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King Mahabali & Onam The legend of King Mahabali is the most popular and the most fascinating of all legends behind Onam. Onam celebrates the visit of King Mahabali to the state of Kerala every year. The festival is celebrated with fervour as King Mahabali is greatly respected by his subjects. King Mahabali is also popularly called Maveli and Onathappan. Reign of King Mahabali The story goes that the beautiful state of Kerala was once ruled by an Asura (demon) king, Mahabali. The King was greatly respected in his kingdom and was considered to be wise, judicious and extremely generous. It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali. Everybody was happy in the kingdom, there was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class. Rich and poor were equally treated. There was neither crime, nor corruption. People did not even lock their doors, as there were no thieves in that kingdom. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease in the reign of King Mahabali and everybody was happy and content. Brief Sketch of King Mahabali It may be noted Mahabali was the son of Veerochana and grandson of Prahlad, the devout son of demon King Hiranyakashyap. Mahabali had a son called Bana, who became a legendary king in his own right and became popular as Banraj in central Assam. Mahabali belonged to the Asura (demon) dynasty but was an ardent worshiper of Lord Vishnu. His bravery and strength of character earned him the title of "Mahabali Chakravathy" or Mahabali - the King of Kings. Challenge for Gods Looking at the growing popularity and fame of King Mahabali Gods became extremely concerned and jealous. They felt threatened about their own supremacy and began to think of a strategy to get rid of the dilemma. To curb the growing reign of Mahabali and maintain their own supremacy, Aditi, the mother of Gods seeked help of Lord Vishnu (the preserver in the Hindu trinity) whom Mahabali worshiped. It was said Mahabali was very generous and charitable. Whenever anybody approached him for help or requested for anything he always granted. To test the King, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf and a poor Brahmin called Vamana. He came to the Kingdom of Mahabali, just after Mahabali performed his morning prayers and was preparing to grant boons to Brahmins. Lord Vishnu takes Vamana Avatar Disguised as Vamana, Vishnu said he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land. The generous King said, he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed. A learned adviser of the King, Shukracharya sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making the promise. But, the generous King replied that it would be a sin for a King to back on his words and asked the Brahmin to take the land. The King could not imagine that the dwarf Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself. Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana began to expand and eventually increased himself to the size of cosmic proportions. With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the other step he covered the whole of the skies. He then asked King Mahabali where is the space for him to keep his third foot. The King realised that he was no ordinary Brahmin and his third step will destroy the earth. Mahabali with folded hands bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise. The Brahmin placed his foot on the head of the King, which pushed him to patala, the nether world. There the King requested the Brahmin to reveal his true identity. Lord Vishnu then appeared before the King in his person. The Lord told the King that he came to test him and the King won the test. King Mahabali was pleased to see his lord. Lord Vishnu also granted a boon to the King. King Mahabali Requests for a Visit to Kerala The King was so much attached with his Kingdom and people that he requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year. Lord Vishnu was moved by the Kings nobility and was pleased to grant the wish. He also blessed the King and said even after losing all his worldly possessions, the King would always be loved by Lord Vishnu and his people. Genesis of Onam It is the day of the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala that is celebrated as Onam every year. The festival is celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. Every year people make elaborate preparations to welcome their King whom they affectionately call Onathappan. They wish to please the spirit of their King by depicting that his people are happy and wish him well. The second day, Thiruvonam is the biggest and the most important day of this festival. It is believed that King Mahabali visits his people on the second day.
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Onam in Kerala Onam is the biggest festival of Kerala. But, there is a lot more to Onam than being just a festival. Onam reflects the faith of the people of Kerala; A belief in their legendary past, religion and power of worship. It shows the high spirit of the people who go out of the way to celebrate the festival in the prescribed manner and a grand fashion.
