Onam is one of the most colorful community festivals of India and is specific to Kerala. It occurs at the end of the monsoons, in the month of Shravan commemorating the return of king Mahabali, a powerful mythical ruler of Kerala, who was bansihed to the netherworld by Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu.The festival is synonymous with processions of elephants and boat races along the backwaters of the state.Homes are decorated with flowers,garlands and traditional lamps.
Mahabali was the son of Veerochana and grandson of Prahlad, the devout son of demon King Hiranyakashyap. Mahabali had a son called Bana, who became a legendary king in his own right and became popular as Banraj in central Assam. Mahabali belonged to the Asura (demon) dynasty but was an ardent worshiper of Lord Vishnu. His bravery and strength of character earned him the title of "Mahabali Chakravathy" or Mahabali - the King of Kings.The story goes that the beautiful state of Kerala was once ruled by an Asura (demon) king, Mahabali. The King was greatly respected in his kingdom and was considered to be wise, judicious and extremely generous. It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali. Everybody was happy in the kingdom, there was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class. Rich and poor were equally treated. There was neither crime, nor corruption. People did not even lock their doors, as there were no thieves in that kingdom. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease in the reign of King Mahabali and everybody was happy and content.
Looking at the growing popularity and fame of King Mahabali the Gods became extremely concerned. They felt threatened about their own supremacy and began to think of a strategy to get rid of the dilemma. In addition Mahabali vanquished the devas and confiscated devaloka.To curb the growing reign of Mahabali and maintain their own supremacy, Aditi, the mother of Gods seeked help of Lord Vishnu (the preserver in the Hindu trinity) whom Mahabali worshiped.
It was said Mahabali was very generous and charitable. Whenever anybody approached him for help or requested for anything he always granted. To test the King, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf and a poor Brahmin called Vamana. He came to the Kingdom of Mahabali, just after Mahabali performed his morning prayers and was preparing to grant boons to Brahmins. Disguised as Vamana, Vishnu said he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land. The generous King said, he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed. A learned adviser of the King, Shukracharya sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making the promise. But, the generous King replied that it would be a sin for a King to back on his words and asked the Brahmin to take the land. The King could not imagine that the dwarf Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself. Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana began to expand and eventually increased himself to the size of cosmic proportions(Trivikrama). With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the other step he covered the whole of the skies. He then asked King Mahabali where is the space for him to keep his third foot. The King was humbled and realised that he was no ordinary Brahmin and his third step will destroy the earth. Mahabali with folded hands bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise. The Brahmin placed his foot on the head of the King, which pushed him to patala, the nether world. There the King requested the Brahmin to reveal his true identity. Lord Vishnu then appeared before the King in his person. Since Mahabali was a devotee and also the grandson of Prahlaadha, he was not killed but blessed by the foot of the Lord on his head and also received the honour of the Lord Himself becoming his guard in his abode in Paathaala.
The King was so attached with his Kingdom and people that he requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year. Lord Vishnu was moved by the Kings nobility and was pleased to grant the wish. He also blessed the King and said even after losing all his worldly possessions, the King would always be loved by Lord Vishnu and his people.It is the day of the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala that is celebrated as Onam every year. The festival is celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. Every year people make elaborate preparations to welcome their King.
Vamana is the jnanaswarupa , thw embodiment of wisdom. Before the emergence of jnana, all virtues like dharma and dhana serve only to swell the pride of the doer But when the heart is filled with devotion, there arises jnana in a diminutive form as a vamana. Even a devotee could become inflated with pride over his services and offerings to the Lord, forgetting that what he offers has been given to him by the Lord Himself. This is the initial stage of bhakthi which, when ripened into self surrender ,attains the attitude vasudevassarvam , seeing everything in Him and Him in everything. Then the jnana becomes all encompassing like Trivikrama. To such a devotee the Lord is ready to do his bidding.
Onam celebrations are marked in Trikkakara, a place 10 km from Kochi (Cochin) on the Edapally- Pookattupadi road. Trikkara is said to be the capital of the mighty King Mahabali. A temple with a deity of 'Trikkakara Appan' or 'Vamanamurthy' who is Lord Vishnu himself in disguise is also located at this place. Nowhere else in Kerala can one find a deity of 'Vamanamurthy'. This fascinating legend is artistically depicted at the Suchindram Temple in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu.