In ancient times, there was an extremely powerful king by the name of Mahabali; he ruled the three worlds. He was a righteous and generous king. King Mahabali’s one major flaw, which marred his spiritual stature, was the arrogance he felt when giving in charity to his subjects. He was very proud of the fact that he could give people whatever they wanted. Lord Vishnu decided to bless King Mahabali and make him aware of his fault.
The king was holding a grand sacrifice. It was time to give dakshina (offerings) to the Brahmins. At that time the Lord descended in the form of an eight-year-old boy. As usual, the king took pride in offering to fulfil the boy’s wish – anything his heart desired would be his. The boy, very small and humble, yet with an air of self-assurance and divine dignity, stated that he simply wanted a place to sit and meditate, just the length covered by him in three strides.
The king was astounded; he told the boy that he could have an entire village, even a kingdom of his own, if he wanted. The boy resolutely stated that all he wanted was the land covered by him in three strides. After failing to convince the boy to ask for more, the king accepted the boy’s request. In that moment, the small boy grew to magnificent proportions, the size of which no one had ever seen.
In his first step, he covered the entire earth; with his second step, he covered the entire heaven and nether-world. Thus, he had nowhere to place his third step. He inquired of King Mahabali where he should place his third step. By this time, the king had recognised that the Lord Himself had taken the form of this wondrous child. He realised now his grave mistake of failing to remember that all of creation and beyond belong to the Lord alone.
With bowed head and folded hands, tears of devotion streaming from his eyes, he prayed that Lord place his third step on his head, fervently wanting to surrender his ego at the lotus feet of the Lord. Lord Vishnu, pleased with his surrender, bestowed on him the sovereignty of Sutala, which is said to be more splendorous then Indraloka. The Lord himself served as the doorkeeper at the palace of Mahabali – showing that when the the devotee surrenders fully to the Lord, the Lord gives him everything, even himself.
The Lord is the servant of the true devotee. The Lord granted the king one boon. The king, now in his turn to make a request, asked that once a year he be allowed to visit his dear subjects. The Lord granted this boon, and with this yearly visit we have the festival of Onam. All had prospered during Mahabali’s generous reign. His subjects and later their descendants wanted very much to honour him by showing that they are still living happily.
During the 10 days of Onam, all the residents of Kerala decorate their homes in a bouquet of springtime to welcome their beloved king. Children pick flowers, decorate their homes and prepare for the grand feast (sadya) that marks the last day of Onam.