One of the most popular Indian festivals, Onam is celebrated with great enthusiasm and fanfare in many parts of South India, especially in the state of Kerala. It is an occassion celebrated not only by Hindus but also by people of all other religions. A harvest festival, Onam is is associated with the legend of King Mahabali, mentioned in the scriptures as a powerful demon king who ruled the land a long long time ago. Mahabali had conquered the whole earth and even the heaven before he was tricked out of his twin empires by Lord Vishnu and sent away to rule the nether world. He was granted permission to visit his subjects and the land he once ruled every year during the Malayalam month of Chingam (August – September). This is the time of Onam celebrations in South India. Legend has it that the period of Mahabali's rule was a golden era for the state of Kerala. It is said that the demon king had brought great peace and prosperity to the land and was greatly loved by his subjects. It is commonly believed in Kerala that Onam is the time when Mahabali annually comes to his land to see his subjects.
Songs are an integral part of almost every festival in the world and Onam is no anomaly. During Onam, floral decorations (atthapookalam) are made in front of every home and the traditional Onam songs known as Onappattukal are sung, mainly by women, as a welcome gesture to King Mahabali. The songs offer to the listeners a glimpse of the bygone days, when the land was filled with happiness and prosperity under Mahabali. The songs are a heartfelt prayer for restoring the glories of the bygone era. It is also a prayer that happiness and prosperity comes to the land during the festival and is sustained till the next Onam. The songs add colour to the festival and it is a delight to watch young men and women singing melodious songs during the occassion, dressed in their traditional attire. The songs have mostly been composed by village people and have been passed on from generation to generation. The lyrics of the songs have a simple, homespun appeal.
The "Maveli Nadu" Onappattukal is a popular Onam song that very beautifully tells why Kerala enjoyed a golden age during the reign of Mahabali. The lyrics of the song goes like this:
"Maveli Nadu Vaneedum Kaalam, Manusharellarum onnu pole,
Amothathode Vasikkum Kalam, Apathennarkkum Ottillathanum,
Kallavumilla Chathiyumilla, Ellolamilla Polivachanam,
Kallamparayum perunazhiyum, Kallatharangal Mattonnumilla"
The English rendition of the song goes like this:
When Maveli, our King, rules the land,
All the peoples form one casteless race.
And people live joyful and merry;
They are free from all harm.
There is neither theft nor deceit,
And no one is false in speech either.
Measures and weights are right;
No one cheats or wrongs the neighbor.
when Maveli, our King, rules the land,
All the peoples form one casteless race.
Another beautiful song sung on the occasion is -
"Vaninnevam asuya valarthi
Vazka maveli mangalamoorthy.."
which means, 'Long live Maveli, provider of peace and prosperity, inciting jealousy in the heavenly beings!'.
The festival being a sacred occassion, devotional songs are sung by women during the carnival of Onam. The lyrics of a famous devotional song goes like this:
"Mulla mallike nalla malathi malla lochane undo kandu"
Other songs related to Onam are the 'Vanchippattu' or boat race songs sung during boat rowing contests in the state on the occassion. The "Aranmula Uthrittathi Vallom Kali" or Boat Race is another important custom observed in Kerala during Onam and commemorates the mythical story of the crossing of the Pamba river by Lord Krishna on a similar day as Onam. The swinging ceremony or Oonjal is another important part of Onam festivities and there are a large number of folk songs have been dedicated to this particular tradition. The "Thumbi Thullal" songs are the other popular songs sung during the occassion.
A popular "Thumbi Thullal" song goes like this:-
"Onnam thumbiyum oru pattam makkalum
koode para para thumbi thullu..."
The songs are an evidence of the love of music of the Keralites who are seen to have composed songs for every major festival. Simple, melodious and deep in meaning, the songs bear witness to the rich history and tradition of South India and show the connection between Indian festivals and Indian mythology.