Once upon a time, the just king Mahabali ruled over an egalitarian land where everyone lived in peace and harmony. Mahabali’s kingdom of joy, the myth goes, was the object of everyone’s envy—even the gods in heaven. So popular was the king that the gods sought the help of the deity Vishnu to wrest control from Mahabali. And so, Vishnu appeared in front of the king, reborn as a diminutive Brahmin named Vamana—the Hindu deity’s fifth avatar.
Vamana asked the king to grant him as much land as he could cover in three paces. Mahabali agreed. Then, the tiny Vamana grew into a gigantic size. He covered the earth in one step, the skies in another. Vamana asked Mahabali where to place his third step, who offered his head. He pushed the king down to pataal—the netherworld. Mahabali was granted a yearly visit to his kingdom and subjects. Every year, this visit is marked in Kerala with Onam, the most widely celebrated festival in the state.
During Onam, which is also a harvest festival, songs and mythological stories about Mahabali reverberate across the state. The king’s rule is immortalised in the popular Onam ballad ‘Maveli Naadu Vaaneedu Kaalam.’ The song, whose title translates to ‘When Our King Maveli Ruled the Land,’ is a remembrance of a time when there was “neither anxiety nor stress,” and when “no one cheated or wronged their neighbour.” The festival is unlike many others: no pujas are conducted, no idols taken out, nor is there any fasting. It includes a series of unique celebrations: traditional floral carpets that are supposed to welcome Maveli into people’s homes, high-voltage boat races, folk dances, and zealous tugs-of-war, all accompanied by a rich feast. Nearly everyone considers Onam a secular, harvest festival today, which is celebrated by people of every religion in Kerala.
This Onam, however, dawned into a controversy. Recently, the Kesari Weekly, the Kerala mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, ran an Onam Special issue. Its cover story, written by Unnikrishnan Namboothiri, proclaims Onam as the birth anniversary of Vamana. Basing his arguments on Srimad Bhagavatam—one of the ancient Hindu texts, the Puranas—Namboothiri rejected the common Onam folklore, claiming that no story of Mahabali’s banishment exists in the text. He further claimed that the king, who is commonly portrayed in Hindu mythology as an Asura, or demon, was not in fact sent to hell, but was instead “blessed” for his devotion to Vishnu and sent to a place better than heaven. Namboothiri rejected the popular myth surrounding Mahabali, which usually depicts him as a kindly, pot-bellied king holding a banana leaf as an umbrella, and Vamana as a short-statured Brahmin boy. “It is an attempt by some vested interest to distort the mythical stories and paint in poor light the characters of Hindu Puranas,” he wrote. Namboothiri went to the extent of de-linking Mahabali from Kerala, and claimed that his empire was somewhere in north India, and that Kerala did not exist at the time.