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Is Onam a festival from Andhra? – Story behind Onam celebrations

“Aarpoooi… Irro, Irro, Irro…”

September brings with it the blissful showers of prosperity as Kerala, God’s own country, readies to welcome her king – Mahabali. Onam is the harvest festival of Kerala. People from all walks of life, irrespective of caste and creed, celebrate it with utmost zeal. Lanes bustle with kids in traditional attire, collecting flowers for rangoli. Not to forget the aroma that circles outside kitchen doors; pappadam, pazham, payasam – just one word – mouthwatering!

Having celebrated a few Onam in hostel, I decided to head home this year.

September 11th, 2019

Onam celebrations in Kerala

“Onam has its origin in Andhra Pradesh; or so the folklorists say. Do you want to listen to the whole story?” My dad sure knew how to wake up a sleepy head ;D

Well, before moving on to his narration, let us look at Lord Vishnu and his 10 incarnations.

List of Maha Vishnu’s incarnations:

  1.  Matsya
  2.  Koorma
  3.  Varaha
  4.  Narhasihma
  5.  Vamana
  6.  Parasurama
  7. Rama
  8.  Balarama
  9. Krishna
  10. and Kalki

STORY BEHIND ONAM CELEBRATIONS IN KERALA

As per the fables, it is Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who trampled Mahabali to Pathal. Following Vamana, came Parashurama the sixth incarnation. He is said to have created Kerala from the sea. Subsequently, today nicknamed as God’s Own land!

Feeling some disconnect here?  So did the folklorists, who felt that Mahabali being in Kerala was illogical. Okay, then what is Onam? Why are we celebrating it? To answer these questions, one must delve into the history of ancient India as described in the lore.

THE BEGINNING – incarnation number 3 and 4

“It all began with the curse of the four Kumaras…”

Kumara? Kumara who?, I asked.

“Well, it is said that Lord Brahma gave life to four “kumaras” or kids, the famous sage quadruplets – Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana, and Sanatkumar. Having been cursed by them, Jaya and Vijaya, the two gatekeepers were sent to the material world as demons. Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu were born to the sage Kashyapa.

As the tale progresses, Hiranyaksha gets killed by Varaha, Lord Vishnu’s third avathara. This untimely death of his demon brother enrages Hiranyakashipu, who then develops enmity towards the Lord.  During Hiranyakashipus penance to please Lord Brahma, Narada educated Leelavati (Hiranyakashipu’s wife) about performing devotional rites to Lord Vishnu.  Prahalada, their son became an ardent devotee as well.

Angered by his son’s devotion to Lord Vishnu, he tried to kill Prahlada several times. The lore goes to say that ultimately Hiranyakashipu was devastated by Narasimha, the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

It is believed that the Narasimha avatar happened at Ahobilam, Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. Today, Ahobilum is a pilgrimage destination that is dedicated to the nine faces of Narasimha incarnation.

This lore chapter ends stating that after the demolition of Hiranyakashipu by Narsimha, Prahlada built a kingdom of peace and happiness.”

Who was Mahabali? Is Onam really from Andhra?

Now where do Mahabali and Onam come into picture? Read on…

“Emperor Mahabali was the grandson of Emperor Prahlada.” Yes, you read that right.

The Start of another era…

“Emporer Virochana, son of Prahalad, took over the kingdom. He too was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. An era went well, we must presume.

Now comes’ Mahabali, the grandson to Prahalada. He too was a righteous and powerful Emperor. Under the guidance of the raja-guru Shukracharya, his kingdom flourished. Wealth accumulated in the country. As excess of anything is always a bane, this extraordinary wealth made people arrogant and greedy. People disregarded their obligations to the community and other beings around them.

Dharma, consciousness, lost in the hunk of wealth; so states the fable.

The lore says that the Lord Vishnu was saddened by the devastation that was coming upon the country. Sensing that the future of the haughty people under the rule of Emperor Bali was not in the right direction, Lord Vishnu sought to restore Dharma.

And the next avatar is here…

As was the practice then, Emperor Bali was performing the Ashwamedha, a ritual done to expand his empire. On the day of Thiruvonam, during the month of Shravan (Chingam), a simple Brahmin Bhikshu, Vamana ,the avatar of Lord Vishnu, approached Emperor Bali and asked for some land.

