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Onam: The 'vasudhaiva kutumbakam' festival of India

At a time when the world stands divided in the name of caste and religion, here is a 10-day festival that is celebrated by all alike in Kerala

Kumar Akash  |  New Delhi 

Students celebrates Onam in Kochi, Kerala
Students celebrate Onam in Kochi, Kerala

Kerala, or Keralam in Malayalam — the land of kera (coconut) — is a never-ending array of coconut palms, sun bleached plains, magical monsoon showers, silent valleys vibrant with flora and fauna, misty mountains of the Western Ghats, lush shimmering paddy fields — all things that make it a veritable paradise on earth. And, the best time to visit the place, they say, is during Onam, a crop harvest festival celebrated over 10 days. This year, the state is celebrating on Friday.

This writer, who had been in for his higher studies, recalls celebrations for the Hindu festival as a fairly secular fare in the state.

Celebrated with great enthusiasm across for 10 days every year, falls in the Malayalam month of Chingam, between August and September. For a world divided in the name of religion, caste or creed, a festival like Onam literally spreads the message of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (universal brotherhood) — irrespective of their religion, Keralites celebrate Onam with equal enthusiasm.

Here are a few things to know about Onam:

What is Onam ?

The biggest and the most important festival of Kerala, Onam is a harvest festival celebrated by people from all communities.

During Onam, traditional rituals are followed by a lavish feast with 21 homemade curries and sweet payasam on banana leaf. Spectacular carnivals of elephants, fireworks, boat races, music and the famous Kathakali dance are traditionally associated with this festival.

The government conducts Tourism Week celebrations related to Onam, to showcase the state’s beauty and culture.

The legend

According to a popular legend, the festival is meant to welcome King Mahabali, whose spirit is said to visit Kerala around this time.

The legendary King Maveli, or Mahabali, is said to have unjustly been pushed down into the nether by Vamana, the fifth ‘avatar’ of Vishnu. They say there was perfect equality, peace and happiness in his kingdom. No one dared to lie or cheat. But devas (supernatural beings) grew envious of his acts of benevolence and growing popularity. After the banishment, Mahabali was given the special privilege to visit his subjects once a year.

However, historians look at the whole thing differently. According to them, Mahabali, a Buddhist, was defeated by kings from Narmada (currently Maharashtra) in the North. Subsequently, they conquered the land and sent him into exile in Ezahm, currently Sri Lanka. It was believed that permission was granted to Mahabali to come and visit his subjects during the period when they traditionally celebrated Sravanolsavam. Therefore, for Keralites, it may be a symbolic description of the Aryan invasion and the imposition of their culture on the native Dravidian populace of Kerala.

How is Onam celebrated ?

Of the 10 days over which Onam is celebrated, Atham is the first day and Thiruvonam the final. People wear new clothes, decorate their houses and spread flower carpets, called ‘Pookalam’ in front of their houses. Special pujas are offered in temples in early mornings and younger members of families take blessings and gifts from the elder ones.

There also are an enchanting mood of thanksgiving, idyllic pleasure, swings under mango trees, music and dance.

The Onam message

The festival carries the message of basic goodness of the man, who is selfless in his deeds towards fellow human beings. It is also about a dream — a dream about peace and serenity in the world; economic well-being and resource sharing; love and brotherhood; high ethics and morals; and human justice and conservation of nature.

People dream of prosperity for half their lives. But having achieved that, they crave spirituality and morals — some of the dimensions that you associate with the making of Kerala, ‘God’s Own Country’.

Ellavarkum Onasamsakal (Happy Onam to everyone) !

First Published: Fri, August 28 2015. 11:11 IST