Thursday, September 11, 2008

Onam: A king who made the gods jealous

A simple but elegant pookkalam in water.

Onam is the most important festival of Kerala. It is the remembrance of an era when the state was truly God’s Own Country. Strangely, not much of what it symbolizes can be found in the Kerala of today.

Once upon a time Kerala, it is believed, was ruled by King Mahabali, the grandson of Prahalada. (Maveli is a mutation of the name.) He was the embodiment of all the virtues that a monarch should have. His reign was the golden era of Kerala.

A beautiful Malayalam song ‘Maveli nadu vaneedum kalam’ (When Maveli ruled the land) that is on the lips of every Malayalee (Keralite) during Onam, describes the paradise that Kerala was. During his period, everyone was equal. It was a time of plenty. People lived in harmony and joy. They had no difficulties or fear or sickness. There were no lies or false speech, or deceit or cheating. The weights and measures were precise. No one wronged his neighbor. It was a casteless, homogenous society.

King Mahabali became so popular and powerful, that the Devas (gods) became jealous and afraid of him. According to another legend, the ruler was very egoistic and proud and that led to his downfall.

The gods appealed to Maha Vishnu to remove the great king. Maha Vishnu appeared before Mahabali in the disguise of a dwarf Brahmin, Vamana, and requested a grant of three paces of land. When the benevolent ruler granted the wish, the dwarf suddenly grew into a gigantic figure and started measuring the land with immense strides.

Maha Vishnu covered the earth and the sky with two steps. Since there was no place for the third step, the king offered his own head so that his word would be honored.

But before stamping him down to Patala (the depths of the earth) Maha Vishnu, impressed by the king’s nobility, granted him a wish – he could visit his kingdom once a year. It is believed that Mahabali does this during Onam. The people celebrate their former king’s visit with great pomp and pageantry.

Poor Mahabali, if he were not obliged by the tradition, would probably prefer to discontinue the yearly chore. He is likely be tormented by the present state of his once glorious kingdom.

But the people celebrate, have a good time. Possibly trying to drown harsh realities in the liquor that virtually flows. Eat, drink and make merry. Tomorrow is another day.

One touching story that I watched on Asianet Television today: There is one man who fasts on Onam day. That is head of an ancient family of Aranmula, the place of the famous metal mirrors.

This family used to distribute alms and food for Onam. One year it was raining heavily that day. Nobody noticed an old lady who stood away from the crowd. After a long wait she collapsed and died. This happened centuries ago.

From that year onwards, the eldest member of the family, known by the title Akkeeravan Muthathu, fasts on every Onam Day in atonement.

That is something King Mahabali would certainly appreciate.

Happy Onam!

Kerala snakeboat model.

Also see:

Kerala: Onam goes up in spirit

Kerala food: banana aftermath of Onam

Onam: Pookalams in water

Olakkuda – Palmyra leaf umbrella


Sunita said...

Happy Onam to you too. I think all the other blog visitors are too busy enjoying their Ona sadhya to log in and comment!
I find it very interesting how in the other parts of India, Mahabali is seen as a power-crazy king who needed to be suppressed. And in their version of the story / legend, the curtain is drawn with the triumph of Vishnu and Mahabali being dispatched. There is no mention of Vishnu being impressed with Mahabali and granting of the yearly visit!


Very nice post. Even if we know the story already, it is good to read it again.

The pookalam is beautiful.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thanks, Sunita.
There is a view that Mahabali legend is a part of Deva-Asura conflict or Aryan-Dravidian fight. Perceptions differ.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thanks, Raji. I was away in Bangalore and is catching up with the backlog.

joy said...

This song is definitely worth hearing. I found a great site to listen and learn about Malayalam songs at

Abraham Tharakan said...

joy, thank you for the lead.