Every festival has a story, a legend attached to it, and so does Onam. Today morning I was attempting a retelling of the legend for a dear friend when it struck me I might as well do it on my blog. After all today is Thiruvonam, the most important day of the festive season for us Mallus, a day when we of Gods Own Country, also known as Kerala, replete with Onasadya (the vegetarian feast served on banana leaves) that we have hogged,
make merry indolently sit in front of television sets and catch the Mallu movies on offer. I am kidding, we do a lot more than that. But actually, if I didn’t say that someone might kill me. I am kidding again. Seriously, since I am quite unlikely to stop kidding in my lifetime, I might be, for all I know.
Anyways…. The legend and its retelling, and a lot of unnecessary chatter, by yours truly follows. There are many of them out there, and none of them are true except mine. There, what did I tell you? I am kidding again. Before I fall into the same old groove and go on like a broken record about just kidding, let me begin the retelling.
Long, long ago, in a beautiful verdant land enclosed by mountains on one side and the blue caressing sea on the other, there lived a benevolent king called Mahabelly. Ooops. Sorry. That’s the name of a restaurant in Delhi, not the king. It is true that the king had a potbelly, a sure sign of prosperity, as portrayed in pictorial representations of him. But his name was not Mahabelly, but Mahabali, meaning ‘of great power'(not to be confused with Bahubali which is the name of a recent top-grossing Telugu movie)
Mahabali came from a line of Asura kings. Asura stands for demon, but desist from falling into the trap set by those of yore, about this great divide between ‘asuras’, the bad guys and ‘devas’, the good guys. Asuras were merely people of the south whom their conquerors portrayed as demons and hence evil. That’s what victors do, rewrite everything from their perspective and insist it is the only truth. The truth is, there are many truths, one of them being victors anywhere always call themselves the good guys and everyone believes them, including those who lost.
Mahabali was the great great grandson of a brahmin sage Kashyapa, great grandson of Hiranyakshipu, the grand son of Prahlada and son of Vairochana. Phew. Quite a line up that. Eh? His great-grandfather Hiranyakashipu was the one who had a run-in with one of the ‘devas’ and got himself killed as a result. These ‘devas’ are a dangerous lot. They have all the superior technology and don’t hesitate to use it on others.
Mahabali himself was not the belligerent kind like his great-grandfather. He didn’t go about threatening and attacking ‘devas’. He minded his own business, ruled his kingdom extremely well, looked after the welfare of his people. It is said of his reign, ‘Kallavum illa, chathiyum illa, ellolam illa poli vachanam‘ (no lies, cheating, no false promises, not even as much as a tiny sesame seed) His praja were a happy lot. In fact, Keralam was a veritable paradise under him, which no successive governments to date have been able to replicate, in spite of the many election promises.
Whenever ‘asura’ kings of yore got powerful, ‘devas’ became worse than scaredy cats. Mahabali was not conquering or annexing, still, just the fact that he was a ruler loved by his people was enough to make the ‘devas’ insecure. They did what they always do in such situations, went wailing to their chief ‘deva’ Vishnu. Help us Lord, they bawled.
Relax, smiled Vishnu, looking around at the nervous group assembled around him. I’ll think of something. The ‘devas’ went back satisfied. And soon enough, Vishnu hit upon just the idea. Accordingly, he took the form of a dwarf and went to Mahabali’s kingdom. At the sacrificial rite being performed in Mahabali’s kingdom, Vamana the brahmin boy was accorded all respect and courtesies due him. Point to be noted Mi’lord. Mahabali did his duty as any good king.
The generous King Mahabali, as was the custom, then asked Vamana what gift he desired. Vamana smiled and said, “Nothing yaar, I need only three paces of land!” Warning bells rang in Mahabali’s head at this unusual request, but a word given is a word to be upheld. Point to be noted Mi’lord. Mahabali was not only a generous king but also an upright one.
As soon as Mahabali gave the go ahead, Vamana grew in size. This is anyay (injustice) Mi’lord. There was nothing about changing size, shape or form in the oral contract. But no one was buying that line of argument. The judge and jury being all from the ‘deva’ camp quashed that point as irrelevant. Objection overruled.
Vamana measured all the three worlds (I think I heard Science groan just now. Three worlds???!!) in two paces and asked Mahabali in a bored tone,
“Ab ye pair kaha rakhoon Raajan?” (Where shall I keep my feet now?) Yes, in Hindi. Vamana didn’t know Malayalam.
“Mere sar pe!” (On my head!) responded the King smiling serenely, but gritting his teeth inwardly. I brought this upon myself by outshining the jealous ‘devas’. Sigh. Now he was being deported to God knew what godforsaken place. Double sigh. I am going to miss my loving people. I did so enjoy their adoration. Triple sigh. But sighing was not going to help. Vamana was waiting, gleefully preparing to complete the last step of his Mission Banish Just King From His Kingdom For No Reason.
Mahabali cleared his throat. It was now or never. I have a last request, he said. Vamana was immediately alert. This could still go wrong. The people could revolt and reinstate Mahabali and send him packing.
Mahabali was too good for the likes of envious ‘devas’. All he said was,
“I’d like to come back and visit my subjects once every year!” Point to be noted Mi’Lord. He was such a good King. None of the jealous ‘devas’ can hold a candle to him, or even an oil lamp for that matter. No one was listening. They were busy waiting to watch Mahabali being escorted out, to be deported to the dark land of Pataal somewhere down under.
