Thiruvonaashamsakal!

Onam Aashamsakal.jpg

Take an extra long bath, put on your prettiest mundum neriyathum, look forward to some Kaikottakali and smile brightly– Mahabali is coming home, and we don’t want him to know we are forlorn without him.

What’s that you say? You have no idea what I’m talking about? Fret not, almost no one ever does. The tale of Onam and Kerala’s most beloved King is available for your edification, below.

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.
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.
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. [link]

I love that story. Whenever I hear or read it, I am thrilled that I was born a Malayalee. Since I’ve never seen a “proper” Onam, I’m thinking about going to Kerala next year (first visit since ’89!), to witness the fabulosity up-close– who’s in? Everyone should see Vellamkali once during their life, right? Chingam 2008: meetup in Alleppey, a.k.a. The “Venice” of the East, y’all! ;)

184 thoughts on “Thiruvonaashamsakal!

  1. Speaking of harvest festivals, is there any difference between Sankranti, Makar Sankranti, Pongal and Lohri? I looked at Wikipedia but did not find a major difference other than local variations in customs.

    I think Maatu Pongal is pretty unique, it’s a day of rest for the cows/buffaloes which are used for farm labor. They are bathed, have their horns painted, and are given sugar cane to eat.

  2. I find it cool when you really get down into the origins of these festivals…they are all ancient and timeless folk festivals of deeply agrarian cultures, which added layers of meaning and interpretation as time went on. And they are SO desi, in that they reflect the ancient rhythms and patterns of life of people who were completely tuned in to their environment, climate, and seasons.

    Festivals also served other purposes…they brought color and excitement to rural lives which otherwise were quite boring on a day to day basis…they served to spur spending and consumerism, helping local crafts and trade…they helped redistribute wealth and resources…they allowed people to challenge the prevailing social order, at least for the duration of the festival…they gave people a sense of culture and identity…also, it’s an opportunity to feast on special dishes which people don’t get to have everyday. I know that in the northern regions, village life used to be very monotonous, with people eating little other than roti and dal for weeks on end…but in marriages and festivals they got to eat halwa, other sweets, as well as different sabziyan, and sometimes meat…alcohol too of course. Lots of ghee. I think we are fortunate that everyday is like a festival for many of us… but it wasn’t/isn’t like that for most.

    Most of all these things are just fun. India is so very rich in festivals, and as someone pointed out above, there is still fortunately a lot of regional variety.

  3. Just to let people know– if there is some holiday your fam/community celebrates, I’d love to put up similar posts for them, especially if they’re not as commonly-known (right now, all I can think of is Baisakhi and Ganesh Chaturthi).

    you can always do durga puja or ponchishe baishakh

  4. So when can I see a Kathakali performance in the NYC area?

    Amit, was Chak de India really good? (meaning really as in truly, not really as in very) It’s playing in the town next door, but I haven’t yet convinced anyone to devote 3 hours of their life to watching it with me.

    And if you want peace and quiet in your life don’t even ask around here on SM;) I am just going by the number of adoring comments to you lately:)

  5. I think Maatu Pongal is pretty unique, it’s a day of rest for the cows/buffaloes which are used for farm labor. They are bathed, have their horns painted, and are given sugar cane to eat

    i LOVE maattu pongal – as a kid, i always thought it was much better to be feeding, painting, and garlandifying (word?) cows than to be sitting in smoke for 5 hours :)

    pingpong, sankranti and pongal are the same (maybe minor variations in the actual rituals, but e.g. both run 3-4 days and begin with bhogi), and i think makar sakranti is the same holiday as celebrated in other states, and occurs at the same time, though is not as big a deal as it is in TN/AP.

