Three days ago marked the beginning of Onam, the harvest festival of the the Malayalee people of the South Indian state of Kerala, to whom I belong. It will last for six more days. In its origins, it is a Hindu holiday, but, I can attest, it is celebrated and held in deep reverance by the Christians and Muslims of the state as well, a testament to the wonderful syncreticism of the religions and cultures of the region. At NDTV.com:
Onam is the biggest festival of Kerala, celebrating the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala. His visit is a boon from Lord Vishnu.
The festival is celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. Every year people make elaborate preparations to welcome their King whom they affectionately call Onathappan.
They wish to please the spirit of their King by depicting that his people are happy and wish him well. It was said Mahabali was very generous and charitable.
Whenever anybody approached him for help or requested for anything he always granted. To test the King, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf and a poor Brahmin called Vamana.
He came to the Kingdom of Mahabali, just after the King performed his morning prayers and was preparing to grant boons to Brahmins.
As Vamana, Lord Vishnu said he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land.
The generous King said he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed.
A learned adviser of the King, Shukracharya sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making the promise.
But, the generous King replied that it would be a sin for a King to go back on his words and asked the Brahmin to take the land. The King could not imagine that the dwarf Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself.
Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana began to expand and eventually increased himself to the size of cosmic proportions.
With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the other step he covered the whole of the skies.
He then asked King Mahabali where is the space for him to keep his third foot. The King realised that he was no ordinary Brahmin and his third step will destroy the earth.
Mahabali with folded hands bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise.