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The history

This is one of the most important festivals celebrated in the months of August-September in the state of Kerala. According to mythology, this land was home to king Mahabali-grandson of Prahlad. Onam is a three-day celebration in memory of the reign of this great king. The people believe that Mahabali comes to Kerala at this time to see his subjects because of a boon granted to him by the Lord Vishnu.

The story goes that there lived a demon king Bali who was very strong and extremely pious. He had conquered the whole earth. Though a demon by birth, he rejoiced in doing good deeds and giving alms to the poor. No person coming to his door ever left empty-handed. Indra, the lord of the Devas, was perturbed. He felt that as Bali's strength and stature was growing in leaps and bounds, he might have to yield his throne to the king.  Indra approached Vishnu for help. So Vishnu came down in the avatar of Vamana, a small-statured brahmin.

At that time, Bali was performing the Ashwamedha Yagna so that he would be proclaimed the most powerful king in all the three worlds. As he was performing the ritual, he saw a great glow pervading the entire yagnasthala in a blinding light. It was Vamana. Bali knew it was no ordinary person and bade him sit down for the yagna. He then asked him if he desired anything. The brahmin demanded three paces of ground measured by his own foot.  Bali's guru saw through the trick and told Bali he should not accede. But the king insisted he could not go back on his word.

Vamana then grew and grew, and with one foot took the world, and with the second, the heavens. There was no place for his third step. Bali surrendered his head and asked him to step on it so that the Lord could have some place to put his foot and he would also be blessed. Vishnu was pleased and said he would always be under his care, even after losing everything on earth.

Bali requested that he be allowed to visit his kingdom to see his people once a year, which is the time that Onam is celebrated.  Thus the people rejoice to know that Bali is with them as he had brought great peace and prosperity to the land.

The festivities

Every home in Kerala buzzes with activity during Onam. Boat races are organized on a grand scale. The boats are gigantic, carrying about a hundred oarsmen. While rowing, they sing praises of Bali and other great persons of Kerala in chorus. People have a gala time observing the races.

People clean their homes and decorate the walls of their homes with coconut and banana leaves. Even though, there is no deity associated with Onam, the lady of the house performs a puja. Everyone in the house is up early, taking a bath, dressing in clean clothes, and putting on gold jewellery. The women then gather around and dance and sing special songs in praise of Bali.

Deliciously cooked food is served on huge banana leaves. Rice is the main dish served with different types of vegetable curry. Sambhar, followed by rasam and avial are served. Curd and kheer from part of the menu. Pickle and banana chips are favourite accompaniments.

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