  6. Anna,

    Hope you had a great Onam. And I so love the Onam Sadya what a sumptuous vegetarian spread! And do you make the paal’aada pradhaman

  7. Lohri is NOT a harvest festival. That said, I don’t know what the festivities are like for the other (similar) holidays that happen at the same time, but there’s lots of bonfire and bhangra action at Punjabi Lohris, and at night beggars come dancing from bonfire to bonfire. [Disclaimer: I have no idea what things are like all over Punjab, but this was just my experience in Amritsar/Jalandhar]. There’s also the general idea that it’s an important (fertility) holiday for newlyweds. I haven’t really seen a lot of pujas, but that’s probably just a religious variation.

    Could someone break down Pongal/Sankranti for me? I know so very little about other regional holidays, and it’s always interesting to hear what things are like (and how similar they often are). Amitabh, I’m totally with you on the excitement around knowing that these holidays come from deeply agrarian backgrounds, many often transcend religious or regional boundaries and shake up the prevailing social order, even if only for a day…

    Posterity, I’m not sure I understand? As far as kind comments lately, I think there must be something in the water :)

  8. The clamor of admirers who wouldn’t need any convincing to spend three hours watching a movie with you. That’s all I meant:)

  9. Happy Onam! I’m not Malayalee but my mom’s best friend is and she always has an Onam party and we wear the Mundu Neru and do rangoli and get served off of banana leaves (on thalis or plates, sitting on a bedsheet-covered floor). It’s awkward getting served by adults, but since we return the favor I guess its okay! I’m away from home for the first time and I’m going to miss the Onam party. =(

  10. I remember celebrating onam long time ago in kerala, in a bright beautiful Sunday morning. After church as usual, my sister and I attend Sunday school, because of this event, that day our classes were divided in teams to come up with the best flower decoration we where asked by our teachers to go out collect flowers and then come back. We would just run around our neighborhood picking up flower petals.. our neighbors Hindus, Christians or Muslims didn’t mind they just watched and enjoyed the scene in the spirit of onam. Our Hindu neighbors would invite us for the traditional onam meal just as we would for Christmas. That was 15 years ago…I don’t believe it has changed much at all. When we call back home, our relatives still talk about what they did. Same happens during holi, diwali, Christmas, etc everyone celebrated everything. Its fun its beautiful and people are doing it peacefully…so why not? mmm the onam meal gotta have it this year..just amazing!!

  11. Ok mutineers this is a slight digression but it still has something abt Onam and hence I shall be pardoned :) -

    @ 59,

    Anna: I love you. Marry me. Keep doing what you do. It’s great – the love and the passion!

    So whoever wants to marry Anna will have to sing this “Onam” song

  12. Happy Onam from Sydney. I attended a function organised by the mallus here and it was fantastic.

  13. Ardy, isn’t Lohri in January, though? I’m pretty sure it’s not a harvest festival, but rather a winter solstice-esque festival…

    Camille in #141, I did not say it was a harvest festival though looks like it is

    http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/aa011203a.htm

    I had the impression that lohri was always celebrated to mark the winter and lighten up the mood – with the bonfire and the til (sesame) and the revdis, gajaks (all ‘warm foods’). The link does seem to suggest it’s also a Rabi harvest festival and now I am a little confused about Baisakhi. Any thett/pindi punjabis here who can clarify?

  14. The clamor of admirers who wouldn’t need any convincing to spend three hours watching a movie with you. That’s all I meant:)

    Thanks, Posterity :)

    Ardy, no worries, I was just clarifying :) Baisakhi, while religious for Sikhs, is culturally the harvest festival for all Punjabis. Not to digress too much, but if you look at old school bhangra, many of the moves are oriented towards the harvest and a celebration of the harvest (bhangra, the term comes from “bhang”, or hemp). I am 99% sure that Lohri is just what you described it as — a time to lighten up mid-winter since “the worst is over” (weather-wise) and hope that the crops turn out aight. It’s a time to celebrate and grab some down-time before harvest season picks up. I have a feeling that the “fertility” element comes from it being too cold to be out and about, but also too early for there to be much more in the way of sowing/reaping crops, but also just in hope that the harvest turns out ok come March/April.

