Onam Festival in Kerala: The Legend of King Mahabali

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Updated: Sep 13, 2016 11:20 PM

Onam is a ten day harvest festival, which is celebrated by Malayalis worldwide to welcome their much loved King Mahabali.

Members of malayalee community prepare an "Atha Pookalam" (floral decoration) at Rasta peth ayyappa temple on the eve of "Thiruvonam" (Express photo by Arul Horizon)Members of malayalee community prepare an “Atha Pookalam” (floral decoration) at Rasta peth ayyappa temple on the eve of “Thiruvonam” (Express photo by Arul Horizon)

Onam is a ten day harvest festival, which is celebrated by Malayalis worldwide to welcome their much loved King Mahabali. This year, there has been a raging controversy, following an article published in RSS magazine Kesari, which stated that Onam marks the birth of Vamana, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and it is not meant to celebrate the visit of King Mahabali.

The main issue of contention is that there is a strong religious and casteist overtone to the article, which is not acceptable to many Malayalis and is being perceived as a strong threat to the cultural diversity of “God’s Own Country.”

Lekshmy Rajeev, former Consultant Editor at Niyogi Books and author of the book ‘Attukal Amma: The Goddess of Millions’ (Harper Element, 2016), shares her views on this popular legend with FE online, ” As I have said earlier, myths have no historical validation. Vamana is the fifth avatar of Lord Vishnu. Parashurama comes after that. We in Kerala also believe that it is Parashurama who retrieved Kerala from the sea. So, how do we prove that Parashurama existed before Vamana and Mahabali was the ruler of Kerala? I don’t dwell much on these things. Onam has nothing to do with temples. It is one of Kerala’s festivals, related to harvest.”

Also Read: Onam Festival in Kerala: How Onasadhya is plated and eaten on a banana leaf

For those who live outside Kerala, all of this may not be easy to understand, given that most people do not know about King Mahabali’s cultural significance among Malayalis.

Suma Varughese, Editor-in-Chief of Life Positive Magazine and an author of several books and articles related to spirituality, told FE Online, “As a Syrian Christian from Kerala, Onam is one of the few festivals that I religiously observe and I always have a pookalam. You will be interested to know that our Church always has an Onam celebration and it is one of the few Church events I love to attend.”

So now, here is a quick reference to the popular legend and why Onam continues to be celebrated to welcome Mahabali.

Read Also: Onam festival in Kerala’s Guruvayoor Temple: 7 stunning Pookalams to brighten up Onam festival

The popular myth is that Mahabali was an ideal, benevolent King, an “asura”, whose popularity was envied by the Devas and they appealed to Lord Vishnu. Thus, Vamana, the ”dwarf” avatar of Lord Mahavishnu, is believed to have asked the mighty King to grant him three footsteps of land, that is under his territory.

Seeing the dwarf’s size, King Mahabali granted the wish. Then, Vamana took two gigantic steps and there was no space to place his third step – which is when King Mahabali offered his head because he would never go back on a promise, even if it meant being pushed to the netherworld.

Following this, King Mahabali sought a boon from Vamana that he may be allowed to visit the land and his people on the same day every year. The popular belief is that this boon was granted to King Mahabali and the people of Kerala celebrate King Mahabali’s annual visit on the day of Thiruonam.

The popular myth on King Mahabali has no historical backing. However, this is a unique festival that has established an enviable social ecosystem of equality and harmony among people of different religions and communities in the state.

In God’s Own Country, Onam remains a much anticipated festival and in all likelihood, this festival will continue to strengthen the unity and diversity of the state as it is celebrated not just across the country but also across the world, with much fervor and excitement.

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