For Keralite's Onam is the celebration of the return of Mahabali, their once future king.
This king once ruled over the Keralites during the Golden Age before caste existed, “when all men were equal, when no one was poor, when there was neither theft nor dread of theives” (Maveli natu vanitum kalam/ manusharellam onnu pole..). As the folk song suggests, the great king Mahabali ruled before the caste system was introduced in the Chera society even before the Cheras’ arrival in Kerala in the eighth century. The complete folk-song is given below in its English version:
When Maveli, our King, rules the land, all the people form one casteless race. And people live joyful and merry; They are free from all harms. 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 people form one casteless race The celebration of the return of Mahabali takes four days for the Keralites. The house and yard are cleaned; a temporary mud stall is put up and washed with the purifying cow-dung solution for the royal visitor. Flowers are strewn over it for the king to sit upon; pyramid-shaped images of the king called Trikkakarayappan, made of wood or clay, are placed upon it as the onlookers applaud and cheer in sheer welcome. Pujas (worship service) are performed during the four days of Onam every morning; parents give children presents, especially dresses on the occasion. Large-scale feasts are held at this family reunion –increasingly Onam is a holiday, like the American Thanksgiving Holiday, which is characterized by family reunion and feasting. Three foods used to be essential for the festival: split bananas, pappadam
(wafer) and payasm (rice pudding). After the sumptuous midday dinner, all the family members dressed in fine clothes amuse themselves: adults and boys play handball, chess, dice, and/or cards: wrestling and display of swordsmanship are not common any more; women and girls sing and dance. In the backwaters of Kerala, young men race the long snake-boats (chundan vallom), which in construction look like ancient Egyptian boats. Onam celebrates the legendary King Bali. Only two versions are told these days. According to the orthodox Brahminical version, Bali was a wicked demon (asura) king who was “good” enough to become a yogi by virtue of his austerities (tapas). He controlled earth and heaven; the gods, of course, felt threatened by Bali. So they sent Vishnu to get rid of this menace; Vishnu assumed the form of a holy Brahmin priest-beggar, the comical dwarf Vamana and asked for the gift of as much land as he could cover in three paces. Vamana grew into cosmic size and in three strides encompassed the whole earth and heaven and Bali’s own person, and Bali was forced to retire to the only space left, patalam, the nether world. In the Kerala version, Bali is Mahabali, the benevolent ruler who aroused the jealousy and envy of the gods. He gave up his kingdom not just because he was a victim of a trick but because he was too generous to refuse a request and too honorable not to fulfill a promise. He asked the dwarf Vamana to place the third stride on his head ; Vamana-Vishnu kicked him down into the nether world. Mahabali, however, was granted his final wish, before he retired to hell, that on a day each year he be allowed to return to his dear people, the Keralites, to see them and to be with them as father and friend during the Onam Festival. Whatever may be the origin this festival is the mostt important one for Keralites and this is a happy get together with kith and kin-the harvest festivel like Tamilnadu pongal to bring all prosparity.