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Onam Rituals Onam is the biggest and the most important festival of Kerala. Festivities of Onam continue for ten long days. Of all these days, most important ones are the first day, Atham and the last or tenth day, Thiru Onam. Religious and traditional people of Kerala sincerely follow all the customs and traditions set by their ancestors. A number of cultural programmes, dances, songs and feasts mark the festival. Rituals for the Atham Day Celebrations commence from the first day, Atham. The day is regarded holy and auspicious by the people of Kerala. People take early bath on the day and offer prayers in the local temple. Notable feature of this day is that making of Pookkallam or the flower carpet starts from this day. Attha Poo is prepared in the front courtyard by girls of the house to welcome the spirit of King Mahabali in whose honour Onam is celebrated. Boys play a supporting role and help in gathering flowers. In the following days, more flowers are added to Pookalam. As a result Pookalam turns out to be of massive size on the final day. Preparations for the Thiru Onam starts in a big way and everybody gets engaged to mark the festival in their own style. House cleaning starts on a massive scale and everything is made to look neat and tidy. There is also a set breakfast consisting of steamed bananas and fried pappadam (pappad). This remains the same till the day of Thiru Onam. A swing is also slung on a high branch of a tree. It is decorated with flowers and the youngsters take great delight in swinging and singing, that goes simultaneously. Rituals for the ninth day-Utradam A day prior to Onam is the ninth day of the festivities and is known as Utradam. On this day tenants and depends of Tarawads (traditional large joint family sharing a common kitchen and consisting of more than hundred people) give presents to Karanavar, the eldest member of the family. These presents are usually the produce of their farms consisting of vegetables, coconut oil, plantains etc. This gift from the villagers to Karanavar on Onam are called 'Onakazhcha'. A sumptuous treat is offered is offered by Karanavar in return for Onakazhcha. Village artisans also offer a specimen of their handicrafts to the Karanavar of Nayar Tarawads. They receive gracious rewards for this courtesy. The Big Day - Thiru Onam Kerala appears in its grandiose best on this day. Cultural extravaganza, music and feasts add colours of merriment and joy to the God's Own Country. There are celebrations all around the state and everybody takes active participation in them; Onam has assumed a secular character and is celebrated by people of all religions and communities. Morning Rituals People wake up as early as 4 am on the day of Onam. Day begins with cleaning of the house. In the earlier days, front courtyards were smeared with cow dungs. The custom is still followed in villages, where the houses are not cemented. On the day of Thiruvonam conical figures in various forms are prepared from sticky clay and are painted red. These are decorated with a paste made of rice-flour and water and are placed in the front court yard and other important places in the house. Some of these clay figures are in the shape of cone and others represent figures of Gods. Those in the shape of a cone are called, 'Trikkakara Appan'. The tradition of making clay cones for Trikkara Appan has its roots in mythology, which says that festival originated at Trikkakara, a place 10 km from Cochin. Trikkara is also said to be the capital in the reign of legendary King Maveli. Elaborate prayers ceremonies and poojas are also performed on this day. A senior member of the house plays the role of the priest and conducts the rituals. He wakes up early and prepares ata; Ata is prepared from rice flour and molasses for Nivedyam (offerings to God). Lamps are lit up in front of the idols and all members of the house join in for the ceremonies. Priest offers ata, flowers and water in the names of the God. As Onam is also a harvest festival people thank God for the bountiful harvest and pray for the blessings in the coming year. A peculiar custom is followed after this, wherein male members make loud and rhythmic shouts of joys. The tradition is called, 'Aarppu Vilikkukal'. This represents the beginning of Onam. It is now the time for members of the house to dress up in their best attire and offer prayers in the local temple. Most people wear new clothes on the day. There is also a tradition of distributing new clothes on Onam. In Tharawads (traditional large family consisting of more than hundred people), Karanavar, the eldest member of the family, gives new clothes as gifts, called Onapudava, to all family members and servants. Other members of the family exchange gifts amongst