellied king with a really high swag quotient has been a favorite. Well, it’s Kerala’s most celebrated festival, signalling the harvest season. A festival so encompassing in its spirit and fervor that it’s celebrated by people of all religions, in all pockets of God’s Own Country.
Then, there are Onam’s smaller stories (watch an incredible video here, with subtitles). The ones about Athapookalam, sadya, thiruvathira… these can light nostalgia in the soul of every Malayalee. Athapookalam is the flower bed decorated during Onam. Traditionally, the making of the pookalam begins on the Atham day, ten days before Thiruonam. Originally, the pookalam consists of ten small rounds. The ten steps or rings are believed to represent ten different deities in Hinduism. There is also a belief that the floral carpet symbolically represents the fight between Asuras (demons) and Devas (Demi gods). Each day of the 10-day Onam festival used to be represented on the pookalam. On the Atham day, there will only be a single ring, the next day which is Chithira there will be two rings and finally on the Thiruonam day there will be 10 rings. On the first day, only a single color flower is used, second day two colors and on the final day 10 different colors of flowers is used. I was also told about Guatemala’s tradition of making flower carpets during Holy Week. From Kerala to Guatemala – in the name of flower power.
While Mahabali and the Onam festivities rule the state through the month, another fact is that the festival signifies the harvest season. It is a reminder of where life begins. A reminder of hard work and perspiration, one to be grateful for the men who work the soil and their fruits of labor. It’s also an analogy of ourselves. To constantly work at being our best, to understand the value of many a sacrifice made. To give thanks, for who we are while exploring who we will become.
Prosperity, peace and good health – the RAXA Colective family wishes you this and more on this day!