The Land of Kerala
The Tourism Department of Kerala calls this narrow strip on India's western coast 'God's Own Country'. Whoever decided upon this line must be a gifted person. Kerala is God's own country. The Arabian Sea has carved inroads deep into its terra firma giving rise to life and a people profoundly connected to this land. Its people have so imbibed the character of this leaf-shaped piece of earth that today they constitute one of the most progressive and literate communities in India.
Malayalis (the people of Kerala) are as simple as they are progressive and their centuries-old traditions reflect this simplicity. Kerala was once home to King Mahabali (the grandson of Prahlad, see Holi), the most dynamic ruler in the history of Kerala, and whose reign is referred to as Kerala's glorious Golden Age.
According To Mythology
The Bhagwat Purana (ancient Hindu scriptures) tells the engrossing story of Mahabali. He was a noble and virtuous king. Although he was an asur (demon) king, he was known far and wide for his generosity and good sense. It is said that if a person asked Mahabali for something, he never returned disappointed. The story goes that once Mahabali decided to perform the Ashvamedha Yagna (a horse-sacrifice in order to be proclaimed the most powerful and distinguished king in the three worlds - heaven, earth and the nether world). The devtas (gods) felt especially threatened by this ritual for as noble as Mahabali could be, he was after all an asur. The devtas rushed to Lord Vishnu (the Preserver in the Hindu Holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer) imploring him to rein Mahabali in.
The Interesting Tale of Mahabali and The Dwarf
These are celestial matters and we should leave the gods to work in their own mysterious ways. Coming back to Mahabali and the elaborate preparations of the Yagna; the venue of the Yagna was to be the banks of the holy Narmada River. It is believed that while Mahabali was proceeding to Narmada, a charming little boy holding an umbrella stopped him. Seeing the boy who was actually a dwarf, Mahabali realised that this was no ordinary fellow. Mesmerised, he told the dwarf to ask him for anything he desired. The dwarf simply asked him for the measure of area he would cover in three strides. Taken aback by such a trivial wish, Mahabali asked him to demand something more substantial. The dwarf did not change his mind and again repeated his wish. Mahabali had little choice but to agree. The dwarf assumed his original self - Lord Vishnu who had appeared in his fifth avatar or manifestation (the fifth reincarnation of Vishnu in the form of a dwarf is called Vamana).
Assuming gargantuan proportions, he took his first step on earth, the second foot was leisurely placed on the heavens and well, you could say that not much was left for the third step! So Mahabali, the magnanimous king that he was, rose to the occasion and offered his head for the last stride of the Almighty. Vishnu promptly obliged, thus pushing Mahabali into the realms of the nether world. Moved by the nobility of this demon king, Vishnu proclaimed that even after losing every worldly possession, Mahabali would earn eternal wisdom and the love and affection of Vishnu. Mahabali accepted his fate unflinchingly and only asked for one wish in return. This wish, more than anything, proved how worthy a king he was. He asked for the chance to come back to his cherished land and people at least once a year. It is believed that since that day, Mahabali comes every year to visit this sun-dappled land of coconuts and his beloved people. This day is called Onam.
The Celebrations of The Festival
Onam falls, on the 12 th day of the waxing moon in the Hindu month of Bhadon (around August September) once the golden yellow rice fields have been harvested at that time of the year. There is no specific god associated with Onam. Neither is any special puja (a ritualistic prayer ceremony) performed.
The celebrations of Onam start ten days before the big day. The first thing people do is decorate the gates or main doors of their homes. No balloons or festoons for these folks. They adorn their homes and gates with fresh branches of red coconut (red coconut is considered auspicious on Onam), banana leaves and coconut fronds.
If you happen to be in Kerala around Onam, you will see banana and coconut fronds just about everywhere, sometimes even popping out of trucks and buses or tied to the horns of the neighbourhood cow, all with a pinch of the auspicious vermilion powder.
The first day of Onam is called Attam. Women get up earlier than usual, have a bath, wear fresh clothes (women wear off-white cotton saris with a zari border on festive occasions), neatly pin strings of jasmine and other seasonal flowers in their long black tresses and adorn themselves with jewellery. Children get dressed and go to the market to buy flowers and flower petals which they bring back to their mothers and sisters. The 'mummies' prepare a small part of the ground on the eastern side of the house (east is considered sacred because the sun rises in the east and Hindus have worshipped the rising sun since time immemorial).
The House Yards are smoothened out, and cow dung spread evenly on it. Flowers are placed over this patch in beautiful patterns. These patterns are generally circular and a lump of cow dung is placed in the centre symbolising Ganesha (the elephant-headed god - see Ganesh Chaturthi).
The creation with dung and flowers is called Attam. Once the Attam is completed, the women sing songs in praise of Mahabali and perform a lovely dance of simple but graceful steps around it.
The Attam is considered very sacred and a fresh decoration is made everyday till Onam. The old decoration is not removed, instead the cow dung is moistened with water, then a thin layer is spread over the Attam and a new pattern is made. People sing and dance around the Attam everyday and remember Mahabali, who perhaps watches them from somewhere. These days, community Attam where all the members of a community come together and rejoice around the sacred spot, is becoming quite popular. These very members take turns to keep a constant vigil over the Attam.
On the third day, people hold big feasts in their homes and invite their relatives and friends. The feast is strictly vegetarian and consists of rice, which is eaten with various curries, curds, vegetables, crisps, pickles, and sweets (see Cuisine).
The Celebration Is Full of Fun and Folic
Onam is a daytime festival. Shops and markets are spruced up and some shops are even illuminated at night. School children and some government organisations like the police force participate in a parade in Thiruvananthapuram (the capital of Kerala) and the Governor takes the salute.
Temple elephants are ornately caparisoned and made to join in the parade. The government also takes out elaborate floats on Onam. Scores of people come to watch the parade and there is a feeling of festivity in the air. Mahabali's people are happy. For him, it's time to return to the vicissitudes of the nether world and ponder over the memories of his lost kingdom, perhaps still unsure if 'eternal wisdom' was worth losing his very own 'God's own Country'. But he'll be back same time next year and he can count on that.