Festival of Onam
The festival of Onam is the most important celebration in the state of Kerala, South India. Like all Hindu festivals, it has both historical and spiritual significance. It is celebrated immediately after the monsoons, in the Kerala month known as Chingam (August/September) – in the Shukla Paksha of the month of Bhadra on Shravana Nakshatram.
Lord Vishnu is the harmonizer in the Hindu Trinity made up of Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the harmonizer; and Shiva, the destroyer. Vishnu is supposed to have taken ten incarnations to uplift the world and free it from the thralldom of adharma or unrighteousness. The whole festival of Onam centers around the story of the fifth incarnation of Vishnu known as Vamana. Unfortunately, this part of the Onam festival was forgotten during the days of British rule. Now, with the revival of Hinduism, this story is slowly being brought into prominence.
The fascinating story of the legendary king called Mahabali is closely connected with the Onam festival. Let us go back in history to the Titan known as Hiranyakashipu, who was Mahabali’s great-grandfather. He was indeed a true asura (demon) who had sworn to erase the memory of Vishnu from his land and told everyone that he was both king and God ("le roi et dieu"). His son, Prahlada, was a great Vishnu bhakta (devotee), and when Hiranyakashipu tried to kill him, Vishnu took the incarnation of Narasimha (man-lion) to save him.
The modern city of Ahobila in Andhra Pradesh is the place where Narasimha is supposed to have incarnated himself. There are temples there for all the different aspects of Narasimha. Strangely enough, Lord Vishnu took two incarnations to bless this family even though they belonged to the asuric (demonic) clan.
When Prahlada took over the reign of the land, he put an end to all adharma (unrighteousness), and the land flourished, and everyone had devotion for Vishnu. His son was Virochana, who was also a great Vishnu bhakta. Bali was his son, and he too inherited this deep love and devotion to Vishnu. His guru was Shukracharya, who gave him all the knowledge necessary to become the greatest ruler of this earth. He had inherited his father’s kingdom, which was in the Deccan plateau, now known as Andhra Pradesh, and he had extended it to include modern Maharashtra and even the northeastern states. The land prospered and flourished under his rule, and everyone loved him. However, too much affluence always corrupts people’s minds, and soon they started to fall from the ancient Vedic concepts of dharma and good behavior. King Bali felt sad at this insidious corruption that was creeping into his realm and with the advice of his guru Shukracharya, he decided to hold one hundred Ashwamedha Yagas (special fire ceremonies) to bring the citizens back to the Vedic way of life.
In the meantime, the gods under their king Indra went to Vishnu and begged him to do something about this kingdom that had been flourishing with noble people at one time and had now become totally corrupt. Vishnu agreed and took birth in a Brahmin household on the full moon day of the month of Shravana (August/September) under the star known as Shravana, called Thiruvonam in Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala). Soon after his birth, he took on the form of a seven-year-old boy. The little boy was called Vamana due to his dwarfish size. He was invested with the sacred thread and given all the accoutrements of a Brahmachari or a celibate student. He held a begging bowl in one hand and a leaf umbrella in the other and was asked to go and beg for his food as is customary for a Brahmachari who had just been invested with the holy thread. At that time, King Bali had just completed his 99th Ashwamedha Yaga and was preparing for the 100th. Vamana set out purposefully towards the palace, but with every step he took, the whole earth shook, as if to proclaim his future grandeur. Such was the splendor emanating from Vamana that when he reached the court where the king, sages, and other great souls were assembled, King Bali, even though he was the emperor of all the worlds, stood up to welcome him. He rose from his throne, went forward to receive him, and gave him a seat of honor. The king felt his heart surge with love for this small boy and told him to ask for anything he wanted, promising to grant it.
His guru Shukracharya had suspicions about the boy’s identity and warned the king not to agree to Vamana’s request, suspecting that he was Vishnu sent by the gods to deceive him. Hearing the name "Vishnu," Bali's heart jumped with joy, and he disobeyed his guru for the first time, expressing his honor at having Vishnu come and beg from him. He told the child to ask for whatever he wanted. Although Vishnu loved him deeply, he decided to humble him, so he requested only three steps of land. Bali laughed and said, “I thought you were intelligent, but now I see you are only a child. You have come to the palace of one who owns the whole earth, and you ask for only three steps of land.”
Vamana smiled mysteriously and replied, “Only the person satisfied with what they have can be truly content. In fact, such a person is indeed a king. What is the use of having more than one truly needs? I want only three steps of land!”
The king agreed and proceeded to solemnize the promise with water, which he took in the palm of his hand, as was customary. He was set to pour it into Vamana’s little palm when he was stopped by Shukracharya, his guru (spiritual guide).
“Oh King!” he said, “This little boy is none other than Vishnu, sent by the gods to defeat you. It is a trick. Do not give him anything!”
The king replied, “I deem it a great honor that Vishnu, the great god of all the worlds, has come to beg from me. Moreover, I will never go back on the promise I made to anyone, even if it means death for me!”
Vamana was happy to hear these words from the mouth of the asura, who he felt was his true devotee. Suddenly, the dwarf's body started to enlarge until it became a gigantic figure whose head couldn't be seen because it soared above the earth. With one step, he measured the whole earth, and with the other, all the intervening space. Then, in a thunderous voice, he boomed, “Where is the third step you promised me, O Bali!”
