Is Mahabali (And Onam) Really A Malayali Thing?

Kerala is gearing up for yet another Onam. This time, however, the State is trying out a ‘virtual Onam’. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan will inaugurate the celebrations virtually on the 14th of August. The Covid-19 pandemic has rendered our celebrations lacklustre yet again, but the Spirit of Onam is strong as ever! Which brings us to the question – Did Onam have a clear year of beginning or is its origin muddled, much like most Indian myths?

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Onam In South Indian History

According to A.K. Kurup’s ‘The Sociology of Onam, the earliest mention of Onam in South Indian literature is from a 2nd century Tamil poem named Maduraikanchi. It describes a celebration of Onam in Madurai, under the Pandya king Nedunjezhiyan. It involved a good amount of merrymaking. People languished in stands drunk and excited, watching rival groups meet each other in elephant battles. The king also held feasts and distributed clothes as gifts during the seven-day celebration of Onam that fell in the month of Chingam.

Several other ancient inscriptions mention Onam. Some of them are records of people sending gifts like rice and ghee to temples on the auspicious occasion. (You can find one such inscription from the 12th century A.D. at the Thiruvalla Sreevallabha Temple.) There are even mentions of Onam in memoirs of European missionaries, like A Voyage to the East Indies by Paulinus of St Bartholomew.

Suffice to say that Onam has a long, rich and varied history. The legends surrounding Onam are a completely different story. To get a clearer picture of the true origin of the festival, it is these legends that we must examine.

The Legend(s) Of Onam

The most popular legend vis-a-vis Onam is that it celebrates the return of the benevolent king Mahabali from Patalam each year

A Sculpture of Mahabali with Vamana.

According to the myths, Narasimham killed Mahabali’s grandfather Hiranyakashipu, an Asura king. Stories claim that like his father Prahlada, Mahabali too worshipped Vishnu. Other stories, especially Tamil ones, stress Mahabali having Siva as the ‘kuladeivam’. Kummattikali, the folk dance that livens up Onam each year, is closely associated with this Saivite myth. According to this, the kummatis are Siva’s bhoot gana visiting Mahabali’s people just before Mahabali arrives.

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According to Sangam era texts like Divyaprabandham, the harvest festival that falls in the month of Avani, was celebrated in the Tamizhagam to honour a deity named Maayon. There are also mentions made in Divyaprabandham that Onam was held in tribute to another deity called Netiyon in the Venkatam hills. Many believe that ‘Maayon’ and ‘Netiyon’ are other names of Vishnu, one of whose avatars was Vamana. There is quite a good possibility that local legends, including their deities, got assimilated into a bigger umbrella title, the popular legend of Mahabali being pushed into Patala by Vamana.

There are alternative stories too, which suggest that Onam is the day that Parasuram pulled up the land of Kerala from the seas by throwing his axe.

Now, the story of Vamana pushing Mahabali into Patalam actually precedes the story of Parasuram. This creates chronological confusion. How did Mahabali, the king of Kerala, have a kingdom when Parasuram had not yet pulled up land out of the sea? Does it mean that the legends concur with the possibility that Mahabali’s kingdom was not necessarily in Kerala? 

Mahabali is not exclusive to Kerala

In all fairness, it is quite likely that the ruler we celebrate as Mahabali was actually from the land that is Kerala today. However, contests to this ruler’s identity ought to be entertained because there is no concrete proof anywhere. There are only legends, and legends that claim him to be from Kerala are as likely to be true as legends that say he was from Tulunadu. Whichever legend you choose to entertain, these stories and several other myths surrounding Mahabali suggest that the mighty Asura king might not have been exclusive to us Malayalis. 

In fact, Mahabali, or Bali as he is better known elsewhere, is a deity still actively worshipped in the Deccan and parts of North India. He is a major figure in Balipratipada (the fourth day of Diwali) celebrated in North India and the Deccan. It’s quite plausible that the people who migrated from the North brought the story of Mahabali far South from the Deccan. With time, the story might have gotten absorbed into the colour of the local folklore and harvest.

Where Exactly Was Onam Celebrated?

Talking about kingdoms, where exactly did Mahabali have his kingdom? Some say that his capital was at Thrikkakara, which is where Vamana pushed Mahabali down into the ground. Thrikkakara probably is a deviation of the name ‘Thrikkal kara’, which is pretty self-explanatory. This Vamana temple was a hub for Onam festivities during the time when kings reigned. It is still closely associated with the Athachamayam organised at the onset of the Onam festivities. 

Thrikkakara Temple
Thrikkakara Temple

Other places thought to be the capital of Mahabali’s kingdom, include Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, Balia in Uttar Pradesh, Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra and Bharuch in Gujarat. 

While the true location of Mahabali’s kingdom is hard to pinpoint, it is clear that the celebration of Onam was not restricted to Kerala in ancient times. Malayalam as a language did not exist then, neither did the Malayali identity. Kerala was then a part of Tamizhagam, subject to their rulers like the Cheras and Cholas. Onam was possibly a festival celebrated throughout Tamizhagam, and hence in Kerala too. With the passage of time, Onam may have vanished from the lands east of the Western Ghats while in Kerala, the festival continued in all its glory. 

Mahabali and Onam
Tamizhagam, in the Sangam Era

Also Read: The First People in Kerala: What Do We Know About Our Prehistoric Ancestors?

The ‘Malayali Onam’: A Modern Legend?

While Onam is not complete without Mahabali, he is only one part of the festival. Just like Santa Claus does not comprise the entirety of Christmas, Onam has much more to offer than just Mahabali.

The festival that was once celebrated all across Dravidian lands got restricted to Malayali lands. The legend popular in Kerala became the dominant legend. Add to this the historical and mythological mix-up and the complex advertising strategy adopted by Kerala to encourage tourism. The result? We have created for ourselves a ‘customised Malayali Onam’ and an exclusive Mahabali!

Onam Celebrations

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Also interesting to note is the fact that the secular nature of Onam, and the socialist principles that govern the moral behind Onam today, might both be recent developments. It might even be a post-independence addition to the popular harvest festival. All antique mentions of Onam portray it as a festival celebrated in temples, and the secular nature of Onam was not as discernible then as it is today. In this, we have to laud our forecomers. There is no better way to encourage social cooperation than by giving people from diverse backgrounds a common reason, a grand festival for everyone to call their own. 

Onam continues to do this for us each year, even though the pandemic. It re-seals our social bonds while reminding us of Kerala’s cultural heritage and complex folklore. While there is nothing in our history, or legendarium to prove that Onam was solely ours, Onam is now a symbol of Kerala. Wherever Malayalis go, Onam accompanies them. So does the moral of the festival-social harmony; a day of giving, feasting and rejoicing. May the kind spirit and open heart promoted by Onam, continue to be present throughout this year – especially during these trying times. On that note, wishing you all a happy Onam!


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