Monday, August 27, 2007


Happy Onam to all my fellow mallus! Above is the pookalam that we made at home today. Do pardon the stark simplicity - attributed to lack of more types of flowers, and well, creativity! My neighbours, Abhishek and Abhilasha, however, brought about a gem : absolutely fantastic.

A friend recently asked me the story behind Onam, and I gave a really vague story, much to his disappointment and confusion, I think. :) Which is why I have now researched the details, and will present the details for his benefit..and others. Here goes.

The story goes that Kerala was ruled by an Asura (demon) king, Mahabali. The King was greatly respected in his kingdom and was considered to be wise, judicious and extremely generous. It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali. It was the peak of its prosperity - everybody was happy and content.

Now seeing his fame as such a great king and leader, the gods upstairs started feeling a tinge of insecurity, so to speak. They felt challenged by his growing powers and felt the need to curb it. So Aditi, the mother of the Devas, pleaded with Lord Vishnu to do something about it. Persuaded, Lord Vishnu took the diminutive form of Vamana, a brahmin kid.

Thus disguised, Vishnu went to the king and said he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land. The King, generous as he was, told him he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by three steps of his. The King was surprised to hear this but agreed.

A learned adviser of the King, Shukracharya sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making the promise. The King replied that it would be a sin for a King to back on his words and asked the Brahmin to take the land. The King could not imagine that the dwarf Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself.

Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana began to expand and eventually increased himself to the size of cosmic proportions. With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the other step he covered the whole of the skies. He then asked King Mahabali where is the space for him to keep his third foot.

The King realised that he was no ordinary Brahmin and his third step will destroy the earth. Mahabali with folded hands bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise. The Brahmin placed his foot on the head of the King, which pushed him to patala, the nether world. There the King requested the Brahmin to reveal his true identity. Lord Vishnu then appeared before the King in his person. Lord Vishnu also granted a boon to the King.

The King was so much attached with his Kingdom and people that he requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year. Lord Vishnu was moved by the Kings nobility and was pleased to grant the wish. He also blessed the King and said even after losing all his worldly possessions, the King would always be loved by Lord Vishnu and his people.

It is the day of the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala that is celebrated as Onam every year. The festival is celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. Every year people make elaborate preparations to welcome their King whom they affectionately call Onathappan. They wish to please the spirit of their King by depicting that his people are happy and wish him well. The second day, Thiruvonam is the biggest and the most important day of this festival. It is believed that King Mahabali visits his people on the second day.

And there we have the story of Onam. It feels strange to depart from the seeming theme of atheism, if for a while atleast.. :) and then give you a story of the gods!


Anonymous said...

Just a few corrections to this story

A. Mahabali was an Asura. Even though he was a great king, he did hate the Gods and Vishnu, just like any Asura

B. Aditi, The mother of the Devas requested Vishnu to stop Mahabali, because he had forcefully taken over the heavens after defeating Indra and the other gods in battle.

C. MahaBali was only good to his People. To everyone else he was a Demon king

D. MahaBali gave Vamana the Land, even though he knew that He was an avatar of Lord Vishnu, because he believed that he was above Vishnu, and making this Charity would prove that.

Rach said...

Ahem ahem... How must I take an anonymous comment seriously? Any sources to quote?

Manju said...

Sounds like the gods didnt play fair...

The Mad Hatter said...

While we're nitpicking the Mahabali story, ever wondered about the chronological problem in that legend?

IMO, acknowledge that it is legend, and move on. The details are about as relevant as the exact number of angels that can dance on an pinhead :)

Anonymous said...

RRach: I could have pointed you to a wiki link, but the wiki is only as reliable as my word. I grew up listening to these stories, I am what i am, because of these stories. Anywaus, people are free to believe what they want to believe. Just to add to my previous comment Mahabali was an Asura, and an Asura cannot be allowed to live, because of a few good qualities. Unlike human beings, they are born evil. Their evil traits are passed on to their children. Mahabali, for instance was the grandson of Prahalda, or Bhakta Prahalada, The greatest devotee of Vishnu. Because Prahalada was spared, the evil traits of Hiranayakasapa continued to be passed on to his decendants

By the way, to answer the chronlogical problem,
Whether or not, Parasuram came after Vaman is debateable. Unlike the other avatars of Vishnu, which were short lived, Parasuram lived on. He first made his appearance in the Satya Yuga to destroy the kshathriyas. He again made his appearance in threta yug at Lord Rama's Wedding, where he challenged Rama to lift Vishnu's Bow, after he learned that Rama broke Shiva's bow. Yet another time, he appeared in the Dwapara yuga as Karna's teacher.
The point that I'm trying to make over here is that Parasuram shared an overlap period with three other avatars of Vishnu. Vamana, Rama and Krishna.

I can visit this blog more often and answer all your questions, if you like. That is all for now

The Mad Hatter said...


Mitra and Varuna themselves are Asuras (and are called so in the Rig Veda), so not letting any Asura live would be rather extreme.

Again, if you have any reference to the Parasurama/Vamana overlap, I'd like to see it. Parasurama is supposed to be a chiranjeevin born in Treta Yuga - his overlap with the later avataras are well documented, but nothing I've seen or heard talks of his overlap with earlier ones.