Onam is the most important festival in the Hindu calendar in the Indian state of Kerala. The ten day festival begins in the month of August or September. There are many reasons for celebrating Onam. First and foremost it is a celebration of the end of the harvesting season. It is also the time of the return of the beloved king Mahabali. According to mythology Mahabali was an Asura (demon or sinful) king.
However, Mahabali’s rule was considered as the golden era in Kerala history. He was wise and benevolent ruler and his subjects loved him. His fame and fortune grew and eventually he defeated the Devas (celestial beings). Lord Vishnu wanted to defeat Mahabali before his fame grew any further. He took the form of a dwarf, approached the king and asked the King if he would grant him the land covered by three footsteps of his.
Mahabali not realizing that the dwarf is really Lord Vishnu said yes. The dwarf then became a giant and with one foot covered the whole earth with his next foot he covered the entire heavens. He had no place to put the third foot. Mahabali asked Vishu to put the third foot on his head thereby burying him inside the earth. Mahabali was given the permission to visit his subjects once a year.
There are a few different versions of this story. But what is really the story behind the story? Why should a good king be defeated? The story really shows the conflict between the Asuras (the indigenous people of Kerala who where mostly Buddhist at the time) and the religion of the Devas (the new incoming religion of the Brahmins). This Onam story is first documented in 8th century to 9th century ACE (After Common Era) the same time historians believe marks the end of the Buddhist domination of South India and the beginning of the Brahmin religion emanating from North India.
During this period many Buddhists from Kerala fearing prosecution from the Brahmins actually started following Islam and Christianity (which were fairly new faiths in the region at that time). It is interesting to note that many Muslims and Christians in Kerala today call their place of worship as “Palli”. Palli is a Buddhist word derived from the word Pali, which is the language of Buddhism (as compared to Sanskrit which is the language of the Brahmin religion). Although Onam celebrates the return of King Mahabali it also in a way signifying the end of Mahabali’s faith and belief system which is Buddhism.
After the fall of Buddhism many of its religious sites including Ayyappan Temple in Sabarimala or the Kodungallur temple where either included in the Hindu pantheon or in some cases their Buddhist idols where replaced with Hindu idols. There remains only one temple dedicated to Vamanamurthy (Vishnu as the dwarf who defeated Mahabali) in Kerala. It is located in Thrikkakara (near Cochin). This area is considered to have one of the earliest Brahmin settlements in Kerala. More on Lord Ayyappan in a later article. Meanwhile Happy Onam to all of you.
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Category: Culture & Religion