Today is the Onam festival day in Kerala and my nostalgia takes me back seven decades to my childhood days spent at Mavelikara – a town in Central Travancore [ now Kerala state ]. The Onam back then was a festival time for two weeks with holidays for everyone . We got new dresses stitched and took part in many games like ‘ Thalapandu kali ‘ a native form and a mix of hand ball and football using a soft leather ball
“ pulikkali “ [ leopard dance ] with a modified format where we introduced a hunter with a toy gun who try to shoot the leopard and the leopard dodging him ,with accompaniments of improvised drums ! . The girls and ladies laid ‘pookkalam “ [ floral displays ] on the front courtyard of the house for 10 days in the morning preceding the “Thiruvonam “ [ the main onam day ] . We , the boys went around the fields nearby fetching assorted native flowers for this purpose. On the ninth day , a “mathevar “ [ replica of King Mahabali ] is added to the “pookkalam “ and invoked ,anticipating his visit!
We had “sadya” – special feast for lunch for at least four days , the main feast on the Thiruvonam day. Many vegetarian items were cooked for this feast. During those days, Onam was celebrated mainly by the Hindu community. My father, a lawyer, used to invite his non – hindu colleagues and friends for lunch and we all used to serve them an elaborate “sadya“. After lunch, they stayed back for a game of cards for a few hours. In the evening, we went for a newly released Malayalam movie at the local cinema. On the fourth day, following the Onam Sadya, snake boat races used to be held at many places, the main one being on the Pamba river adjacent to the Aranmula temple. We made it a point to witness this spectacle!
Onam is a harvest festival for Kerala . But there is a legend widely believed about this day ! In the ancient times , a powerful king named Mahabali ruled this region , his kingdom extending to most of present South India . He became very powerful and challenged even the “ Suras “ , the divine clan at the influence of “ asuras “ of the nether world . The “ Suras “ or Devas approached Lord Vishnu for a remedy . As Mahabali obtained “ Amrit “ the nectar for eternal life by trickery , he could not be killed in a normal way . Lord Vishnu refused to enter into a confrontation with his devotee Mahabali and instead used a tactical ruse by taking the incarnation of a dwarf Brahmin avatar named Vamana . Vamana approached Mahabali who was performing an Aswamedha Yaga to celebrate his victory over the three worlds . Vamana requested Mahabali for three steps of land – a modest one for a king which he obliged . Vamana [ Lord Vishnu ] metamorphosed into the giant Trivikrama form , took all of heaven in one step and all of earth in the second step . Mahabali recognized Lord Vishnu and offered his head for the third step . He is believed to have been banished to the nether world with permission to visit his constituency and people once every year ! Another version says the king got “ Moksha “ [ Liberation] on that day! Onam is believed to be the day when King Mahabali visits his people and everyone puts up a show of prosperity to their beloved king who relives his times by looking around his constituency.
Mahabali is claimed by many regions in India – Mahabaleswar in Maharashtra , Mamallapuram in Tamilnadu , Sutala in Gujarat and Bharuch in Utar Pradesh .However , it is believed that the incident where Vamana tricked him to banishment occurred at my home town Mavelikara which is a simplified form for the name ‘ Mahabalikkara “ – Maveli is a term even today to describe King Mahabali .
Onam is now a major regional festival officially celebrated by the state government ., cutting across all religions . Malayalis wherever they are celebrate this festival with pomp and grandeur . Community feasts , cultural programs , boat races , sports and games events are all part of this mega cultural event . We have done so whether I was serving in a remote high altitude area in Ladakh or in many of the Army Cantonments where we lived. In Malayalam there is a saying “ kanam vittalum , onam unnanam” which literally means one must celebrate Onam even if one has to part with his land holdings ! . No one wants to let down their beloved king Mahabali when he visits his people once a year !
Mark Wiens – The famous food Vlogger on Onam Lunch