Onam: The Forgotten Meaning Behind This Beautiful Mythology

As the groovy South Indian artist Rinosh George lyrically puts it:
“I’m from the southern part of India, and yes I’m a Malayalee. Kerala is the state where I’m chillin’ with Mahabali…”

Being the proud Malayalee I am, there is one particular festival which myself and my fellow Keralite’s look forward to in the year and that is Onam.

For my non-Malayalee readers: Onam is known to be the biggest festival celebrated in Kerala, India. It marks the commemoration of the grand home-coming and selflessness of the mythical King Mahabali/Maveli, (get the Mahabali reference now?).

To understand why we celebrate our King Mahabali- well, it’s based off a mythical story that God’s Own Country, Kerala, was at one time ruled by an Asura (mythological lord with immense power), known as Mahabali. He was greatly respected and known to be judicious and extremely generous. There was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class then, the rich and the poor were equally treated. There was no corruption or crime. Under the reign of Maveli, everyone was happy.

Of course, as all stories go, there must be some dysfunction of some sort as things can never be too perfect. Several Gods were becoming concerned of the growing popularity and fame that Mahabali had earned through his generosity and charitable acts. Feeling threatened of their own supremacy, the Mother of God’s Aditi, sent Lord Vishnu disguised as a poor Brahmin named Vamana to test the King by asking for a piece of land.

The King being benevolent, said to the disguised Vishnu that he could have as much land as he wanted, but being that this was a test- the disguised Vishnu requested that he just wanted as much land as could that could be covered by his three steps.king-mahabali2

Just as he agreed to grant the land, Vamana/Vishnu began to expand to the size of cosmic proportions. With his first step, he was said to have covered the whole of the earth and with the other, he covered the skies, but he did not have a place to place his third step and asked the King where is the land to place it.

Mahabali then understood that if he were to take another step, it would destroy the rest of the earth and him being selfless, he folded his hands and bowed before Vamana/Vishnu and asked him to place his last step on his very own head so he could keep to his promise along with save his people. The Brahmin stepped on the Kings head which pushed him down to the nether world. By then, the Brahmin appeared as his true self before the King explaining himself and the test he put the King through (which he passed)- and granted a boon to him.

The King being attached to his Kingdom and people requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once a year- and thus, Onam is celebrated. It is the festival that is celebrated to pay tribute to the sacrifice and selflessness of the King Mahabali.

Since I was a child, Onam was always something special to me as it was a time of gathering and my true link to Kerala in regards to festival holidays. I remind you, growing up in America, many years ago- to find a Malayalee family was quite rare, (now of course it’s the opposite, but more on that in a later post). Back then, I looked forward to the Onam event which is always put up on such a grand scale. Me being a dancer, I would be preparing my performance(s) for weeks, then to run around the ‘Onam Venue’ restlessly, hardly even touching my onam sadhya (which was served on a paper plate), as I had to get ready for my performance in the chaotic mess of the greenroom that was set-up. That was my Onam.

That is what Onam was/is here in America- and unlike the typical 10 days, it lasts a month and a half or so as every Malayalee association has to celebrate it on whatever weekend they managed to book a venue at. I didn’t truly celebrate Onam until 2014, when I was actually in Kerala, India.

That was when I experienced the full 10 days of various festivities, the many sadhyas, and the feeling of ‘home’ with my family and neighborfriends. I think on one of the days, I actually had two full Onasaadhyas, and if you hadn’t had a proper sadhya on the banana leaf, you’re seriously missing out. onam-sadya-traditional-food-picture

Dismally, today, I find much of the past Kerala missing, thanks to the rapid urbanization that’s taking place. The lush green paddy fields are quickly disappearing as there are a lack of laborers as the youth are unwilling to take up farming. The backwoods is quickly being depleted to make room for hotels, lodges, and homestays.

Coming back to present day Onam; when we celebrate Mahabali’s visit, I wonder what his impression of his once prosperous and happy state would be. Are the sacrifices he made worthwhile? What about fellowship and happiness? He wanted people to be selfless not selfish, but with how our society is run today, is that even possible? The story behind the festival Onam, the messages it left us- are we as Malayalees today following through to it? Recall the happiness and joy of Mahabali and his people when he ruled his country, his selflessness in allowing Vishnu/Vamana to put his third step atop him knowing that he no longer will walk amongst his people. Do any of us recall any of this as being an integral part of Onam?

The once prestigious, mythological festival of Kerala, has now become extremely commercialized with the various shop advertisements and sales. It feels as though we all have grown to have the mindset of the supreme Gods-power, money, and a hunger to for status.

Recall that Onam was meant to be a festival of gathering, togetherness, and harvest-which has seemed to have gotten lost amidst the competition of who will have the better saree, the better sadhya, the best pookalam, the gossip, etc. The once mythological festival that was to symbolize sacrifice, selflessness, dignity, peace, and harmony, has turned into a place of corrupt, cheap politics and discriminatory people and places. The legend says that Kerala was to be a place of fellowship. It literally was to be as the saying, “love thy neighbor as you would love thyself,” but I believe its more of the later that we are seeing…

But even amongst our modern day urbanization and frenzy of the today world, Onam is still a festival that is relatively observed where ever there are Malayalees in this world. Pushing aside the commercialization of the festival; they somehow managed to create a feeling of nostalgia of what Onam originally was, and I guess with that mindset-it sort of gives a balance to our lives away from our Kerala home.

If we want our beloved Onam to continue to be known for it’s true meaning, then let us all remember not to discriminate and treat all those around us with respect and care.  Retell the story of Mahabali to the little ones and let the message of sacrifice, selflessness, dignity, peace, and harmony resonate with them to live and pass onto the next generation. Celebrate Onam with it’s true undisputed meaning rather than create a new one.


**Disclaimer: Being that I was raised a Christian Malayalee, the stories of Hindu mythology may slightly be distorted as it is done through my own research, classes, and word of mouth, so please kindly forgive/correct me if anything seems out of line.**

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