Onam Celebration: A Perspective

Onam is a major annual event for Malayali people in and outside Kerala. It is a harvest festival, one of three major annual Hindu celebrations along with Vishu and Thiruvathira, and it is observed with numerous festivities. Onam celebrations include Vallam Kali (boat races), Pulikali (tiger dances), Pookkalam (flower Rangoli), Onathappan (worship), Onam Kali, Tug of War, Thumbi Thullal (women’s dance), Kummattikali (mask dance), Onathallu (martial arts), Onavillu (music), Kazhchakkula (plantain offerings), Onapottan (costumes), Atthachamayam (folk songs and dance), and other celebrations.

Onam is a great traditional celebration firmly rooted in Hindu Dharma and Hindu ethos. Onam is undoubtedly a Hindu festival. Just because religions of Kerala also join the celebration, it does not become a “secular” festival. To call it that way is an ill conceived, reductionist outlook that attempts to de-Hinduize the great Hindu festival of Onam.

Claiming that Onam is merely a “harvest festival” or a “welcoming Mahabali” festival with a background of Vamana vs Mahabali conflict – all this is born out of either cultural illiteracy and ignorance or the result of deliberate anti-Hindu narratives created in the past few decades.

Remember that Vamana, an Avatar of the Supreme Lord Vishnu stomping Mahabali on his head with His left leg is NOT a ‘denigration’ for Mahabali. Which Malayalam tradition or literary text describes it that way? It was the supreme fortune of Mahabali that he held the holy feet of Vamana on his head, that’s what the tradition holds. Many great poets and artists of Kerala, including the famous Raja Ravi Varma, have depicted and painted this scene so evocatively. And, don’t forget the great sculptors of Gupta, Pallava, Chola, Chera, Pandya, Chalukya, Hoysala, Vijayanagara periods spanning over 15 centuries who have depicted this divine scene in temple after temple in so many ways. Mahabali “returning to earth” every year to visit his subjects was a boon that was bestowed by Vamana. Even a childish knowledge in the tradition is enough to know that Mahabali is not the enemy of Vamana, but an eternal devotee. He is the foremost of the Bhagavatas and one of the 7 Chiranjivis. That’s why he is celebrated.

Also, the tradition of celebrating Vamana and Mahabali is pan Indian and not just specific to Kerala or Malayalees. For example, Mahabali’s earthly visit is celebrated on the day of Karthigai Deepam in Tamil tradition, and on the day of Bali Pratipada in Bengali and North Indian traditions too. The oldest literary reference to Onam by name appears in Madurai Kanchi, a Tamil text that forms a part of Sangam Literature – “கணம்கொள் அவுணர்க் கடந்த பொலந்தார் மாயோன் மேய ஓண நல்நாள்”.

It is important to keep stressing this great cultural bond that the festival represents year after year, so that it is not forgotten and the attempts to reduce the festival in terms of narrow regionalism and cultural distortion don’t succeed.

Wishing a happy Onam to all!

Written by Jataayu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Hong Kong Desi.

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