Onam and Its Message

Some of you would not be aware of Onam, so before getting into the message of Onam, let me brief what Onam is. Onam is the traditional harvest festival of Kerala, the southern most state in India. The legend is that there was a king named Mahabeli alias Maveli, whose reign was the best Kerala ever witnessed, with the subjects living happily and peacefully. His governance was so spectacularly good that it convulsed the heaven with envy and that gods became restless, fearing that they would lose the tag of “the Best.” Hence, gods came together and decided to do a regime change in Kerala. As the people were on the king’s side, the strategy of evoking a popular revolt was ruled out. Also, waging a direct war to effect regime change was outside the realm of possibility for gods as it would make them look brutally unfair. So gods designed a plan and entrusted Lord Mahavishnu to do a soft ambush on Mahabali.

Mahavishnu took a new incarnation: Vamana and descended onto Earth, with a clearly-defined action plan of getting rid of Maveli. He visited Maveli and requested to offer three feet land. Looking at Vamana, the short, pigmy-height man, and without realizing it was a disguised-god who was out to put an end to his reign, Maveli immediately told Vamana to take three feet land wherever he wanted. And the moment he got the permission, Mahavishnu gave up the cover and grew to a mammoth figure revealing himself. With the first two feet of land, the entire earth and sky were covered, and there was no land left for the third feet that Maveli promised to give. Maveli, a man who always stood for integrity in his words and actions, immediately kneeled before Mahavishnu and offered his head as the third feet of land. Magnanimous, isn’t it? With no reported compunction, Mahavishnu put his foot on the head of the king and sent him to the netherworld. Before leaving the terra firma, the king asked for a boon — which was granted — to visit his subjects once in an year. Onam is the festival that the Keralites celebrate the annual homecoming of their once much-loved king Mahabali.

Amongst the many ubiquitousness of Onam, a folk song that details the goodness of the Maveli’s rule is much popular, and the message of Onam is embedded in it. The song in Malayalam language and its roundabout translation are as follows:

“മാവേലി നാട് വാണീടും കാലം 
മാനുഷരെല്ലാരും ഒന്നു പോലെ
അമോതത്തോടെ വസിക്കും കാലം
അപതങ്ങാര്‍ക്കുമോട്ടില്ല താനും 
ആധികള്‍ വ്യാധികള്‍ ഒന്നുമില്ല 
ബാല മരണങ്ങള്‍ കേള്‍ക്കാനില്ല 
കള്ളവുമില്ല ചതിയുമില്ല
എള്ളോളമില്ല പൊളിവചനം 
കള്ളപ്പറയും ചെറു നാഴിയും 
കള്ളത്തരങ്ങള്‍ മറ്റൊന്നുമില്ല ”

During the reign of Maveli
The people were like-minded
They lived with happiness
No danger struck anyone
Anxiety or diseases were absent
Never heard of infant mortality 
No lies or cheating
Not even a grain of lie-manufacturing 
No spurious weighing tools, nor deceptively under-volume measuring
Not any other kind of lies 

The people of his kingdom were happy and that there were no dangers lurking in the corner to strike them. When society is devoid of dangers of any form, there is no element of fear of unknown, and that is a prerequisite to happiness of people and wholesomeness of society. There were no dangers lurking because lies were absent — the people were truthful. There are two types of lies: telling the opposite of truth as well as telling manufactured-lies. The poet was intelligent enough to cover both these forms of lies in the lyrics. He corroborated the point of honesty by mentioning that no dishonest business activities through fake and spurious weighing and measuring — it must have been barter trade then — and the fair trade practices, the poet thought, were the best symbols of a honest people. The poet left no stones unturned to drive home the message of Onam, i.e., honesty. Honesty — enlivened by the absence of fear of lies — contributed to the sound mental and physical health of the people in the Maveli’s kingdom.

Honesty, the principle of telling truth, is the cornerstone of good governance. When honesty is the unwavering hallmark right from the top to the bottom layers of a society, it defaults a people of health and happiness. As Kerala celebrates the homecoming of its King Mahabali today, let’s resolve to create a wholesome society of health and happiness by inculcating the message of Onam: honesty in our thoughts and actions. Happy Onam!


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