Maveli Nadu Vaneedum Kalam Manushar Ellarum Onnupolay (During the reign of King Mahabali, all were equal)?the first line of what is considered as Kerala's?folk anthem? is a perfect example of the myth of a golden age in the past or of an Utopia to come, which is present in the traditions of many peoples all over the world. While people in the north dream of Ram Rajya, the average Keralite is contented with his vision of ?Maveli Nadu?.
Onam, the harvest festival, which falls in the month of Chingam (August-September, the first month of Malayalam new year), commemorates the legendary rule of King Mahabali, who was pushed into the nether world by Vamana, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, allegedly for his arrogance (In fact, the virtues of Mahabali threatened Indra'sposition as the Lord of the heavens and the latter sought the help of Lord Vishnu to save his throne). Overwhelmed by the love of the monarch for his people, Lord Vishnu allowed Mahabali to visit his subjects once in a year. During the festival, this beloved and just ruler, during whose tenure equality was all pervasive, is believed to visit every household in Kerala.
For centuries, Onam has been part of the Malayalee psyche. In fact, records of the Sangam Age corroborate this fact.
After the rain drenched month of Karkidakam, the festival falls in the midst of a bright season with cloudless skies and brilliant moonlit nights. The harvest is over and the granaries are full. Onam epitomises the newfound zest and enthusiasm of the season. Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnum (one will celebrate Onam even by selling his most precious possessions)?goes the old saying. The entire agricultural community, including the poorest of the poor, throw their hearts into the rejoicing.
The ten-day celebrations of Onam start on Atham day. Houses are tidied up. Chindren run to river banks and open fields to pick flowers for making beautiful floral patterns (Pookkalam) in the courtyard of their houses. Competitions are held in different parts of the state.
While in some places, the celebrations reach their peak from Uthradam, it reaches its crescendo on Thiruvonam. The traditional culinary art of Kerala finds complete expression in the fabulous Onam Sadya feast with Nalukari (a variety of vegetable curries mostly using coconut) aling with mouth-watering delicacies including Kaalan, Olan, Aviyal, Puli-inchi, Upperis and Payasam (pudding) especially Ada Prathaman being the important dishes served on banana leaves along with traditional pickles and pappadam.
The eldest member of each family presents clothes (Onakkodi) to all members of the family. In the afternoon, maidens amuse themselves in traditional folk dances including the favourite Kayikotti Kali. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onappatu (Onam songs) and rock one another on swings slung from high branches.
The most spectacular aspect of Onam celebrations is the boat race. Long canoes resembling snakes with raised hoods, each oared by a hundred men, participate in the races, those held at Aranmula and in the Kuttanad backwaters, especially the Nehru Trophy at Alappuzha, being the most popular.
Important celebrations are held at Vamanamurthy temple at Thrikkakara, which is dedicated to Lord Vamana and is directly linked to the Onam mythology; Shornur, where Kathakali dacers in gorgeous costumes enact the legends; Thrissur, where caparisoned elephants are taken out in a procession, Tripunithara, where cultural procession Athachamayam is organised and Thiruvananthapuram, where grand display of fireworks marks the festivities.
Pulikali or Kaduva Kali, in which performers performers are painted like tigers in yellow, red and black dancing to the tune of traditional instruments, are also common sight during Onam season, particularly in the northern parts of the state.
The most striking feature of the festival is that although Onam originated from and is inextricably linked to Hindu religion, it is celebrated with equal fervour by people belonging to other communities in the state.