  15. Kerala is, sadly, the one state in India I’ve never managed to visit – haven’t even flown over it. Of course, it’s very high on my list now. However, I’ve known lots of Keralites and Malayalis in expatriate communities (within India and outside), and can totally testify to how completely cultural-and-non-religious Onam is, in how it’s observed and celebrated.

    Thank you, Anna, for the lovely post. And thank you, Coconut Oil, and all others for emphasizing this aspect. Thank you also for the link to the lovely A.S.K. pics including the ones from previous Onams.:)

    I was away from SM yesterday, and so am a day late in saying ‘Happy Onam’ to all.

  16. So whoever wants to marry Anna will have to sing this “Onam” song

    Brij, thank you very much for the link to this lovely song! I’ve heard it thrice now. Heartily recommend it to anybody who hasn’t clicked yet. Don’t need to understand the lyrics to enjoy it. However, questions arise! Is it in both Tamil and Malayalam? Does the word that sounds like ‘onam’ in the refrain refer to what we’re discussing in this thread? Is the kid who appears at the end a subliminal allusion to Vamana?

    And, although I’ve never been to Kerala, I’ve watched a lot of Velamkalli documentaries. This one from last year, at Payipad gives a good flavor of the events. And someone has added a delicious Bhangra soundtrack with totally apropos lyrics, at around 1:45, when one of the smaller boats capsizes. A lot of fun. :)

    This has been a totally uplifting thread for me!

  17. Happy Onam everybody! This holiday conjures bittersweet memories for me because the last time I visited Kerala (1988- beat you by a year anna :P ) we left back for the States shortly after Onam. During the festival our family took a jeep ride far up into the mountains to visit our apacha’s brother. Almost everyone from that generation (including dear apacha) in our household has since passed away, so it becomes nostalgic to think of them and of being in Kerala so long ago in the summer between 4th and 5th grades. My wife and I were planning on going to Kerala this January but the Chikungunya scare nixed it. Oh well, maybe next year, I’m ready for a culture shock and trying to revive my rusty Malayalam…

  18. I have a dream, that one day, North Indians will know just as much about South India, as we do about the North. ;)

    And on that note, Anna, I’m going to have one more comment about this wonderful song that Brij posted. Since nobody answered my questions yet, and since Runa-ji is answering questions on Punjabi lyrics, I happily did some research of my own and located its lyrics. Although the link from Brij was to a song from a Tamil movie, there is also a Malayalam movie of the exact same name as the refrain from the song! I’m like, totally, WOW!

    So – what is(are) the deeper meaning(s) here, in this bilingual cultural meme? And I would think the kid in the song clip is a subliminal reference to Vamaana, especially since he does take the three bounding steps (twice just to be sure) :0)

  19. Chachaji, it was awesome of you to dig up those links! I wish I had answers for you, but I’m just eagerly waiting for some other mutineer to enlighten both of us. :)

  20. chachaji, this seems to me to be a song in malayalam (with a tinge of tamil thrown in). i’m not completely sure because there are certain phrases that could be completely tamil, but because of the similarities with malayalam, they could also be proper malayalam. if i remember correctly, that characater in the movie was a tambram from palakkad, so much overlap of the languages.

    in case you were wondering, the refrain of the song is that ‘if you and i got together, it would be like onam (i.e. fab and festive(?))’

    i don’t know about malayalam films, but in tamil films, there is not that much of cross-over in terms of malayali characters speaking in malayalam, though there are plenty of actors from kerala who act in tamil films, speaking in tamil. though one of my favourite films, that also happens to be a malayalam film with a good deal of tamil, is manichitrathazh. it’s being remade ad nauseum in other indian languages, but i think the original is stellar.

  21. Puli,

    Like: “Babe,Me ABD, you DBD, lets create a really mixed-up Desi- how about it?” Or ” Wanna make some Aviyal?”

  22. for some vague unexplainable reason, i tend to do much better with the dbd grls….

