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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Onam and the Legend of Mahabali

Onam, the biggest festival of Kerala (a state in India) falls in the Malayalam month of Chingam (August–September). Normally Onam also falls immediately after the harvesting season thus making it a harvest festival. Chingam is the first month in the Malayalam calendar making it also a New Year festival. Malayalam is also the language we speak.

The legend on Onam goes like this (This is narrated here only for the benefit of non-Malayalees. Every Malayalee lives this story and may have heard or read it a hundred times.):

Mahabali, grandson of Prahlada, was ruling the earth. He was such a benevolent king that his fame spread to all the three worlds (Heaven, earth and Pathala). During his time every subject of his was happy. There was no violence, no ill-will among people, no burglaries, and no cheating. Due to this the king became very powerful.

Mahabali was a demon (Asura) king. Devas and Asuras are always at loggerheads, since they represent the good and the bad. The growing power of Mahabali scared Lord Indra, the king of Devas. He thought if Mahabali becomes stronger, he would even challenge Devas, and defeat Indra in fight and occupy Deva Loka (the abode of Devas). He went to Lord Mahavishnu and explained his apprehension.

Lord Vishnu, the ever-ready god to help Devas, took the shape of an eight-year old Brahmin boy named Vamana, and visited Mahabali while the latter was performing a yajna (yaga, a religious ceremony). Brahmins were a revered creed those days. The king asked him what he wanted in dakshina (a kind of appeasement). Vamana said he only wanted three feet of land where he could sit and pray. The king granted the request immediately. Soon Vamana began to grow in stature. He became a giant. With one foot he measured heaven, with the second foot he measured both Pathala and earth and then asked Mahabali where he should take the third foot of land from. Mahabali kneeled before him and requested him to put his foot on his head. Mahabali was thus sent down to Pathala. Before going down, however, he asked for a boon from Lord Vishnu, which was that he should be allowed to visit his subjects once a year, which was granted. Onam is the time when Mahabali visits his subjects and we, his subjects, welcome our most revered and loved king!

How we used to celebrate Onam half a century ago is another story!

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