Onam is a religious and ancient agricultural holiday of the Hindus celebrated in India and around the world. With preparation and celebration this festival lasts ten days, each with a meaning and importance of its own. In the southern part of India Onam is honored as the time of rice harvest. The days of Onam teach people to honor Vishnu, as King Mahabali honored this god by honoring Vishu’s authority over him.
The celebration includes festive rituals, canoe races, traditional foods including Sadhya which is a feast served on a banana leaf, dance and music mark this harvest festival. Dances include Thiruvathirakali, a circle dance performed by women dancing around a lamp; Kummattikalia colorful-mask dance; and Kummatikali dancers who go house to house telling the legends of Onam. In India processions of elephants are also included in the dances.
The ten days of Onam are each important, holding rituals of their own. The first day is called Atham, the first day of the month of Chingam when it is believed that King Mahabali began preparation for travel to his capital at Kerala. A floral carpet called Pookalam is created on this day and will grow during the festival.
Chithira is the second day of the festival. Yellow and orange flowers are added to the pookalam and homes are cleaned in preparation for the final day of the festival called Thiruvonam. On Chodhi, the third day of the festival new flowers are added to the pookalam and people shopping for clothing which is a traditional gift of the season. The fourth day, Vishakam celebrates the rice harvest and again the pookalam grows. On the fifth day, Anizham, snake boat (Vallam Kali) races are held.
On the sixth day schools and offices close in India and people prepare for travel to see relatives. Moolam, the seventh day is a day of sadhya feasts and dances. On the eighth day, Pooradam, idols are washed with rice flower and a parade is held. On Uthradom, the ninth day people shop for vegetables and other perishables needed for the feast on Thiruvonam, the tenth day of Onam. Tradition says Mahabali descended into the underworld on the ninth day and comes to rule his mythical kingdom on the tenth day, Thiruvonam, which is the reason for this festival.
On Thiruvonam activities begin early in the morning. People clean their house, apply rice flour batter on the main entrance (a traditional welcome sign), take an early bath, wear new clothes and distribute alms to needy. Cities are lit with with lights and fabulous displays of fireworks. Sumptuous Onam sadya feasts are prepared. The eldest female member of each family presents clothes to all the members of the family. Special prayers and masses are organized in temples. The pookkalam is prepared to welcome Mahabali.
One of the main stories told during Onam is the legend of Mahabali or Bali the son of King Virochana and Devamba. Bali grew up under the tutelage of his grandfather Prahlada who taught him righteousness and devotion. He was a King who reigned over the mythological lords. His kingdom was one of peace and prosperity, but he was not satisfied. He expanded his kingdom conquering the whole world and then the underworld and Heaven. In doing so he defeated a a good king Indra, a deva.
One day in King Mahabali’s court, God Vishnu, appearing in his fifth reincarnation as a small Brahmin child named Vamana, asked for a very small plot of ground from Bali’s three kingdoms, Vamana said, “I am only asking for what land I can cover in three steps.” Mahabali was humored, and against the advice of his counselors agreed to the request.
Vamana then grew in size so he could cover both earth and underworld in his first step. With his second step he traversed all of heaven. When Mahabali saw there was nowhere else to step he offered to the god Vishnu his head as a platform. The people of Mahabali’s kingdom objected, fearing for their king. But the king answered all things living or dead are god’s creation so and the King Bali would bow his head to lord Vishnu even if it resulted in his demise.
The step sent Mahabali into the underworld, but seeing the king’s devotion lord Vishnu declared he would be Indra, the leader of the devas (mythological lords) in his next incarnation.
Onam is an ancient agricultural festival which continues to be celebrated in the state of Kerala on the southwest coast of India and around the world including an observance at the Hindu Center in Charlotte, NC. This year’s celebration will be held Saturday 5th September 2015 at 7400 City View Dr Charlotte NC 28212