All of us have heard of Mahabali, and to most of us, the word “Mahabali” brings to mind a pot-bellied middle-aged man with thick locks of black hair and a wholesome meesha. This version would also have an olakkuda and a crown. But it doesn’t look like our beloved Mahabali was pot-bellied till the recent past. In 1983, Prem Nazir played the mythical king and this is what he looked like.
And here’s an illustration from The Ten Principal Avataras of the Hindus: A Short History of Each Incarnation and Directions for the Representations of the Murtis as Tableaux Vivants by Sourindo Mohun Tagore, published in 1880.
While we’re not saying that the above depictions are accurate in any way, it looks like until recently, Mahabali looked very different from the version that we imagine today. And with good reason too. Mahabali was an Asura king. He was Prahalada’s grandson after all. The same Prahalada who worshipped Vishnu and led to the downfall of Hiranyakashipu.
Much like Jesus, who over time came to be represented as a white caucasian male and not the historical middle-eastern man, Mahabali went from being a ‘dark-skinned Asura’ to a fair-skinned well-fed ‘Mallu uncle’. It is hard to say what Mahabali, or the semi-historical figure that the myth is based on looked like. But with the discovery of Harappan-like settlements in South India that date as far back as 580 BCE, it is safe to assume that he would most definitely not been a “maha bellied, FAIR SKINNED, umbrella clad, and Santa Claus like”.
It is this imagery that @MeanCurry wanted to challenge took to social media and asked people to draw their version of our favourite (mythical) Dravidian ruler.
He asked his followers to submit their entries with the hashtag #OurMahabali. The response was overwhelming and presents us with multiple iterations of Mahabali.
Here are 20 versions of our beloved Mahabali.
So those were some of the ways in which Kerala reimagined Mahabali this Onam. Which one did you like the most? Is there one version of Mahabali that we should stick to from now on? Let us know in the comments section below.