Sunday, 7 September 2014


Photo: Nila Tamaraa

Onam is one of the most beautiful festivals of India. Celebrated by the people of Kerala, it is in fact a welcome party for King Mahabali, who visit Kerala — God's own country — every year. Growing up I never tired of listening to the story of King Mahabali. Every year, I would ask my grandmother to tell me the "story of Onam" after partaking the Onam sadhya — an elaborate feast of 26  dishes. Yep, I could tuck in quite a bit for my pixie-size :)

Today, I take pleasure in retelling the story that was so much a part of my childhood.

King Mahabali — also called Maveli — was a popular king. He's actually an Asura — a demon — king; but well respected and loved by his people. Under his reign, the kingdom prospered. People lived happily. They were all like one-big family — caste, creed, gender no bar. There was no crime, hence no fear. There was also great justice. People were rich and healthy. The king was generous — extremely so. He was wise. He was kind. He was also good looking (I think, this was my grandma's addition to the story, since I have never read any books where Maveli is praised for his good looks. However, grandma liked to think so). King Mahabali's reign was considered the golden period of Kerala.  

With each passing day Mahabali became more and more popular. His people loved him to bits. As it is the case with anyone who is popular and loved by all...there's always someone lurking around the corner to put a spoke int he wheels. In Mahabali's case, it was more than one — he had a group of  Gods who were jealous of him. They felt threatened. They believed that Mahabali might usurp their powers. And they believed that Mahabali's popularity-train should be stopped at any costs.. So they hatched a plan. 

Aditi, the Mother of Gods, went to Lord Vishnu. Smart mama! Because Mahabali was an ardent devotee and worshipper of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all. She asked him to intervene. Now the problem with Lord Vishnu is he feels compelled to grant his devotees what they yearn for — and Aditi was a devotee too. So He took it upon himself to deal with the 'problem'.

Lord Vishnu knew that Mahabali was generous to a fault. If the King never learned to say 'no'. He couldn't. Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a poor Brahmin called Vamana and approached Mahabali. He said: "Oh King, I am a poor man. Please give me a piece of land." Mahabali was shocked — you see, in his Kingdom there were no poor people. He wanted to rectify the situation immediately. So he told Vamana: "Take as much land as you want." 

Vamana replied: "I want only as much land that could be covered by my three steps." Mahabali was surprised. Because, you see,Vamana was a dwarf. How much land could a dwarf's three steps measure? Being a generous king, Maveli must've wondered whether the land thus obtained would be sufficient to make the little man rich. However, the King's adviser, Shukracharya, smelt a rat. So he piped in: "No, Maveli. Watch it. Vamana is not an ordinary person. Don't make any promise." But the King had already given his word and there was no way he was going to go back on his word. "My word is my bond," he said (I think this again was my grandma's dialogue...but never mind)...
So Maveli said: "Go ahead, Vamana. Take three steps, measure your land and it is yours."
That's when Vamana began to expand — to cosmic proportions. 
Vamana took his first step — and he covered the whole earth. 
Vamana took his second step  — and he covered the skies.
And...there was no land/space for his third step. 
So, he turned to Mahabali and asked: "Where is the space for my third step?"
Mahabali who never said no to anyone who came seeking help...folded his arms, bowed down before Vamana and said: "You can take the last step on my head."
Vamana put his foot down — for the last and third time — on the head of the mighty Mahabali and pushed him to the nether world called the "Pathala", my grandmother would say. 
Vamana then revealed himself to the King — he was none other than Lord Vishnu. He said to the King: "I came to test your generosity. And you have won. I grant you a boon. Ask for whatever you want?"
This is where I would cry..."lies, lies...Vishnu came because he was helping Aditi stop Mahabali's popularity train." And this is also where my grandma pretended to turn deaf and continued with the story. And I let her....always!
The King who loved his people dearly asked the Lord that he be allowed to visit Kerala once a year. The Lord granted his wish. It is this once-a-year-visit of Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam by every Malayalee in the world — irrespective of caste and creed. 
Onam is a 10-day festival. The last day — Thiruvonam — is the biggest and most important day of the festival. (Which is today)It is believed that King Mahabali visits his people on this day. People start the pookalam - or rangoli of flowers- from day one and everyday the circle of flowers keep increasing, culminating in a 10-ring pookalam on the 10th day. 
Onam sadhya or feast is served on a large plantain leaf and there are 7 varieties of curries, 7 kinds of side dishes, 4 kinds of fried items, 4 kinds of pickles, 3 varieties of desserts served along with pappad and boiled rice.
After such a heavy meal, I would usually doze off by the time grandma finished her story. When Mahabali visited his people in the story, I was only half-awake. But smiling. Grandma maintained till the very end — she passed away two-decades ago when she was 96-years-old — that on Thiruvonam day, after the feast, I always slept on her lap, with a smile on my face. "A happy baby!" she would say.
Here's wishing you all a Happy Onam!