Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlad (son of Hiranyakashyap who was slain by Vishnu in his Narasimha Avataram). Prahlad, despite being an Asura, had great faith in Vishnu. Mahabali learned the act of love and devotion to Lord Vishnu as a child, from Prahlad.
Mahabali conquers the three worlds
Kashyapa had two wives, Diti and Aditi, who were the parents of the demons and the gods (Asuras and Devas) respectively. Kashyapa, who had gone to the Himalayas to do penance, on his return found Aditi weeping. By divine insight, Kashyapa instantly recognised the cause of her grief. He tried to console her saying that nothing happens in the world without divine will and people should go on doing their duties. He asked her to pray to Vishnu and taught her Payovrata, a ritual that has to be observed from the 12th day of the bright half of Karthika (Sukla-paksha Dvadasi). Since Aditi carried out the Vrata with a pious heart, Vishnu appeared before her and informed her that he would help Indra.
In the meantime, Mahabali was performing the sacrificial rite of the Viswajith Yagam or Aswamedha Yagam on the banks of Narmada River. He also declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yagam.
Onam Celebrationshe celebrations of Onam start on Atham day, 10 days before Thiruvonam. The 10 days are part of the traditional Onam celebrations and each day has its own importance in various rituals and traditions. Earthen mounds, which look somewhat like square pyramids, representing Mahabali and Vamana (an Avatar of Vishnu) are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards in front of the house and beautifully decorated with flowers. Known as ‘Onapookkalam’, it is a carpet made out of the gathered blossoms with one or two varieties of foliage of differing tints pinched up into little pieces to serve the decorator's purpose. It is a beautiful work of art accomplished with a delicate touch and a highly artistic sense of tone and blending. (In a similar manner North Indians make something called "Rangoli" which is made of powders of various colors.) When completed, a miniature pandal, hung with little festoons is erected over it.
Atham - The first day of Onam Celebrations
Onam starts with Atham day in the Malayalam month of Chingam. Its believed that King Mahabali start his preparations to descend from heaven to Kerala on this day. The day also marks the start of festivities at Thrikkakara Temple (considered as abode of Mahabali). The Onam celebrations across the state, starts off with a grand procession at Thrippunithura near Kochi called Athachamayam. In olden days, the Kochi Maharaja used to head a grand military procession in full ceremonial robes from his palace to the Thrikkakara Temple. After independence, the public took over the function and celebrated as a major cultural procession which kicks off the official celebrations of Onam. Elephant processions, folk art presentations, music and dancing make Athachamyam a spectacular event which is now aggressively promoted as a tourist event.
The traditional ritual of laying Pookalam (floral carpet) starts on Atham day. The size of pookalam on this day is called as Athapoo and will small which eventually grew day after day. Only yellow flowers will be used on this day and the design will be simple. Also the statues of Mahabali and Vamanan will be installed on the entrance of each house on this day.
Chithira - The second day of Onam Celebrations
The second day is marked off when a second layer is added to pookalam design with 2 different colours apart from yellow (mostly orange and creamy yellow). On this day, people starts cleaning the house-hold to prepare for the Thiruvonam day.
Chodi - The third day of Onam Celebrations
The pookalam now will start growing in its size by adding new layers or designs with at least 4 to 5 different flowers. The day also marks the start of shopping activities. Onam is associated with gifting new clothes, hence from this day onwards people start buy new clothes and jewellery.
Vishakam - The fourth day of Onam Celebrations
Vishakam is considered to be one of the most auspicious days of Onam. In olden days, the markets open this harvest sale on this day, making one of the busiest days in the markets for public. Today Vishakam marks the start of many Onam-related competitions like Pookalam competitions etc.
Anizham - The fifth day of Onam Celebrations
Anizham is one of the most important day in the Onam days as it kicks off the great Vallam Kali (Snake boat) at many parts of Kerala. A mock Vallam Kali is conducted on this day at Aranmula as a dress-rehearsal for the famed Aranmula boat race which will be held after Onam.
