Canberra, 2 September 2012
Disclaimer: This is the story of the great King Mahabali who is said to have ruled Kerala in the days of legends, as I was told when I was a little boy and as I remember it now after having read more about the legend along the way. I do not, by any stretch of imagination, claim that this is the authentic story; there could be many omissions and commissions in its retelling below. However, I am certain that it captures the essence of the legend. The comments in parenthesis in italics are wandering thoughts that occurred to me as I was penning this late one night, attributable only to me and perhaps not to be taken too seriously.  
Onam is a festival of the Malayalis—people originating from the South Indian State of Kerala who speak the language Malayalam as their mother tongue—which they celebrate around August-September each year. The actual dates vary in the Gregorian calendar because the festival is celebrated during the month of Chingam in the Malayalam calendar. The Malayalam calendar is based on the lunar schedule with the dates of Onam being determined by the movement and position of the stars. Therefore, the actual dates vary each year, both in the Gregorian as well as in the Malayalam calendar. Today Onam is the state festival of Kerala and officially lasts for ten days. The origins of the festival is lost in antiquity but the legend around which it is explained echoes similar stories in many civilisations of the triumph of the Gods over what they considered ‘evil’. [More appropriate would be to say that the Gods got rid, by any means possible, of people and things that could have inconvenienced them or would have diluted the adulation of the common people towards them. This is perhaps because in the olden days before history the Gods, demons and the common people lived in much greater proximity to each other and mingled with each other on a daily existentialist manner, thereby making it necessary for the Gods to guard their status very zealously, since their strength lay in the worship of the common man] The story of Onam and the Emperor of Kerala, Mahabali, is one such. There is another aspect of Onam that makes it unique—at least in its contemporary form, Onam is more a social festival than a religious one with all Malayali’s participating uninhibitedly in the celebration irrespective of their religious faith. Considering that the legend around its origin is distinctly Hindu in all respects, this non-religious nature of its celebration could be attributed to the enlightened rule of the kings of the area—prior to Indian independence, the current state of Kerala was three distinct kingdoms, those of Travancore in the south, Cochin in the middle and Malabar in the north, ruled by three separate royal houses— who cultivated a strong sense of religious tolerance in the Malayalis.
The Legend of Mahabali
Hiranyakashyapa was an Asura (Demon) king of great prowess who was intolerant of any worship of the Gods, especially of Vishnu to whom his son Prahlada was devoted. [In the days before history could be authenticated and fact and fiction were imaginatively intertwined in the retelling, and because of the intermingling of the Gods, Demons and common people, it was possible for an Asura prince to be an ardent devotee of one or more of the pantheon of Gods without having to surrender his Asura status] Hiranyakashyapa was slain by Vishnu in his incarnation as Narasimha (man-lion) to protect his devotee Prahlada from being killed by his own father. [The story of this incarnation is another legend that could do with a retelling since it involves tricky situations brought about through boons granted by Gods to mortals] So it is obvious that, although an Asura, Prahlada was the beloved of the Gods. After his father was slain Prahlada ruled the kingdom wisely and under a sort of protective umbrella of the Gods, particularly Vishnu. Mahabali was Prahlada’s grandson and even more pious, just, and accomplished than his father. In fact it is said that even as a child Mahabali excelled in his devotion to Vishnu. He grew up to be a wise and benevolent ruler who was loved by his people. He was also a great warrior—this is extrapolation since there are no general statements or explanations regarding his expertise, or otherwise, in warfare. The conclusion that he was a great warrior stems from the belief that he expanded his kingdom extensively; that he was able to conquer or bring under his control the heavens, where king of the Gods Indra ruled, the whole of the known earthly world, as well as the netherworld. Since the Gods and also the other earthly kings would not have surrendered their kingdoms without a fight it can be surmised that Mahabali was a great warrior and war-captain. In any case, his deeds of benevolence and charity spread his fame as an able and just king far and wide to an extent wherein the Gods started to feel threatened that their status and following within the common people would be diminished. [After all, common people only wanted to be secure, happy, prosperous and well looked after and they would shift their loyalty to whoever provided them these fundamental requirements!]
