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Home > Regional Festivals > Onam
Onam
OnamOnam, important ten-day festival of kerala, celebrated not in the honour of any god or saint but an asura king Bali. It falls at the close of south-west monsoon winds in the malayalam month of Chingam(August - September).

The Puranic legend of Lord Vishnu in the form of Vamana (sixth incarnation of Vishnu) and King Bali is behind the celebration.

It was a common practice in those days, for a King invading another kingdom to acquire additional territory. Indra, the king of demigods went on war with the king of Asuras. Mahabali, the King of Asuras defeated Indra and proceeded to occupy Indra`s territory. Aditi, Indra`s mother, carried out the Vrata (Poyavrata i.e. ritual that has to be observed from the twelfth day of the bright half of Kartika) with a pious heart. Lord Narayana appeared before her and informed her that he would himself take birth in her womb and help Indra. Later, on the twelfth day of the bright half of the month of Bhadrapada, Aditi gave birth to a son of uncommon effulgence. That child, "Vamana Murti", demonstrated His divine powers by doing marvelous deeds even when He was a child.

Balichakravarthi (Bali, The Emperor) or Mahabali, was the grandson of the devout, Prahlad, the son of Hiranyakashipu. Bali, like Prahlada, was engaged in the glorification of God. Mahabali who was performing the sacrificial rite called Viswajith declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yajna. Bali wanted to propitiate the Gods so much that, with their blessings, he could extend his beneficent rule over the entire world. Lord Narayan, in the form of Vamana, utilised this opportunity to shower Grace on him.

OnamVamana came to the Yaga- shala and asked for land equal to the extent of his three steps. On hearing him, Bali`s preceptor, Shukracharya, who could have vision of the future told Bali that the one, who had come to seed a gift from Bali was not an ordinary Brahmin but Lord Narayana Himself who had assumed this form. He advised Bali not to promise the lad anything. But Bali was a king who would never go back on his word and told his Guru that he would never break his promise.

Bali, however, was determined to honour the word given to Vamana. So saying, he told Vamana to measure the three feet of land as desired by him. Vamana grew in size. He covered the whole Earth in his first step, Heaven in his second and for his third step Bali offered his head. Emperor Bali, was liberated by being sent to the netherworld by Lord MahaVishnu who incarnated as Vamana.

Honouring the great devotion and sense of sacrifice of Bali, the Lord granted him permission to visit his subjects once a year. Thus, Keralites celebrate Onam festival to commemorate the Advent of Lord Mahavishnu as Vamana Avatar and to rejoice the annual visit of Emperor Mahabali to meet his subjects.

During Onam, the feast and festive mood of the people, dressed in their best, is considered reminiscent of the prosperous and truthful life of the subjects during Bali`s reign. People wear new clothes (Vastra) during Onam. The `Vastra` also stands for heart. Thus, the significance of wearing new clothes is about making the heart new by removing all bad thoughts and feelings. People forgetting their sectarian outlooks, join together to welcome the auspicious `Thiruvonam` day.

Onam Boat RaceThere are feasts and people give presents. In olden days, sports included Thallu (kind of boxing with open palm indigenous to kerala). At Cheruthuruthy, appreciative crowds gather on the green, where the dancers, resplendent in their brilliant costumes, re-enact the well-loved stories of the epic heroes and virtuous women. Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. Performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance to the beats of instruments like udukku and thakil. Snake-boat racing is a popular event during Onam. The Vallamkali (boat race) is one of the main attractions of Onam, and is best seen at Aranmulai and Kottayam. About a hundred oarsmen row huge and graceful odee (boats). Oars dip and flash to the rhythm of drums and cymbals in each boat. The songs are generally typical in character and concern people well known in Malabar. Above each boat gleam scarlet silk umbrellas. Their number denotes the affluence of the family owning the boat. Gold coins and tassels hang from the umbrellas. In the evening, girls perform the Kaikottikkali (Thiruvathirakkali) in the open, dancing around the traditional brass lamp.

For the people of Kerala, the golden age is not Rama Rajya but Bali Rajya . During Bali`s reign there was neither flood nor drought, neither famine nor pestilence, neither theft nor murder and plenty ruled the land and men were equal).
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