The Evergreen Myth of Mahabali

By: Devika Sunand

Every culture has its own myths and beliefs. While many are not true, it adds to the beauty of one’s culture. Well, talking about myths, I come across a lot of them back home. I come from Kerala popular as “God’s own country”, a state in India, where myths and legends are still widely celebrated. One such popular myth is the ‘legend of Mahabali’. As Mark Twain said, “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition”. The reason why I added this quote here is to let you know that you will surely find other interpretations of Mahabali from the one below! The other one is ‘Bali’ as an offering (in Hinduism and Buddhism) of grains or rice the gods or spirits.

Mahabali is one such mythical character who still holds a great cultural influence in the life of every Keralite. It is one of the most popular and fascinating legends of all time. The story of King Mahabali, affectionately called ‘maveli’, is gloriously celebrated in the form of Kerala’s biggest festival, “Onam”. The story behind this takes us back to the land of Kerala during the reign of King Mahabali. Mahabali, despite being a demon king, was wise, judicious and extremely generous. He was extremely loved by his subjects. Mahabali’s growing power and popularity posed a threat to the supremacy of the gods. Jealous of this, the gods conspired to end his reign. Since Mahabali was a strong devotee of Lord Vishnu, the gods approached Vishnu for help. Lord Vishnu, one of the greatest gods in Hindu mythology transformed himself into a dwarf named Vamana which marks the fifth incarnation of Vishnu on earth. Knowing that mahabali was a very generous and charitable king who would never deny any request or help, Lord Vishnu decided to test him and set out to the kingdom of mahabali.

Mahabali was offering his morning prayers and was preparing to grant boons to brahmins when Vamana arrived. Upon his arrival, Vamana asked three feet of land from Mahabali to which the king agreed without hesitation. Vamana, Vishnu in disguise, then grew in gigantic proportions astonishing the king. He then measured the whole three worlds within his first two steps. He then asked the king, a place for the third and last step. Mahabali realised that Vamana was no ordinary mortal and thus, honouring his commitment, offered his head for the third step. Vamana then stepped on him pushing him to pathala, the underground world. But, before doing so, Lord Vishnu, impressed by Mahabali’s commitment, offered to grant him his last wish. Since the king was so attached to his kingdom and his subjects, Mahabali wished that he wanted to visit them once a year. Thus, Lord Vishnu granted the wish and mahabali is believed to visit Kerala every year.

Thus, as the legend follows, Mahabali’s visit is celebrated in the form of the festival “onam”. onam is celebrated by all faiths and classes, although its origin lies in the Hindu mythology. Onam falls in the Malayalam month of chingam (august- september) which is also the harvest month, marking the end of the lean period after the heavy monsoon in the state. Onam is celebrated for 10 days starting from atham, chithira, chodi, vishakam, anizham, thriketa, moolam, pooradam, uthradam and thiruvonam. Thiruvonam is the most auspicious day which marks the visit of the king Mahabali. All these days, people make a carpet of flowers known as “pookalam” which is laid in front of their houses to welcome the king on his return and to ensure happiness and happiness forever. Pookalam is arranged in 10 rings each defining a Hindu god. Nowadays, during Onam festival, there are competitions held for creating the best pookalam. The festival of onam brings in whole new energy in the people of Kerala making this the best time to visit the state. Now you know where you want to go for your next holiday!!

The most impressive and yummiest part of onam is the great feast called “onasadhya”. On the main day, that is, thiruvonam, onasadhya is prepared and served on a banana leaf. It is a nine-course meal which consists of at least 13 essential dishes. A traditional onasadhya can have almost up to 30 dishes and balances the six fundamental flavours- sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. Traditional Onasadhya meal comprises of different varieties of curries, ‘upperies’ – things fried in oil, ‘pappadams’ which are round crisp flour paste cakes of peculiar make, ‘uppilittathu’ – pickles of various kinds, ‘chammanthi’ – the chutney, payasams and prathamans or puddings of various descriptions. Fruits and digestives are also part of the meal.

vallamkali boat race” is another captivating event. It is also known as “snake boat race”. It is basically a traditional boat riding competition in Kerala held on the river pampa in Aranmula. The Aranmula uthtrattathi vallamkali is one of the year’s biggest festivities in the village of Aranmula and one of the oldest traditional boat races in Kerala. The boats are decorated and oared by hundreds of boatmen amidst the chanting of songs and cheering by the spectators. Vallamkali is a major tourist attraction with hundreds and thousands of people gathered for the race.

Onam comes with a lot of “onakalikal” which means ‘games played during the festival of onam’. Some of these games are ‘thalapanthukali’ (a game played with ball), ‘ambeyyal’ (archery), ‘kutukutu’ (similar to kabaddi game), tug of war and the list goes on….. Folk performances like ‘kummatikali’ and ‘pulikali’ add to the zest of celebrations. Women perform ‘kaikottikali, also known as ‘thiruvathira’ and ‘thumbi thullal’, which are names of traditional folk-dance performances. While dancing they praise the King mahabali.

Even though Mahabali is just a myth, the essence of this story is still alive in every Keralite. Onam is not just a festival, it is an emotion for the people of Kerala. Onam is that time of the year when people come together forgetting their differences and difficulties to celebrate and recreate the utopian land, once ruled by the generous King Mahabali!