each other. The Big Feast - Onasadya After completing the morning rituals, it is time for the family to get ready for the grand meal called Onasadya. The biggest and most prominent place in the house is selected to lay the meal which is traditionally served in a row on a mat laid on the floor. The central place in the row is occupied by the eldest member of the family. In front of him is placed a lighted brass lamp at a distance. Towards the west of the lamp is placed a small plantain leaf on which the food is served. This is an offering made in the name of Lord Ganapathy. Thereafter, the meal is served to all present. The elaborate meal consists of 11 to 13 strictly vegetarian dishes and is served on banana leaves. There is a fixed order of serving the meal and a set place to serve the various dishes on the leaf. A lot of preparation and hard work goes in making of the scrumptious Onasadya. Time for Fun - Dances and Games After the grand meal, it's time for people to indulge in recreational activities and enjoy the festival. Men of strength and vigour go in for rigorous sports while senior and sober members pass time by playing indoor games like chess and cards. There is a set of traditional games to be played on Onam which are collectively called, Onakalikal. It includes ball games, combats, archery and Kutukutu (Kerala version of Kabaddi). Women go in for dancing activities as there are specific dances like Kaikottikali and Thumbi Thullal for the festival of Onam. Women performing the graceful clap dance called Kaikotti kali in their traditional gold bordered mundu and neriyathu presents a splendid sight. Besides, there is also a tradition of playing on a decorated swing hung from a high branch. Onappaattu - Onam Songs, are also sung on the occasion. Celebrations and cultural programmes are held all across the state to mark the festival of Onam in which a large number of people participate. Prominent amongst them are Vallamkali- the Snake Boat Race and entertaining events like Kummatti kali and Pulikali. The other highpoint of Onam is the dazzling display of fire works. The state of Kerala can be seen engulfed in light and spirit of merriment when people burst patassu or fire crackers.
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Onasadya Onasadhya is the most delicious part of the grand festival called Onam. It is considered to be the most elaborate and grand meal prepared by any civilisation or cultures in the world. It's a feast which if enjoyed once is relished for years. Onasadhya is prepared on the last day of Onam, called Thiruonam. People of Kerala wish to depict that they are happy and prosperous to their dear King Mahabali whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at the time of Onam. Legend goes that Mahabali who was so attached to his people that he requested Gods to allow him to visit Kerala every year. People of Kerala wish to convey that they are enjoying the same age of prosperity as was witnessed during the reign of King Mahabali by preparing a grand Onasadhya. Rich and the poor, everybody prepares Onasadya in a grand fashion as people of Kerala are extremely devotional and passionate when it comes to Onasadya. So much so that, it has lead to saying, 'Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam'. Meaning - men go to the extend of selling all their possessions for one Onam Sathya. The Meals Rice is the essential ingredient of this Nine Course Strictly Vegetarian Meals. All together there are 11 essential dishes which have to prepared for Onasadya. Number of dishes may at times also go upto 13. Onasadya is so elaborate a meal that it is called meals, even though it is consumed in one sitting. Onasadya is consumed with hands, there is no concept of spoon or forks here. Traditional Onam Sadya meal comprises of different varieties of curries, upperies - thigs fried in oil, pappadams which are round crisp flour paste cakes of peculiar make, uppilittathu - pickles of various kinds, chammanthi - the chutney, payasams and prathamans or puddings of various descriptions. Fruits and digestives are also part of the meal. The food has to be served on a tender Banana leaf, laid with the end to the left. The meal is traditionally served on a mat laid on the floor. A strict order of serving the dishes one after the another is obeyed. Besides, there are clear directions as to what will be served in which part of the banana leaf. These days Onadaya has toned down a little due to the urban and hectic living style. Earlier, Onasaya used to be even more elaborate. There were about 64 mandatory dishes - eight varieties each of the eight dishes. At that time three banana leaves were served one under the other to accommodate all the dishes. How exactly they were accommodated in the tummy..is a food for thought!
