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Onam is a festival of flowers, a spring festival. And the multi-coloured floral decorations are an essential part of the celebration. It falls on Shravan day in the month of Shravan or Bhadon (August-September). The harvest has been reaped and granaries are full. Farmers are free of care and in the mood to rejoice and make merry.

Like most festivals, Onam has a legend associated with it. In ancient times, an asura king Mahabali ruled Kerala. He was a wise and good ruler and he was greatly loved by his people. He, however, incurred the displeasure and jealousy of the gods when, besides the earth, he extended his rule to the heavens and the nether world. So the king of gods, Indra, hatched a plot to oust him.

Vishnu, one of the Hindu Trinity, was to execute the scheme. Disguised as a Brahmin boy, Vamana, he went to the asura king and asked him for as much land as he could cover in three steps. King Mahabali generously agreed to this request. Vamana immediately began to grow in size till he was as big as the universe. He took two giant strides and covered the earth, the heavens and the nether world. Where could he place his third step ?

He looked at Mahabali. The king was a man of principle who always kept his word. He immediately offered his head for Vamana to place his third step. And Vamana promptly did so, pushing Mahabali down�far, far down till he almost reached the nether world. Before he finally disappeared* Mahabali asked Vishnu lm .1 boon. He requested

permission to come to the earth once .1 yiftl ti> see his people. This request Vishnu granted. The celebration of Onam is a tribute to Malinkilt's Ut in memory of the happy days of Mahabah's rule, a grateful K^tali celebrates his annual home-cominj', willi all thr pomp ami guiijj it can command.

The glory of those ancient times is recaptured in a popular folk song which is sung all over Kerala :

When Mahabali ruled the land

Everyone was equal Happily they lived

Danger befell none There was no falsehood, or fraud And no untruth.

Onam celebrations, which last ten days, begin with a colourful reception to King Mahabali. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vishnu are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards and beautifully decorated with flowers.

After treaditional prayers and worship, the head of the household presents new clothes to the family and friends. This is followed by a feast as lavish as individual means permit.

Then it is time for dancing and sports. Certain dances such as Kaikottikkali, and particular games traditionally associated with Onam. The most exciting of these is the Aranmula boat race. Men, women and children come from far and near to watch and cheer the snake boats skim through the water. Today, however, the old forms of entertainment have lost a great deal of popularity and been largely replaced by the cinema and modern-day amusements.

The earliest historical record of Onam being celebrated is on a copper plate inscription dating back to 861 A.D., but historians believe that the festival was observed even earier in other parts of south India.

Interestingly, during Onam along with King Mahabali, Vishnu, who expelled him, is worshipped. This is a latter day addition which is believed to have occurred during the Vaishnava period.

The celebration of Onam became even more popular after the establishment of a temple dedicated to Vamana at Thrikkakkara near Cochin. The temple is believed to have been built in the eighth century A.D.

Some historians, however, trace the origin of the festival to Assyria. It is believed that predecessors of the Dravidians may have migrated to India from that region and Mahabali was one of their illustrious rulers.

The importance of Onam is due not only to the place the festival holds in the hearts of the people but also to its secular character. It has now come to be celebrated by Hindjs, Muslims and Christians and begun to symbolize the hopes and aspirations of all the Malayalis.

In fact all of the festivals now celebrated in India have started losing their faith-oriented characteratics and begun to acquire distinctly the regional favour. Even if a Brijawasi (dweller in the region of Mathura) reaches Malayali region he can't help enjoying this festival, no matter whether he is a Hindu or Muslim or Christian. Similarly a Malayali staying in Mathura will celebrate Holi with greater enthusiasm than Onam. In fact these are ihe cultural bonds that unite this piece of the land into a single nationhood