Without hesitation, the king whispered, “O Lord, if you return to your original size, place your little foot on my head to enable me to keep my promise of giving you three steps of land
Vamana promptly returned to his original size and placed his sacred foot on the king's bowed head, who was determined to keep his promise despite the odds. He pressed his foot down on the king's crowned head and sent him along with his retinue to the netherworld, where he was installed as the sole emperor. Vamana blessed him and said, “From now on, you will be known as Maha-bali (the great Bali)! You are indeed a noble soul and will be known as one of my greatest devotees, even though you were born in the clan of the asuras (demons). I admire you greatly, and I promise to become your gatekeeper, ensuring no enemy shall ever conquer you.”
Mahabali begged to be allowed to return to the land he loved at least once a year. Vamana agreed, and it is said that Mahabali returns every year on Thiruvonam day to his land to bless his people. He is always accompanied by Vamana, who prepares everything for his arrival. Because of this, both the asura king Mahabali and Lord Vishnu as Vamana are welcomed by the Keralites during Onam. This makes Onam a unique festival in which the victor and the vanquished are both worshipped simultaneously.
The British derided us, claiming we had no written historical records. This statement is partly true, as our history dates back to a time before the written word. Western history is often a mere account of kings and heroes, documented by those long after their reigns. Our history, however, resides in the hearts of the people, in the very cells of the citizens of this country. It remains a living thing, woven into the fabric of our lives and celebrated through festivals. Our history was and is conveyed through bards and "kathas" (storytelling of the Puranas) that take place in temples, keeping it intact despite foreign invasions. It inspires us to emulate the heroes and noble kings of ancient times.
As we examine the stories intertwined with the festival of Onam, a practical issue arises. Kerala's historical records do not mention a king named Mahabali, and Vamana is the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, while Kerala is believed to have been shaped by Parashurama, the sixth incarnation. How can we reconcile this discrepancy?
To do so, we must delve into Kerala's ancient history, spanning thousands of years. Parashurama, son of the sage Jamadagni, vowed to avenge his father's death by decimating the haughty kshatriya rulers. After realizing the folly of his actions, he sought divine pardon. Varuna, Lord of the waters, advised him to donate land to Brahmins, providing a safe haven for them. Parashurama threw his axe into the ocean, and thus Kerala was born. He brought Brahmins from Andhra Pradesh and established them in this new land, along with Shiva and Durga temples. Later, artisans and other workers settled there.
Historically, Narasimha's avatar took place in Ahobila, Andhra Pradesh. Vamana's avatar also likely occurred there, as it was Mahabali's legacy from his great-grandfather, Hiranyakashipu. However, the Brahmins from Andhra Pradesh brought the memory of their king Mahabali with them, celebrating his return to their land on Vamana's birthday. This is how the festival of Thiruvonam began in Kerala, even though Mahabali wasn't a Kerala king. Their history traveled with them.
Over centuries, people forgot their origins and began believing Mahabali was their king and that Vamana's incarnation occurred in Kerala. To support this belief, they built a temple to Vamana, known as Trikkakara, in Trippunithura, Ernakulam District. The name is derived from "Trikal," meaning "holy feet" of Lord Vishnu as Vamana. The idol of Vamana was possibly installed by Parashurama himself. It was originally called "Trikal-kara," meaning "place of the holy feet," but later became "Trikkakara."
This is the historical background of the Onam festival, honoring the fifth incarnation of Vishnu as Vamana and showcasing the greatness of a king who honored his promise even in the face of harm. Such an attitude is what rulers should embody, prioritizing their people's welfare and upholding their promises.
Hindus follow a lunar month of twenty-eight days, with each day associated with a specific star. Onam, a shortened form of Thiruvonam, corresponds to the star Shravana in Sanskrit. Vishnu, in his form as Vamana, was born on this day, the full moon day of Shravana. On the eve of Onam, when the star Uttradam (Uttaraphalguni) ascends, Keralites invite Lord Vishnu in his form as Vamana to bless their homes. A pyramidal clay figure with four sides and a flat top, representing the four stages of human life, is made. It's known as Trikkakarappan or the Lord of the Trikkakara temple, Vamana. In modern times, wooden versions are used when clay isn't available. The idol is placed on a banana leaf with rice flour mystic symbols. Two smaller idols are often placed beside the main one, representing Vamana's three steps of land.
The ten-day festival begins with Hastha or Attham, during which children collect wildflowers to create "pookkalams," lovely floral arrangements outside their homes. Each day has a specific pookkalam design. Originally, the pookkalam had ten concentric rounds, representing Vishnu's ten avatars. Nowadays, the focus is on design and flower variety.
The Aramula snake boat race is a famous event during this season. The boats, long and sleek, have carved snake heads. With around two hundred rowers, they synchronize their rowing to a drumbeat. Even a single mistake could cost them the race, reflecting the importance of unity.
This is Kerala's glorious tradition, where each Onam fulfills Vamana's promise. Sadly, recent events in Kerala show that present rulers diverge from greatness, disrupting the spirituality of the land. Let's hope that with Vamana's blessings, Kerala will regain its past glory and have rulers who emulate the noble Bali - Mahabali.