This Onam, give your children a glimpse into the principles of generosity, humility and greatness of character through this fascinating story of Mahabali and Vamana.
What is it about our Indian festivals that makes us happy? Could it be the fact that our kids get the day off to celebrate? Perhaps it is the story about the origin of the festival and why we cherish it. Or maybe it’s the colours and the sweets and the new clothes that we get to wear, in gratitude of being able to bring this festival to life, year after year.
In my opinion, I think it’s a bit of everything. Celebrating Onam, the Kerala harvest festival, is always a very special one. It combines two important parts of Hindu mythology- one being the celebration of the fifth Avatar of Lord Vishnu, Vamana and the other is the welcoming home of the great king Mahabali.
Legend has it that Mahabali was a powerful king who ruled over the land. He was also an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. One version of the story suggests that Mahabali became pompous due to the praise showered on him by his subjects that he arrogantly offered to grant the wish of any man who came to his door. Vishnu, to teach him a lesson, landed up in Mahabali’s court, in the guise of a brahmana boy, Vamana. He then asked him to give him 3 pieces of land, equivalent to 3 paces of his feet.
Not realising that the young boy was the Lord incarnate, the king agreed instantly. The next moment, the boy grew in physical size until he towered above the earth, the heavens and the netherworld. With his first footstep, he covered the earth. With the second, he claimed the heavens. Mahabali, realising his folly, apologised to Vishnu and then offered his own head as the space for the third footstep. Vamana did so and sent him down to Sutala, the heaven-like underworld. The site where he placed his foot is said to be the village of Thrikkakara (meaning place of the holy foot). However, Vishnu decreed that once a year, Mahabali could return to Earth and rule over the land as he had done before.
That day is celebrated as Onam. This story of Mahabali and Vamana is very fascinating because it gives children a glimpse into the principles of generosity, humility and greatness of character.
Another integral part of Onam is the majestic, many-hued Pookalams found in every household. My daughter eagerly looks forward to the drawing and decorating of the ‘Pookalam’ or the floral pattern on the floor of the house. The night before Onam we draw simple or complex patterns both inside and outside our homes. We then decorate the inner spaces of the design with colourful flowers.
This is an activity that I absolutely adore, because it is such an engaging one. What makes it even better is that you don’t have to be an artist to draw these patterns. You can choose a simple design and make it stand out, thanks to the vibrant flowers. The thrill on my daughter’s face, as she lovingly arranges the petals of the yellow marigold, the white jasmine, the pink bougainvilla or the ravishing red rose, is one that I cannot capture in words.
If the pookalam appeals to the creative side in us, the Onam sadya is a literal feast for our olfactory senses and our taste buds. Every delicious vegetarian dish of Kerala cuisine will find its place on the banana leaf that day. The number of items can be a jaw-dropping 26 and each of those is cooked with loving care and the authentic flavour of that Malayali household, a taste that will stay with you even as you sit there, unable to rise from your seat after a filling meal.
I know that in the modern parenting era, festival celebration has become limited in its scope. We live in nuclear pockets, away from our parents and in-laws. But we can always celebrate these festivals with our community of friends and neighbours. On Onam, we generally invite a few friends home to partake of our meal. With them, we enjoy the warmth of good company and the contented smiles of those who have eaten a large slice of festive colour.