Here it is necessary to take a bit of a diversion in the narrative to understand the sequence of events that followed this apparently benign situation in Mahabali’s kingdom. [As is common in mythology, one story meanders into others and comes back to mainstream again embellished by other factors and is almost always overlapped by others and here too, the case is the same] There are two versions of what transpired. The first version: it is believed that the Asuras and Devas (Demons and Gods) were the offsprings of Kashyapa through his two wives—Diti (Asuras) and Aditi(Devas). Aditi complained to her husband that Indra the king of Gods was becoming less important to the common people because of the increasing following and stature of Mahabali. She was taught a divine mantra and rituals to propitiate Vishnu, which she did, and so obtained a promise from him that he would set matters right and the story of Mahabali goes on from there. The second version: the Gods were annoyed and obviously jealous that Mahabali had become the ruler of all the three worlds. [Jealousy, which in contemporary terms would be a failing of mortals, was one of the predominant character traits of the Gods, at least in mythology!] They approached Vishnu who was of the opinion that since Mahabali was such an accomplished and revered king and doing so may good deeds he was eligible to be elevated to become a Deva or God and that the Gods who had complained should be demoted to being Asuras or Demons because of their naked display of jealousy. [This may not have been an acceptable option for the Gods and there could have been the beginning rumblings of a revolt at that time. This is a conclusion arrived at by the almost immediate change of tactics from Vishnu, following…] However, he also decided to ‘test’ the proclaimed generosity of Mahabali, the just king. There is a further nuance to this situation. There is also a theory that Vishnu had himself set up Mahabali to become equal and even surpass the power, splendour and stature of Indra to degrade the great pride that Indra was displaying on being the king of Gods. Indra finally complained to Vishnu of the growing power of Mahabali, and that some of the Gods were stating that there are now two Indras, Mahabali being the second. Vishnu decided that Indra had been taught a lesson in humility and set forth to take action and reinstitute equilibrium since a world with two Indras would be imbalanced.
During this intrigue in the heavens—irrespective of which of the two versions are correct and conceding that the two could also have been combined to ensure that Vishnu could not refuse to take action—Mahabali was immersed in conducting the sacrificial rite that indicated the completion of the conquest of the three worlds. This sacrificial rite is variously called Viswajit (winning the world) Yagnam (rite) or Aswamedha (triumphant horse) Yagnam. [The modus operandi for the two is different although they both are celebratory of world victory] Mahabali had all the reasons and the right to carry out this Yagnam considering his achievements and more importantly his righteous nature. Although this story is about the people of Kerala, the Yagnam is supposed to have been conducted in Brigacham (current day Bharuch in Gujarat) on the banks of the sacred Narmada river. Mahabali, ever the generous king, also proclaimed that he would not refuse any request made to him during the performance of the Yagnam. The place where the Yagnam was being conducted need not be considered a contradiction even though the story is about Kerala; after all Mahabali had conquered the three worlds and could carry out the Yagnam anywhere he wished. [There is further dichotomy regarding the geographic rigour of the story as the rest of it unfolds]
Vishnu decided that this was the opportune time to act. He had by this time already assumed three incarnations—those of a fish, wild boar and Narasimha the man-lion who had slain Mahabali’s grandfather—to save the world from disaster or evil and decided to go into his fourth incarnation. However, in this instance the world was not endangered, in fact it was in very good shape under the rule of Mahabali the benevolent. The issue at this stage was that the Devas were not in good shape, being eclipsed by the Asura king Mahabali. Therefore, matters had to be rearranged to suit the requirements of the Gods. [From a contemporary viewpoint the move to depose a just king, read ruler, purely because he was an Asura, read unacceptable because of his caste/creed/religion/beliefs or whatever else an Asura would have been in those days, would be considered ‘politically incorrect’. However, in those days political correctness was not a matter of consideration, the necessity was to be in power!] Vishnu decided to restore the ascendancy of the Devas, by intervening on their behalf. He assumed the form of a small Brahman boy, Vamana, and proceeded to Mahabali’s Yagnam to set things ‘right’.
The Event
Vishnu was also aware of Mahabali’s declaration that he would grant all requests through the period of the Yagnam and had formulated a plan to take advantage of the king’s generosity to put in place the plan to ‘dethrone’ him. What Vishnu did not cater for was the inherent aura that would emanate from him, even though he was in the guise of a small Brahmin boy, which could be recognised by persons of knowledge who had achieved a high level of self-actualisation. Such a person was Shukracharya, Mahabali’s spiritual guide, Guru and a sage in his own right, who could also, at will, have accurate visions of the future. He immediately recognised Vamana as an incarnation of Vishnu Himself and he hastened to advise Mahabali not to promise anything to the Brahmin lad. Obviously, not only had he seen through the disguise, he had also seen the future and the reason for Vishnu’s unexpected visit and wanted to keep his pupil out of trouble. However, he was too late in reaching Mahabali with the advice, since Mahabali had already welcomed the charismatic Vamana into the audience chamber with all traditional honours due to an accomplished Brahman and promised in his customary manner that he would fulfil all Vamana’s desires. Vamana replied that he did not want anything of great value but only the extent of land that his three footsteps would cover, sufficient for him to sit down and carry out his worship and penances. At this stage Shukracharya intervened, told Mahabali the true identity of Vamana and exhorted him not to acquiesce to the request. Having seen the future, this was the only way the Guru could now try to protect his beloved pupil.
