History of Onam
Legend has it that there once lived a wise and benevolent demon king called Emperor Mahaballi who was a devout worshiper of Lord Vishnu. He was a kind and fair King and his people were prosperous.
Even though Mahaballi was a just king, he was a demon which made the gods jealous of his prosperity. They sought Lord Vishnu’s help and who decided to prove Mahaballi’s good nature by testing him.
To do this Vishnu took on the avatar of a poor young Brahmin by the name of Vamana. At around this time Mahaballi had made a declaration that he would help anyone if they made the request during his worship. This is when Vamana approached Mahabali and made a small request before the King – all he wanted was the land he could cover in three steps.
Without a second thought, the Emperor granted Vamana all the land he wanted. This is when the true nature of Vamana was revealed. He began to grow in size and with one step he covered the entire sky and with the other he covered the whole of the Earth! Mahabali realised that the simple Brahmin boy was actually a mighty god. Since there was no more land to cover in the third step, Mahablli offered his head as a place for Vamana’s third step.
With this step Mahabali was pushed to Patala, the kingdom between the living and the dead. For this mighty act of devotion Mahabali was made king of the underworld and the permission to return to his subjects for 1 day every year. We celebrate Onam every year to mark Mahaballi’s homecoming every year.
The festival is celebrated in Kerala. This 10 day event occurs during the month of Chingam and ends on Thiruvonam. Dirt mounds representing Mahaballi and Vamana are made in the courtyards of houses and decorated with elaborate flower arrangements.
One of the highlights of Onam are the Vallam Kali or snakeboat races. This is where teams of about 100 men compete in traditional Kerala war canoes in a race along the backwaters of god’s own country, Kerala.
On the day of his arrival people hold an Onam sadya, a grand feast of 21 dishes that is served on banana leaves. Everything from the pickle to the papadam is lovingly shared amongst family and the meal usually ends with a big serving of sweet and delicious payasam.
Lamps are lit and a palmyra tree is erected in front of Hindu temples. This palmyra tree is surrounded by a wooden fence covered with dry palmyra leaves. To signify Mahabali’s descent back to Patala, the fence is lit and burnt to ashes at the end of the festivities.
- Mahaballi was an asura (demon) but yet worshipped Vishnu. Can you find any other cases where asuras did in fact worship the suras?
- The traditional Onam sadya consists of 21 different treats. Can you find out what a traditional Onam sadya would have on its menu?
- The oldest Vallam Kali is the Payippadu Vallam Kali. Can you find out how it started and where it is held?
- Vishnu has appeared in many different avatars. Can you find out 2 more avatars of Vishnu?
- Find somebody from Kerala and interview them about how their family celebrates Onam. Ask them the following questions:
- What is the most exciting part of celebrating Onam?
- Is there a special ritual that your family does? Explain.
- What is your favourite dish of Onam Sadya?
- (If your friend is not Hindu) How is your Onam celebration different from a typical Onam in a Hindu household?
Note: Don’t forget to check out the onam Story video