    I do better with DBD Mallus of any religion, than ABDs. I’ve decided that I will only marry someone fobulous. Yeah, I said it. But I’m going to marry one so I can totally do that. ;)

  23. Besides, that way, I can run around like in that video Chachaji and I are so taken with…”Sundaran neeyum…etc etc”

    :D

  24. for some vague unexplainable reason, i tend to do much better with the dbd grls….

    Bet it’s those Nike sneakers!

  25. I do better with DBD Mallus of any religion, than ABDs.

    one aunty is obsessed with my statement that i would be willing to marry a dbd – self-hate much, aunty? culturally, i definitely relate a lot better with most dbds than abds, but i’ve found there are plenty of abds who are as ‘fobolicious’ as i am…

  26. Does the word that sounds like ‘onam’ in the refrain refer to what we’re discussing in this thread?

    Yes

    Is the kid who appears at the end a subliminal allusion to Vamana?

    NOOOOOO … Kollywood uses a lot clichés in its songs …. the kid is just a part of it , just to show the marriage prospered and the couple is happy .. that’s all

    “in case you were wondering, the refrain of the song is that ‘if you and i got together, it would be like onam (i.e. fab and festive(?))’”

    ak is right in the translation

    chachaji, this seems to me to be a song in malayalam (with a tinge of tamil thrown in).

    The song linked in the comments section here is a tamizh song ( tamizh is right and not tamil ( well according to me : ) )

    i’m not completely sure because there are certain phrases that could be completely tamil, but because of the similarities with malayalam, they could also be proper malayalam. if i remember correctly, that characater in the movie was a tambram from palakkad, so much overlap of the languages.

    Yes you are right about character being a tambram from pallakkad… you will find a lot of palakkad iyer characters in tamizh movies

    Between this movie was a major hit of its time and in some places quite funny actually !! ( trust me in some parts only)

  27. Not all Christians in the U.S. are fundamentalists either. As a Christian myself, growing up in the Deep South, I was told repeatedly by more fundamentalist sects that I was going to hell. But, as for me and mine, we didn’t do that and don’t think like that. My fiance and I are having both Hindu and Christian wedding ceremonies and neither officiant has any problem with that. And yes, the Christian ceremony will be in church.

    As for celebrating the holidays of other religions, are all the Hindus here in the U.S. going to tell me none of you puts up a Christmas tree or lights in December?

  28. It is probably late to add to this thread, but I want to point out that Christianity is as much Indian-or at least Keralan- as any other religion. Even if you don’t accept the legend of St. Thomas (may be hard to verify historically) there is no question that by about the third century CE there were Nazarani communities well established in Kerala. Jains were most likely the majority then, and then Buddhists. The dominance of the Namboothiri Brahmins did not happen till about the ninth century, although there should have been Hindu communities before that as well. Islam arrived in the seventh century in the Malabar coast.

    The Nazaranis of Kerala lived in harmony with the other communities for over a thousand years, maintaining their originally Jewish traditions while assimilating many Indian customs. This got them into much trouble when the Portuguese arrived in 1492 who could be describe as `fundamentalists’. In Kerala it is quite normal for people to acknowledge each others religious festivals. Onam is the one everyone celebrates, the Hindu myth behind it being less important than the joy of the occasion.

    Onam is indeed a harvest festival: one of the two annual harvests takes place in the month of Chingam (Leo) only a week or two before Onam. Being near the Equator, there aren’t proper seasons in Kerala, the climate being dominated by two monsoons. The torrential rains bring many water-borne deceases in addition to floods. All this ends at the beginning of Chingam. Thus, overall it is a happy time, when people focus on what unites them rather than divide them.

    Our local Malayalee association in the US, mostly composed of Christians, celebrates Onam every year. Having grown up in Kerala, I never saw anything odd in that. We also participate in their celebration of Christmas. Children, of course, like any festival that brings them presents. It would probably be harder to observe ekadasi or Lent in the interests of religious harmony.

    Religious celebrations comes from the heart. To overly analyze it and to demand logical consistency just kills the party.