The conflict between obedience to one’s Guru—who had been the prime advisor in the move to conquer the Devas and under whose supervision the Yagnam itself was taking place—and the inner integrity of a great king who would not under any circumstances go back on his word must have been a conflict that would have incapacitated the mental faculties of a lesser human being. Here once again the greatness of Mahabali is demonstrated, and one suspects that Vishnu knew what his decision would be. Mahabali with great regret at having to disregard his mentor’s advice and having apologised to him determined to honour the promise he had made at the beginning of the Yagnam and to grant the wish of Vamana. Two things happened: one, Shukracharya cursed Mahabali to be reduced to ashes for having disobeyed him and two, Vamana now turned back into the normal form of Vishnu and not only that, continued to grow in size until he touched the heavens and then towered above it. [In the legendary days it was also almost customary for Gurus, who had been nurturing their wards for years, to turn round and curse them at the slightest misdeed, let alone direct provocation. This is in sharp contrast to contemporary teachers, who if they develop any kind of affection for a pupil at all, will go to extreme extends—legitimate or otherwise—to ensure their success and further progress. Maybe the concept of integrity has undergone a drastic change for the worse over the years. In those days the distance between Gods, Demons and the common people were not as distinct as it is now and it was normal for them to interact almost on a normal day-to-day basis. One also suspects that there was less hero worship of the Gods since their ‘human nature’ would also have been on display for all to see]
Vishnu, now in his forbidding and gigantic form, measured the entire earth with one footstep and with the second covered all of heaven and looked around expectantly for place for the third footstep that had been promised by the King. Mahabali bowed his head and requested Vishnu to place the third footstep on his head as he had no land left to honour his promise. Vishnu/Vamana did so and in the process pushed the Emperor into Patala, the netherworld. [Here arises a fundamental geographic conundrum. The Yagnam is said to have been held in Bharuch in Gujarat, but the place where the king was pushed down to Patala is said to be the village of ‘Thrikkakara’ (a colloquialised version of ‘Thrikkal’, meaning heavenly or venerated foot and ‘kara’, which in Malayalam is equated to a small district or township) in the old kingdom of Cochin. But then, if one footstep was sufficient to measure the entire earth, what is a discrepancy of a few thousand kilometres when sending a good king into hell?]
One cannot ever say that the Gods were not gracious in their victory over their enemies, whether the adversary was good or bad. This is true of almost all mythological stories—so also in this case. Just short of being banished into Patala, Vishnu granted Mahabali a last wish, a boon if one can call it that under the circumstances in which it was granted. The King, forever looking out for the welfare of his subjects, requested as his last wish permission to revisit his kingdom once a year in order to see for himself that his people were being looked after and doing well. [In contemporary terms this could be termed a sort of audit of the prevailing circumstances] The wish was granted and Mahabali willingly descended into Patala, with his honour and integrity intact, having kept his promise and not having ever broken his word. It is ironic that the name Mahabali actually means ‘great sacrifice’ and the King was banished while he made the greatest sacrifice in order to fulfil a promise that had been made to a duplicitous God. [Truth is supposed to triumph at all times, sometimes after a bit of struggle. Here one is constrained to ask what the interpretation of truth was in this context. Do the Gods have a complete monopoly over the truth, or is truth of Demons and lesser mortals a lesser truth that can be trumped by the greater truth of the Gods?]
There is an old saying in Sanskrit attributed as one of the famed Chankya Shlokas (perennially relevant sayings of Chanakya, the Prime Minister of the Gupta Empire, India around 400 B.C.E and who is considered an expert in the art of diplomacy and statecraft) that explains the pitfalls of a human being—however great—being endowed with unusually developed or expanded character traits. In translation, it states that Ravana the King of Lanka died because of an extreme sense of pride that was openly demonstrated; the Kauravas were destroyed because of their extreme conceit demonstrated repeatedly; Mahabali was ruined because of his excessive generosity, repeatedly demonstrated; essentially anything in excess will always lead to one’s downfall. This is a statement that has stood the test of time and is as applicable today as it was when coined far back in antiquity. The reference to Mahabali and his excessive generosity is directly related to the legend that is being recreated here.
