The legend of Onam they will tell you today is a tale well known. His name was Maha-Bali – a noble demon King who was loved dearest by his beloved people on the palmy coast of Kerala. Bali conquered all three worlds: Heaven, Earth and Nether-world. In his fair rule there was no caste, no high-born, and his beloved people were provided for in plenty and more. They in turn were virtuous and devoid of any vices or deceit, living fuller merrier lives than their wretched brethren elsewhere. There was no better ruler nor the ruled in all of the three worlds and the Gods the story tellers ominously proclaim soon grew jealous of the King. A young shiny Brahmin dwarf-boy came by, the story goes on, to ask the King alms of 3-foot land, on a day of festive charity. Generous as the dear King Maha-Bali was, he promised the boy a grant of his wish. Since he had come for 3-foot land, that is what the young villain took: He grew in size – as he was Vishnu in disguise – and by one foot he reclaimed all of Heaven for the jeaolous Gods and by the other all of Earth. Where am I to place my third foot oh King ? he asked, they say. King Bali bowed and offered his head to keep his promise only to be banished to the Nether-world. Nevertheless overwhelmed by the sacrifice of the demon King he tricked, the villainous Vishnu disguised as a Brahmin offered the demon King the right to re-visit his people once a year. Thus the tale of Onam that they repeat today has the noble demon King Bali making his annual survey of his beloved people who jubilate with floral carpets, banquets and merriments to welcome their exiled King. This legend of Onam and King Maha-Bali was birthed in tragedy and injustice – the villainous swindler, a Brahmin God and the defrauded noble hero a  “low-born” demon King. As it happened, it is but a travesty, a narrative skilfully crafted to further a political movement against feudalism and caste in the early decades of the last century.

The original puranic narrative had at its heart – the atonement of a King for possessing what was not rightfully his, and his demotion consequent to his pride in his own generosity; it was hijacked and repurposed by the communist movements in Kerala, albeit for a good social cause – to revolt against oppressive feudalism and caste heirarchy. New icons needed to be found for that cause and Maha-Bali fit the bill as this was what was needed in the Kerala of then. The moral of the Bali legend was readily recast. As Maha-Bali´s storytellers will claim today, when the “low-born” demon King agreed to be banished by the Brahmin dwarf-boy he suffered under Brahmin injustice, when he demands and wins from the high-born Brahmin his “right” for an annual return, the need for demanding ones rights in an oppressive feudal system comes to play. When the Onam-folk-song was recast praising  a supposedly egalitarian society under Bali´s regime, it was meant to bring to fore front by contrast the then contemporary rotting feudalism that victimised those in its underbelly. Amusingly, the injustice and “rights” meant nothing to the King in the original legend, nor was his regime free of the Vedic caste hierarchy, as the original puranic narrative had little to do with either in its moral import. Vamana (1)The moral of the original legend on the contrary had to do with Bali´s atonement for possessing what was not rightfully his – the Heavens, his nobleness in keeping a promise he delivered, the suffering he brought upon himself by not abiding by the good-advice of his mentor Shukracharya against vain charity, and his fall consequent to his false pride in his own generosity. The King was of demonly lineage no doubt but that was not synonymous to “low-caste”, as Maha-Bali´s storytellers will claim today, for Bali was himself a follower of the Vedic religion and a descendant of Prahlada the celebrated devotee of Vishnu, inspite of being a demon. By brute force Bali had appropriated the heavenly lands reserved only for the Gods and not rightfully his. Vishnu, the protector of order sets forth to reclaim the Heavens disguised as a Brahmin boy (Vamana Avatar) .  Bali after his conquest of the three worlds sponsored a Vedic sacrifice (Yajna) and engages in vain charity to consolidate his power – it became a statement of vanity and unbridled pride; his banishment by Vamana a siren call against it. Pride can result in the fall of even the noblest of souls proclaims the original legend. He was a tragic hero – a victim of his own pride, not of the Vedic religion he has today become. Nevertheless in reward of his virtuous precedence he is promised the position of Indra – the King of Gods in the next eon.

Local folklore studies states that the said victory of Vishnu was celebrated in a festive procession by the Rajah of Kochi in the town of Trikkakkara in Kerala where a temple is dedicated to this particular Avatar of Vishnu as Vamana.

Trikkakkara (1)
Vamana temple at Trikkakkara, a suburb of Kochi, Kerala.

Rajahs from different parts of Kerala were mandated to accompany the procession with their retinue annually during Onam and those subjects that were unable to participate stayed back and celebrated the festival with floral carpets in their homes decorated by a clay model of the Avatar placed in its centre. The historical Sangham records show that Onam was a festival celebrated in all three Tamil lands – Chera, Chola and Pandya in great pomp with public championships and jubilation in honour of Mayon, a Sangham-era name for Vishnu. The Onam folklore was recast in to a new narrative only in the early 20th century by the communist literetteurs with Maha-Bali recast as the central tragic hero victimized by the oppressive feudal-caste structure within the Vedic religion. By recasting Bali, they could also recast the Brahmin boy Avatar of Vishnu as a villainous swindler and associate him with feudal lords following Brahmanic traditions – albeit it was used as a social tool in good faith to gain popularity for the communist party as a messiah of the depressed classes and engage in a social reformation experiment. The present Onam song (Maveli nadu vaneedum Kalam) in modern Malayalam style was re-structured as late as 1930s from an ancient version of an Onam song in old-style Malayalam by the literetteur Sahodaran Ayyappan who was sympathetic to the Communist party. After independence, the communist government declared Onam as a state festival and further popularized the Maha-Bali centric narrative where the purport continues to sketch Vishnu as a villainous swindler in contrast to the Vamana centric puranic narrative that aims to make a statement against vanity and pride. However decades of using the propaganda narrative albeit for a good cause has taken its toll – Bali has risen to cult proportions during Onam festivities supplanting the original diety of the festival Vishnu/Vamana. Further, the original anti-vanity narrative of the story has become obscure and for strange reasons at the receiving end of neglect, which in itself is benign and less worrisome – but the danger of it lies elsewhere.

More dangerously, the Hindu-right wing has seized upon the opportunity of Onam to masquerade the older/original puranic version of the Bali-Vamana story and gain sympathy among pious Hindus to highlight how Hindu cultural traditions are tampered and is under threat from the self-styled secular liberal forces. Therefore if we genuinely intend to prevent right-wing politicking from hijacking the sentiment, then we ourselves need to resurrect the original anti-vanity narrative of the legend and declare with honesty that the tampering was done for a good social cause and we are prepared to re-popularise and re-instate the original narrative – that nobody´s culture is under threat . 

A clay model of Trikkakkara- Appan (Lord Vishnu as Vamana) being worshipped during Onam by Kerala Hindus alongside the popular floral carpets.