Thriketa - The sixth day of Onam Celebrations
By the sixth day, the public frenzy starts going on higher side. Most of the schools and public offices starts issuing holidays from this day onwards and people starts packing their bags to their native homes to celebrate the festival with their dear ones. The pookalam design will be very large by this time, with at least 5 to 6 new flowers types added to the original designs.
Moolam - The seventh day of Onam Celebrations
On the seventh day, the smaller versions of traditional Ona Sadya (Onam special buffet lunch) starts in many places. Most of the temples offers special sadhyas on from this day. Festivities include Puli Kali (Masked leopard dance) and traditional dance forms like Kaikotti Kali also performed in various functions. The official Government celebrations starts on this day with heavy illuminations in Thiruvananthapuram City, Kochi city and Kozhikode along with fireworks.
Pooradam - The eight day of Onam Celebrations
The day marks off with a major traditional ritual where the small statues of Mahabali and Vamana will be washed and cleaned and taken around the house as a procession. It will be later installed in the center of the pookalam smeared with rice-flour batter. The smearing is done by small children whom will be Pooradaunnikkal. From this day onwards, the statue will be called Onathappan.
The pookalam design from Pooradam day onwards get much bigger and complex in design. Shopping will be one of the major activities as the public will be making final purchases for the great Thiruvonam day.
Uthradom - The ninth day of Onam Celebrations
Uthradom is the ninth and the penultimate day of the festival of Onam. It is considered as Onam eve and celebrated in a very big way. The importance of this day is last minute extreme shopping frenzy called as Uthradapachal and is considered the most auspicious day for purchase of fresh vegetables and fruits along with other provisions from the Thiruvonam day.
Uthradam is known as FIRST ONAM because it marks the day when King Mahabali descends Kerala and the traditional myths says that the king will spend the next four days touring his erstwhile kingdom and blessing the subjects. Due to this Urthadom is celebrated in a very pompous manner with larger pookalam and celebrations in household. The Urthada lunch is very famous tradition. Women normally cuts the first set of vegetables on this day that marks the celebrations of Thiruvonam in each household and preparations for grand Onam buffet starts in evening of Uthradom day.
Thirvuonam - The tenth day of Onam Celebrations
The final day of Onam that culminates the 10 days of Onam Carnival. The day is known as Thiru-Onam (Sacred Onam Day) also known as SECOND ONAM. Myth says, it was the day Mahabali was suppressed to underworld by Vamana. The day marks return of Mahabali to his fabled land (Kerala), as per the boon he received from Vamana to meet his subjects and bless them. Apart from this myth, this day is considered auspicious being birthdays of several temple deities like Vamana of Thrikkara temple, Sree Ppadmanabha Swamy of Thiruvananthapuram etc. Though a traditional Hindu festival, Onam today has emerged as a secular festival associated with harvest time of Kerala.
Activities begin early in the morning. People clean their house, smear the main entrance with rice-flour batter (a traditional welcome sign), take early bath, wear new clothes and distribute alms to needy. The eldest female member of each family presents clothes to all the members of the family. Special prayers and Masses are organized in temples, churches and mosques that highlight the secular nature of festival. Later a very special and the biggest of all days, Pookalam is prepared to welcome Mahabali.
The most important activity of Thiruvonam is the grand Thiruona-Sadya, well known for being one of the most sumptuous feasts ever prepared by mankind. The level of sumptuous varies at each individual household, however every household tries to make as grand as possible as they can. The feast served on plantain leaves have more than 13 to 15 curries apart from other regular items. In hotels and temples, number of curries and dishes can go up to 30 for the feast. Whatever may happen no malayalee will miss the Grand ona-sadya. There is a saying in Malayalam that "Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam" which means "We should have the Thiruvonam lunch even if we have to sell all our properties" which shows the importance of the grand lunch on the Thiruvonam day.
A fabulous display of fireworks turns the capital Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi into a veritable fairyland. Sumptuous feasts are prepared in every household. Even the poorest of the poor manage to find something for himself to celebrate the national festival in his own humble way.
The afternoon is marked with various traditional Onam games normally seen common in rural areas and those organized by resident associations, clubs etc. in large cities.