Onam celebrates the homecoming of demon king Mahabali who once ruled Kerala. It is said that under his judicious rule, Kerala witnessed a golden era.
Celebrated for a glorious 10 days in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, with street parades, pookalam, pulikali dance, snake boat race, and much more, Onam transforms God’s Own Country into a festive riot of colours.
The Myth of Mahabali
Bali, in South Indian languages, is sacrifice or giving. Maha bali translates to ‘great sacrifice’.
The story goes that, like his grandfather Prahlada, Mahabali was a seeker of the benevolent grace of Lord Vishnu. Although he had conquered all of the vast lands and heavens, he was dissatisfied with his earthly life. He, therefore, decided to sacrifice all his possessions for the greater good and well-being of his people. It is at this fateful time that a brahmana called Vamana (dwarf) arrives holding an umbrella made of palm leaves over his head.
The kind and generous Mahabali welcomes Vamana, offering the Brahmin anything he wants. Vamana asks the king for all the land that he can cover in three strides. The wish is granted. But, at this instant, Vamana grows taller and bigger, covering the entire universe with his two feet. Seeing as there is nowhere to place his third feet, he asks the king’s head as the third feet, to which the king obliges willfully.
Mahabali makes the master sacrifice, surrendering his own sense of self beyond everything he owns. The great sacrifice happens on the day of Tiruvonam. Onam is therefore a festival of giving, offering, and listening, to the other.
Although he has transcended the realm of earth, Mahabali is granted his wish of returning once each year to meet his people.
The Onam Affair
Onam marks the yearly visit of king Mahabali to his beloved kingdom. There are folktales - Maaveli Naadu Vannidum Kaalam (When Maveli, our King, ruled the land) - that testify to the popularity of the demon king, even today.
Day one marks the preparation for King Bali’s visit. On this day, people decorate the entrances of their homes with colourful floral carpets or Pookalam, with as many as 10 concentric rings of flowers arranged in beautiful patterns and colours. Fascinatingly, more layers and rings are added on consecutive days. Day five unravels in an uproar of sport, with the famed and spectacular snake boat race. Up to 100 oarsmen row the long and elegantly carved snake boats in Aranmula and other regions of Kerala.
It is believed that Mahabali, having arrived in Kerala, visits the homes of his people, on Thiruvonam. Edging closer to Thiruvonam, people prepare and place clay pyramids that represent Mahabali and Vamana, in the center of the Pookalam. Homes are decorated and the grand Onam feast, Onam Sadya, is prepared to treat the visiting king.
Traditionally the sadhya is a delicious spread of a variety of dishes including upperi (banana chips), maranga curry and naranga curry (sour lemon pickles), erissery (a sweet-spicy vegetable preparation) , parripu curry (thick lentil gravy), inji curry (ginger pickle), sambhar (savoury lentil soup), moru kachiyathu (seasoned buttermilk), chenna mezhkkupuratti (fried yam), avial (mixed vegetable with coconut gravy), payasam (sweet rice pudding). Onam is a feast for both the senses and spirit!
Krishna is the most endearing of Gods. His life, as told in the songs, ballads, and epics of India, speaks of the life-affirming thought that defines Indian spirituality. Is there any other God that embodies the joys of life as gracefully, playfully, and as captivatingly, as Krishna? It must come as no surprise then, that he continues to command the love and imagination of so many people.
Janmashtami, Krishna’s day of birth, is the first of many stories that define his time amongst the mortals. The torrential rains that herald his coming into this world, are reflective of the turmoil the people live with, and the ensuing calm, a reflection of the new dawn soon to follow. Through the course of his childhood, he vanquishes many a demon, ultimately slaying the demon king, Kamsa.
Of Krishna, there are as many stories as there are stars in the sky. What makes them so enchanting and captivating is that we learn the simple lessons of life in these stories. His playful nature tells us to not take life too seriously, even if there are much larger things at play.
To celebrate Krishna is to celebrate love.
From the divine love of his consort Radha, to the spiritual longing of Mirabai (the Rajput queen who renounced royal life for the Lord), Krishna has won many hearts, both within and without his leela (act or play). Mirabai’s poems are a testament to Krishna’s emphasis on bhakti (devotion) as a way to salvation.
Come to my Pavillion
Come to my pavilion, O my King. I have spread a bed made of delicately selected buds and blossoms, And have arrayed myself in bridal garb From head to toe. I have been Thy slave during many births, Thou art the be-all of my existence. Mira's Lord is Hari, the Indestructible. Come, grant me Thy sight at once.Mirabai
Utterly, Butterly, Simple.
It is no secret that butter was Krishna’s mainstay in Gokul. That is why, on Janmashtami, the special offerings (prasadam) include a sumptuous serving of butter with flattened rice and jaggery.
And as we savour the concoction, we reminisce about the story of butter tax which was levied by Krishna. Krishna made sure to collect his dues from the Gopis (cow herds) of the quaint village by any means necessary - persuasion or coercion. Yet he remained dearly loved by all. If that isn’t evidence of how good intentions outweigh actions, what is?
Today, in parts of India, particularly in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the Dahi Handi (Pot of Curd) is yet another imitation of Krishna’s never-ending antics to have butter. Just as Krishna relied on the support and strength of his brother and friends, during the game of Dahi Handi, boys and men find new brethren among strangers, as they give each other a hand or leg up in pursuit of a common goal.
From the confines of high art, to calendar portraits, and Gokul Sandal tins, Krishna truly permeated modern life in all its nooks in the subcontinent. His stories are so popular that the one about butter tax is captured in a beautiful painting titled “Daan- Lila” in the Harvard Art Museum.
This Janmashtami, we urge you to revel in the simplicity of the Lord’s ways and persevere on this journey that is life, as you celebrate both the little things, and the big things.