The few days that Mahabali visits his kingdom every year is celebrated by the Malayalis as Onam, to commemorate the memory of the benevolent rule of a great Emperor. Irrespective of the actual conditions in which they are at the time, the people of Kerala put on a façade to ensure that ‘their’ King would go back after his yearly visit with the belief, and relieved to see that all was well with his subjects. The feasts, the festive mood, wearing of new clothes, all are meant to convey to the King that the same conditions that they enjoyed during his flawless reign still exist today. [Perhaps the people of Kerala do not want to believe that their King, with his obvious capability to divine things, will be able to instinctively understand that what he is seeing on his yearly visits is only a façade. Or perhaps his visit is the glimmer of hope for the people, that he will see their plight and act, in some unfathomable way, to restore his original benevolent rule. Who knows? There is another aspect to this situation. Since Mahabali ruled the earth and heaven, one wonders why only a small sliver of land in the southwest coast of India celebrates the yearly return of a brave and revered King who was unjustly—at least it seems so from the generally accepted version of the story—banished to cater for the vanity of a proud but often incompetent king of the Gods. Why is ‘Onam’ not an international, or at least an all-India festival?}
The Celebration of Onam
Before going into the details of the celebrations, it is necessary to mention that there is also another belief regarding what Onam stands for, although this is not a popular or much believed version. Once again, the story is supported by other stories and overlaps onto some others. This version starts with the story of the creation of Kerala as an entity. Parasurama, a later incarnation of Vishnu than Vamana, after completing his task of the destruction of the Kshatriyas (the warrior ruling class) [for reasons that warrants another retelling] wanted to have some virgin land to carry out worship and penance towards the end of his life. It is believed that, therefore, he stood at a place called Gokarnam in the north (part of erstwhile Malabar) and threw his weapon, the famed battle axe, north across the sea. It landed at Kanyakumari, what is today the southern-most point of India. The area in between was recovered from the Arabian Sea and became what is today known as Kerala. In this version of the legend Onam is believed to be the celebration of the day that Parasurama threw his battle axe to reclaim land from the sea to create Kerala. [This theory cannot be considered authentic since the timeframe of Vishnu incarnation of Parasurama occurred much after his incarnation as Vamana]
Onam is celebrated over ten days in Kerala, each day having its own importance and associated rituals and traditions, culminating in ‘Thiruonam’ (sacred onam), and marks the return of Mahabali to Kerala. The day after this is the official end of the festivities and is considered as the day in which Mahabali returns to his heavenly [actually it should be netherworld]abode. There is also a temple dedicated to Vamana in ‘Thrikkakara’ that is directly linked to the legend of Mahabali and Vishnu’s Brahman boy incarnation.
Mahabali’s rule is considered the golden era of Kerala. There is a poem/song, written in Sanskritised Malayalam [that is an oxymoron since ‘good’ Malayalam is semi-Sanskrit] that is sung even to this day and which categorically extols the virtues of the rule of Mahabali. The fundamental points brought out are that during Mahabali’s reign [of note here is that it does not say great king or Emperor, but again colloquialises the King’s name to Maveli, which gives an indication of the spread of equality in his kingdome] : all people were equal; they were free from harm; there was neither anxiety nor sickness; deaths of children were unheard of; there were no lies; there was no deceit or theft; measures and weights were right; no one cheated or wronged his neighbour; and all the people formed a single classless society. This is utopia by any calculation. [In contemporary terms, this is the description of an ideal nation created by a society that believes in and practices equality—of gender, race, colour and creed—emancipation, free speech, rule of law, and people’s unhindered participation in governance] It is only fitting that these ideals, albeit in legend, should be the cornerstones of the state of Kerala, which has the distinction [dubious?] of being the first state or country in the world to elect a ‘Communist’ government to power through a truly democratic process. It might also explain the evolution of Onam as a predominantly social rather than a religious festival, despite its pronounced religious origins.

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. Hats off !! A real political depiction of ONAM and MAHABALI the great KING of human kind on this earth being toppled for the vested interest of a sect for POWER through Divide and Rule philosophy … I request you to translate this to a nice article in Malayalam without loosing the seriousness of the Legend being depicted for the future !!! Also Please share your valid email Id sir..

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