Onam celebrates culture and mythology for Malayalis in Mason

Ally Guo | Staff Writer

 During the festival of Onam, King Mahabali returns to Kerala to visit his people.

Onam is an annual harvest festival celebrated in the Kerala state of India during the month of Chingam of the Malayalam calendar. Despite technically being a Hindu holiday, it is observed by Malayali communities of many religions both in and out of Kerala. It typically occurs in August and September, falling on August 22 through September 2 this year. The ten-day holiday is filled with feasting and festivities as it commemorates an important Hindu legend.

Senior Nandana Nair said Onam celebrates the beloved King Mahabali, who is said to have ruled Kerala kindly and wisely in ancient times.

“The subjects in [Mahabali’s] kingdom loved him because the rich and poor were treated the same –there was no discrimination,” Nair said. “[However], the Gods weren’t too happy about that because the king [was] getting all this attention and fame [and] they wanted to remain superior.”

Because of their resentment, the Gods sought out Vishnu, one of the main Gods in Hinduism who acts as a preserver of the world. Vishnu, who has ten avatars, took on the form of his fifth avatar, the unassuming dwarf monk Vamana, and approached Mahabali to ask for three steps of land, to which Mahabali agreed .

“When the king agreed, Lord Vishnu started growing,” Nair said. “He grew and grew [to] cosmic proportions. The first step he took covered the entirety of the Earth, the second step he took covered the entirety of the sky, and the third step he would have taken would have destroyed the entire Earth. So the king [said], ‘Take the third step on my head.’ [Vishnu] took the third step on the king’s head, and the king [got] pushed into the netherworld.”

According to junior Sneha Menon, Vishnu was so impressed by this display of selflessness and humility from Mahabali that he granted Mahabali a reward.

“Vishnu was really surprised over Mahabali’s generosity,” Menon said. “He decided Mahabali could return to his kingdom every once a year to meet his people or look over his kingdom.”

Many festivities occur during Onam to honor this return, including several traditional forms of dance. 

One such dance is Thiruvathira, which is performed by women around lamps and candles. Another is Kathakali, which uses elaborate costumes, vibrant facial expressions and vivid hand gestures to enact mythological legends.

Another important tradition is Pookkalam, a floral variation of the Indian art form Rangoli. While Rangoli is practiced throughout India during a variety of different holidays and occasions, Pookkalam is only created during Onam.

“We use flowers to create Pookkalam, which is using flowers to make decorations [and] designs on the floor,” Nair said. “And we put candles and lamps around it.” 

More and more flowers are typically added to Pookkalam designs over the course of the festival, sometimes with only certain colors or flower varieties each day, causing them to grow in size. It is typically placed at the entrances of buildings to welcome Mahabali into the home.

Alongside performances and decorations, since agriculture is a major part of Kerala, food is also an important component of Onam, especially the massive vegetarian sadya (feast).

“The most important day of Onam is the Thiruvonam,” Menon said. “On that day, [we eat] a nine course meal, and there’s four to five dishes of vegetables. Some of the food items are rice, sambar, rasam [and] avial. At the end of that, [there’s] a sweet dessert called payasam. They’re all served on a banana leaf; everything is on a banana leaf.”

However, though many Onam festivities have carried over into Malayali communities outside of Kerala, Nair said the scope of Onam celebrations in Kerala couldn’t be matched and she sometimes wishes she could have the full experience.

“During Onam, the entirety of Kerala is celebrating,” Nair said. “We have huge boats with 50, 60 people on there, and we have boat races. There are elephants that are decorated on the street, greeting every house. People are dancing. There’s so much singing. People are playing instruments. That’s how you celebrate it in Kerala, but the most I can do here is have a cooked meal with my family.”

Despite this, Nair said she greatly values the sense of community Onam fosters, especially in how it can bridge together people of so many different backgrounds and beliefs.

“Like the myth said, the king is coming to visit us,” Nair said. “That’s why it’s such a big deal, and [everyone] kind of put[s] religion aside and just come[s] together as a family, as a community to celebrate this big festival. That’s what I really like to see because a lot of religions celebrate it. It’s not just Hindus celebrating it, so that’s what’s really special.”