I’d bet every forgotten coin in your pocket you’re wondering why there isn’t a food post for a festival that celebrates feasting. And, for that I have to let you down. I haven’t been keeping well lately, and quite frankly, a good old-fashioned Onasadhya (literally translated as Onam Feast) is far beyond my expertise. So, instead, I’m heading to my grandmother’s place to gorge on her cooking. And I have no reason to complain.
Who knows, maybe she’ll let me in on some time-tested tricks and next Onam there’ll be a full-fledged post on how to get a feast going to celebrate the spirit of that inherently Keralite sentiment of
communism, I mean, cultural unity.
Jokes apart, Onam celebrations stem from the fact that it is, in essence, a harvest festival, where Malayalees reap the fruits of their labour and share it among their friends and family. And to this effect, let me pass on the more popular, albeit infamous story, most associated with the festival for those of you who don’t really know what the feasting is all about.
A long, long time ago when monarchies formed the ruling class, and Kerala was a rich and fertile stretch of land that befitted its title of “God’s Own Country”, there lived an Asura King named Mahabali. Contrary to what that prefix might conjure up in your mind’s eye, Mahabali was not a vile and vicious demon. He was a benevolent and prosperous King, loved by all his subjects. It was this adoration and love that, unfortunately for him, was his ultimate downfall.
The Devas of that time, again contrary to your imagination, were not always virtuous and pure. The people’s lack of devotion to them set their insecure minds running wild with jealousy. So blinded were they by their fear of being forgotten, that they went in search of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver. Unbeknown to them, however, was the fact that Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlada, who himself was a devotee of Lord Vishnu and whose devotion tells the tale of another Avatar. But I digress.
Reclining on the coils of the 1000 hooded serpent Adisesha, Lord Vishnu heard their pleas and refused to help because Mahabali was a just and noble ruler. However, he could test the King’s virtues and in this regard, agreed to take on the avatar of Vamana, or the dwarf, on earth.
On the day of the harvest celebrations, King Mahabali was granting all of his people’s wishes, such was his love for his people. And on that day, Vamana too stood in line to ask the King for a wish.
“What do you seek, oh Brahmin?”, asked Mahabali respectfully.
“I do not seek riches or wealth, King Mahabali. My request is far smaller than that,” replied Vamana.
“Whatever it may be, consider it granted”, said Mahabali.
“I wish for 3 steps of land”, said Vamana.
“Only 3 steps? Are you sure?”, asked the King.
“That will be sufficient.” Vamana replied with a smile.
“In that case, your wish is granted.” said the King.
No sooner had the King replied than Vamana started growing! He had grown so large that with his first step, Vamana covered the cosmos! With his second step, he covered the earth! But what of the third?
“I have no more land to place my third step, oh King”, said Vamana, now glorious in his vast form of Trivikrama.
Without a second thought, King Mahabali bowed his head, knowing full well who the resplendent figure in front of him was.
“A vow is a vow, my Lord. I offer my own head as the third step of land you seek to claim”, said Mahabali, sinking to the ground on his knees reverentially.
Trivikrama raised his foot high and brought it down on the King’s head. But before he pushed Mahabali all the way down to Patalok, or the Underworld, he paused.
“Your humility has impressed my, Mahabali. I will grant you a boon.” said Trivikrama.
“I wish to visit my people once a year to celebrate the harvest with them, my Lord. That is my only wish.” said the King.
“And so it shall be”. Saying this, Trivikrama pushed Mahabali down into Patalok where he still lives.
The beautiful floral carpets that adorn the houses of Malayalees the world over during this time are a symbol of welcome to King Mahabali, should he want to pop in for a look around and join in the festivities. The three pyramidal clay structures beside the pookolam serve as a reminder of Mahabali’s sacrifice. And at the feast, an extra serving of food is laid out for the King should he get hungry on his journey through his long-lost Kingdom.