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The Meaning and Origins of Onam and Other National Festivals
Like every other culture, the Kerala culture also celebrates some important festivals. Since Kerala is composed of several ethnic and religious groups, the country has a wide variety of festivals. Some of these are not just special for Keralites, but common feasts, like Christmas and Easter, which are celebrated by Christians of all denominations all over Kerala, India, and the world. Like-wise, Muslims celebrate their festivals of Id and Bakrid all over India. The Hindus also celebrate certain festivals like Divali, Dasara, and Holi in most parts of India while certain regions have their own special feasts like Pongal in Tamil Nadu and Durga Puja in West Bengal. Keralites celebrate one festival as their national festival irrespective of caste and creed; Onam. There are a few other minor festivals that are dear to certain sections of Keralites like Thiruvathira, Vishu, Teyyam and Sabarlmalai Pilgrimage which will be briefly described below. It is impossible to describe all the other important local festivals; their name is legion; every temple and church have their own annual festivals.
Thiru Onam (from Sravana?) is celebrated in the second half of August (the Chingam month of Kollam Era) when the August monsoon rains come to an end and the summer heat gives way to the pleasant warmth of the Kerala autumn. Anthropologists see in Onam a great fertility rite, the ceremony of Thanksgiving for a plentiful harvest. For Keralites Onam is the celebration of the return of Mahabali, their once and future king. This king once ruled over the Keralites during the Golden Age before caste existed, "when all men were equal, when no one was poor, when there was neither theft nor dread of thieves" (Maveli natu vanitum kalam/Manusharellam onnu pole ... ). The complete folk-song is given below in its English version:
When Maveli, our King, rules the land,
All the peoples form one casteless race.
And people live joyful and merry;
They are free from all harm.
There is neither theft nor deceit,
And no one is false in speech either.
Measures and weights are right;
No one cheats or wrongs the neighbor.
when Maveli, our King, rules the land,
All the peoples form one casteless race.
The celebration of the return of Mahabali takes four days for the Hindus. The house and yard are cleaned; a temporary mud stall is put up and washed with cow-dung solution for the royal visitor; flowers are strewn over it for the king to sit upon; pyramid-shaped images of the king called Trikkakarappan, made of wood or clay, are placed upon it as the onlookers applaud and cheer in sheer welcome. Pujas (worship service) are performed during the four days of Onam every morning; parents give children presents, especially dresses on the occasion. Large scale feasts are held at this family reunion -- increasingly Onam is becoming a holiday like Thanksgiving which is characterized by family reunion and feasting. Three foods used to be essential for the festival: split bananas, pappadam
(wafer) and payasam
(rice pudding). After the sumptuous midday dinner, all the family members dressed in fine clothes amuse themselves: adults and boys play hand-ball, chess, dice, and/or cards -- wrestling and display of swordsmanship are not common any more —; women and girls sing and dance. In the backwaters of Kerala, young men race the long snake-boats (chundan vallom
) — a reminder of snake-worship (?).
Onam celebrates the legendary King Bali. Only two versions are told these days. According to the orthodox Brahminical version, Mahabali was a wicked demon (asura) king who was yet "good" enough to become a yogi by virtue of his austerities (tapas). He controlled earth and heaven; the gods, of course, felt threatened by Bali. So they sent Vishnu to get rid of this menace; Vishnu assumed the form of a holy beggar, the comical dwarf Vamana, and asked for the gift of as much land as he could cover in three paces. Vamana grew into cosmic size and in three strides encompassed the whole earth and heaven and Bali was forced to retire to the only space left,
patalam, the nether world.
In the Kerala version, Bali is Mahabali, the benevolent ruler who aroused the jealousy and envy of the gods. He gave up his kingdom not just because he was the victim of a trick but because he was too generous to refuse a request and too honorable not to fulfill a promise. He asked Vamana to place the third stride on his head; Vamana-Vishnu kicked him down into the nether world. Mahabali, however, was granted the wish, before he retired, that on a day each year he be allowed to return to his dear people, the Keralites, to see them and to be with them as father and friend.