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Pookalam Pookalam is an intricate and colourful arrangement of flowers laid on the floor. Tradition of decorating Pookalam is extremely popular in Kerala and is followed as a ritual in every household during ten-day-long Onam celebrations. 'Pookhalam' consists of two words, 'poov' meaning flower and 'kalam' means colour sketches on the ground. It is considered auspicious to prepare Pookalam, also known as 'Aththa-Poo' during the festival of Onam. People believe the spirit of their dear King Mahabali visits Kerala at the time of Onam. Besides making several other arrangements, people, especially adolescent girls prepare elaborate Pookalams to welcome their most loved King. Making of a Pookalam Kilo and kilos of flowers, lot of dedication, creativity, technique and team effort are the basic essential of an eye catching Pookkalam. Athapoovu are usually circular in shape and multi-tiered colourful arrangements of flowers, petals and leaves. Use of powder colours, desiccated coconut or artificial flowers is prohibited. Pookalams are normally laid on the front court yard of the house. Idols of Mahabali and Vishnu are placed in the center of the Pookalam and worshiped. Diameter of a Pookalam normally ranges from four to five meters. Ritual of making the flower mats continues for all ten days of Onam. Designing starts from the day of Atham and is made ready by Thiruvonam day. Basic design is prepared on the first day. Size of a Pookalam is increased by adding more to it on every passing day hence a massive Pookalam gets ready for the main day of the occasion. Its a big creative task, as designers have to think of a new design ever day. Various flowers are used on each day as a specific flower is dedicated to each day of Onam. Commonly used flowers include Thumba (Lucas Aspera), Kakka Poovu, Thechipoovu, Mukkutti (little tree plant), Chemparathy (shoe flower), Aripoo or Konginipoo (Lantana), Hanuman Kireedom (Red pagoda plant) and Chethi (Ixora). Of all these flowers, Thumba flowers are given more importance in Pookalam as they are small in size and glitter in the the soft rays of the sun. 'Thumba Poo' is also considered to be the favourite flower of Lord Shiva and King Mahabali was a devout worshipper of Shiva. On the next day of Onam, Thumba flowers are used to decorate Onapookalam. The arrangement is not touched for the next 15 days. On the 15 th day, called 'Ayilyam', Pookalam is decorated again. On the next day, called Magam, Pookalam is given a cut in its four corners with a knife. This marks the end of Pookalam decorations for the year. Some also follow the tradition of erecting a small pandal over the completed flower carpet and decorating it with colourful festoons. Making of Pookalam is itself a colourful and joyous event. Being a team effort it helps to generate feeling of togetherness and goodwill amongst the people. It is animating to watch women as they prepare Pookalam while singing traditional songs. Giggling and sharing jokes between the thought provoking and back breaking job. Trends Earlier, people used to make efforts to collect flowers for designing a Pookalam. Children used to get up early in the morning and gather flowers in their small 'Pookuda' (basket) from the village gardens. These days, the trend has changed and people have the option of buying flowers from the market in the shape and colour of their choice. Pookalam decoration competitions are organised by various societies and groups all over the state on the day of Onam. They have become extremely popular and witness huge public participations. Big prizes are also kept in these contests as they have turned up to be extremely competitive events. A large number of people assemble just to have a look at the innovative and meticulously prepared art pieces. A beautiful design, though it is said, is created in the heart, use of technology is also in vogue in designing of a Pookalam. People prepare design first on computer and then implement it on floor. This saves a lot of time and energy and helps the designers to come up with stunning Pookalams.
Thumbi Thullal Thumbi Thullal is a fascinating all women dance and singing event performed in Kerala on the occasion of Onam. While men engage themselves in energetic sports, womenfolk perform Thumbi Thullal and have their share of fun. Wearing their best sarees, stunning jewelery and fragrant gajras, a group of women sit in the formation of circle to play Thumbi Thullal. In the centre of the circle sits the main performer. Lead singer initiates a song in her melodious voice by singing the first couplet which is taken up by other women. The sequence continues song after song with the lead singer initiating the couplet every time followed by a chorus from other women. Joyful clap dance also goes on in rhythm with the singing. It is a colorful spectacle to watch women in their carefree mood. The event continues amidst jeers and laughter till the day comes to its end.