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Onam is the state festival of Kerala. It is celebrated in honour of Mahabali, the mythical Demon king of ancient Kerala. Malayalees believe that on Onam day Bali visits his subjects. This harvest festival falls in August—September.
Onam has been part of Malayali psyche for centuries. There are records of Onam being celebrated during the Sangam Age. The earliest record of the festival is found during the reign of Kulasekhara Perumals around AD 800.
Onam has two specific significances. First it is the memory of community at large and celebration of past history as enunciated in the Mahabali legend – a story of how paradise was lost. Second it is the celebration of the harvest, tied with the memory of the golden age of prosperity.
It is believed that during those days the whole of Chingam was celebrated as Onam season. After the rain-drenched month of Karkidakam, with its privations, Chingam is a welcome month for people in the state of Kerala. The festival is the harbinger of spring — signalling the start of the harvest season. Onam epitomises the new found vigour and enthusiasm of the season, and is celebrated with traditional fervour with visits to temples, family get-togethers, gifting of clothes called Onakkodi and lots of merrymaking. The Keralites perform the Mohiniattam Dance, dedicated to the Mohini form of Lord Vishnu Mohini. There is also the Krishnanaattam dance. Many Keralites also worship Narayani. Shri Narayani Peedam and Sri Bangaru Adigalar of Kerala and their followers claim that these two figures are avatars of the goddess Shri Narayani. Thiruvathirakali is another dance performed at the time of Onam. Onam is celebrated with flower, and sadhya (Kerala food). The flowers are decorated on the floor to welcome Mahabali.
Mahabali’s rule was considered as the golden era of Kerala. The legend associated with Onam festival is–
The gods were very annoyed as Bali became the ruler of all the three worlds having defeated the gods. The gods approached Lord Vishnu and asked for his help. Mahabali, who was performing Ashwamedha Yajna on the banks of Narmada river, announced that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yajna. Vishnu incarnated in the form of Vamana, a dwarf, came to the yajna venue. Vamana smiled and said, “You need not give me anything great. It is enough for me, if you give me three footsteps of land.”
Shukracharya told Bali that Vamana was not an ordinary Brahmin but Lord Narayana Himself who had assumed this form. He advised Bali not to promise anything.
Bali, however, was determined to honour the word given to Vamana.
He asked Vamana to measure the three feet of land as desired by him. Vamana grew in size until he towered above the heavens. With one foot, he measured the earth. In second step he covered the heaven. There was still one foot of territory that Bali owed him. Bali asked to place the final step on his head as the third step of land. Vamana placed the third step on the head of Bali and send him to Patala, the bottom world. Pleased with the devotion of Bali, Lord Vishnu (Vamana) granted him rule Patala.
Thus, Keralites celebrate Onam festival to commemorate the memory of a Great King Mahabali.
The ten-day celebrations of Onam start on Atham day. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vishnu are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house and beautifully decorated with flowers.
The important part of the festival opens in some localities on Thiruvonam day and in others on the previous day known as Utradam. On Thiruvonam day, King Mahabali is believed to visit every Malayali home and meet his people. Houses are cleaned and decorated with flowers and traditional lamps. Sumptuous feasts are prepared in every household. The eldest member of each family presents clothes to all the members of the family. Even the poorest of the poor manage to find something for himself to celebrate the national festival in his own humble way.
The swing is another integral part of Onam, especially in the rural areas. Young men and women, decked in their best, sing Onam songs, and rock one another on swings.
This festival is also important because of its popularity with all communities within Kerala.

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