Emperor was shell shocked to hear this. He said, the lore describes, “Is there no place for a Bhikshu in my rich country?” He then asks Vamana to go ahead and ask for land. Vamana humbly asks for land anywhere which his three steps can measure.

The Bhikshu subsequently takes Maha-Vishnu’s “Viswa roopam”, measures Earth in the first step, sky in the second, and asked where his third step should be.

The emperor bows down to offer his head, where the Lord could place his third step.

Lord Vishnu, being impressed by this magnanimity, granted Mahabali his wish to visit his kingdom this time every year and to be always remembered as a very just and benevolent king.

Since then, the subjects of Mahabali have devotedly awaited in their house on every Thiruvona day of Chingamasam to honor their benevolent king.”

All this is happening in the present-day Andhra Pradesh. So far so good, but then why isn’t this day not celebrated in Andhra???

Why did people of Andhra stop celebrating Onam?

Here comes the twist…

“The Kshatriya King Sahasrarjunan, who had supernatural powers, began to unleash violence on earth. Further, he invaded the monastery of Jamadagni Maharishi many times creating havoc. Finding his menace intolerable, the next incarnation got texted. Lord Vishnu presented himself as Parasuraman, the son of the great sage Jamadagni.

The tyrant continued his attacks on innocent folk. In one such nasty episode, Saint Jamadagni got killed. This hurt his son, Parshurama, who swore to kill the entire clan of the Kshatriya Kings.

To fulfill his vow, Prasurama went to the Himalayas. He took training on military and warfare directly from Lord Shiva. Ten years of serious training and Parsurama returned invincible.

In the ensuing wars, many Kshatriya kings were executed throughout India – Mission accomplished!

Now to the final twist…

After having been on war and violence, obviously not prescribed for any Bhramana, Parasurama knew that the only way for salvation was to donate land to the Brahmanas.

Being a son of a Brahmana, Parasurama had no land of his own. He reaches Gokarna with the axe blessed by Lord Shiva. There, he requested the lord Varuna to bless him with as much land his axe can move into the sea.

It is this blessed land that later came to be known as Kerala. No wonder, its profile shows more length than breadth!!!

Parasurama brought in thousands of Brahmins from the kingdom of Vindhyasatpura (the empire of Mahabali). He built lot many Lord Shiva and Durga Devi temples for them. Years passed and the Brahmins took over the administration of Kerala.

The Brahmins who came from the kingdom of Mahabali never left their beloved celebrations of Onam. They passed on the stories and customs of Mahabali who ruled their land to the subsequent generations.

The ancient history of Kerala, indicate that the power and authority remained with Brahmins in Kerala until the Land Reforms / Control Act came into existence.”

CONCLUSION

Does this justify the lore? Something to ponder…

Later, in Andhra Pradesh, the Bali dynasty perished and the successive dynasties prohibited the worship of Emperor Bali. Thus the celebration of Emperor Bali ceased to exist in Andhra Pradesh.”

Doesn’t this folklore sound realistic and logical? All the missing links and queries answered?

To think about it, the name Mahabali isn’t too synonymous to a Kerala name. Rather, sound more Andharish or from central India. Bahubali rings a bell, doesn’t it? 😀

Anyway, for today, this celebration of happiness and prosperity has been passed on. After all, that’s more important than the story behind it… let this continue for generations to come.

Interesting isn’t it?

4 thoughts on “Is Onam a festival from Andhra? – Story behind Onam celebrations”

A reasonable true story well said… Also in “bhagwat purana” MahaBali was said to be blessed by Vamana murti with his legs( a tradition followed in our culture) and send him to “suthala” and not to “pathal’ as the popular folklore says.. Also Vamana himself promised to guard him throughout..

Hey, you have given a new dimension to Onam.. obviously a lore, the contents do give another thread. indeed liked the read ..and now have me wondering!!!

I can’t quite convincingly say that I have my head wrapped around this in one read….more so from my owninnate inability to plot across genealogy ! But that being said there’s enough to set one on this twisted path (not of your doing obviously haha) tht then wld bring anyone to a this sensible discernment ! Surely this wld need combing overs for me and wld find its way to others who wld be equally fascinated ! Onam greetings of the revised take then and cheers until the next bit !

Quite interesting Meera.I never realised there was a twist to the normal story of Mahabali that we all believed for years .But like you said the celebration of happiness and prosperity has been passed on so why worry about the story behind it..Moreover it is well written and the choice of words and language is
exemplary.

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