Vamana was relieved when he heard the request, the fool king had asked for nothing much.
“So be it!” he said magnanimously.
The poor foolish people of Keralam believed their king would be really allowed to come and visit them. But once a perceived threat has been successfully removed like a thorn, will it ever be allowed to make a comeback and pierce again?
Still, innocent Mallus full of hope believe Mahabali will visit them, at least in disguise. May be with a french beard and an ola kuda (leaf umbrella). They celebrate Onam every year, trying to recreate the old times of prosperity under King Mahabali, by spending all the bonus they get during the festive season from their employers, borrowing heavily and spending that too at the Beverages Corporation to drink and put themselves into a stupor so that they can forget how for the rest of the year they’ll be working hard to pay off loans and then splurge all over again the next Onam, ad infinitum.
So you see, Onam is about Mahabali. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Also know that my tongue is lodged firmly in my cheek.
©Shail Mohan 2016
Thank you 🙂
LOL good one Shall! Wishing you a Happy Onam. However I am a bit confused
There are 10 days of the feast and I thought the last day is Thiruvonam. Today is only the second day, so how is it Thiruvonam already?
Thank you 🙂 Ten days of feast starting from Uthradam, which fell on 13th Sept this year. The next, the second, is the Thiruvonam day 🙂
Thiruonam is the 2nd Onam. The pookkalam -floral arrangement- starts from star Atham for 10 days and ends on Thiruonam. Olden days Onam was celebrated 28 days. You are confusing the 10 days of floral arrangement that ends on 10th day Thiruonam.
I knew the Mahabali story, but not quite in THAT vein !
Name one single Indian festival (Hindu festival, i.e.) that did not involve overindulgence ? You only have one day of the harvest festival. In Tamil Nadu we celebrate the harvest for three days (“Pongal”). The amount of food we collectively consume in Tamil Nadu, can feed a small African country.
That aside, having a Mallu for a best friend, I indulged too. I have to work out for the next two weeks to burn THAT baby. (https://diptoeblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/onam-wishes/)
Oh, Onam used to be ten whole days of indulgence. In modern times you, especially those outside the state, see only Thiruvonam as Onam. Besides, people don’t have the same resources as before, living off the hard work of the less fortunate, so they put a limit on how long they celebrate 🙂
You are so right about all festivals being about ‘overindulgence’! And the amount of food you see wasted? 😦
Loved this version!
Thank you 🙂
Your zany version beats all the others
The jealousy of devas brings on the shudders
But a point to note
There’s nary a quote
Nor mention of any of the four long-suffering mothers!
True that! 😮 Let me rectify facts by reading up more. Thanks, Gul.
Four suffering mothers?
“Mahabali was the great great grandson of a brahmin sage Kashyapa, great grandson of Hiranyakshipu, the grand son of Prahlada and son of Vairochana.”
(1) Mahabali’s mother, wife of Vairochana.
(2) Vairochana’s mother, wife of Prahlada.
(3) Prahlada’s mother, wife of Hiranyakshipu.
(4) Hiranyakshipu’s mother, wife of Kashyapa.
What agony would they have gone through?
Aha that is a great learning, but what about the mothers of the wives of Kashyapa, Hiranyakshipu, Prahalada and Vairochana. Wouldn’t they be agonised too?
Sandhya Kumar said:
Laughed throughout! The main story is not distorted, I can notice! You are a superb narrator!
Thank you, Sandhya. Glad you laughed 😀
Mick Canning said:
That’s cleared that up, then! Poor old Mahabelly! (is there really a Delhi restaurant of that name? There certainly should be!)
Yes Mick, Mahabelly is in Saket, I am told 🙂
Mick Canning said:
Ah, near the airport. I’ve never been there.
Bwahaha Shail ! You imp! What did you do? 😀
What an awesome roller coaster of a telling!
I loved it. And you know what? The way you told it, all the details are stuck in my head. Instead of some boring, old version which would have made me snooze. 😛
All thanks to you. Lol, I knew what I was going to write that night as soon as I started telling you the story 😀 I bet now you will never forget Mahabelly, sorry Mahabali 😉
Definitely won’t forget! 😂
Mahabali would have been a benevolent ruler
but what point writing good about a loser
when with all his wits Vamana was the victor
and Onam will be Vamana Jayanthi hereafter.
I had a vegetable sandwich with French fries as sadhya here in Cambodia.
No point is the point 😀
I bet a lavish sadya is awaiting you on your return.
Would love to be in the picture – riding on the beach.
I didn’t quite get your comment, sorry.
Good read. By the way Asura’s were the main rulers. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m01/m01068.htm
Danavas,goddess Danu, Tautha De Danaan.
They were the white ones, afterall there is no sun in the netherworld. Arjuna, Krishna, Yama, Draupadi were all black. Looks like the whole thing got turned on its head. 🙂
Points to be noted:
If Vamana (do you know that spellcheck maamu auto corrects it to banana?!) could measure two worlds in two steps, it means that Mahabali was the King of both worlds. No wonder the Devas got a bug.
Plus, it was the biggest land grabbing scam in history, overshadowed maybe only by what the settlers did to native Americans.
Missed your comment! You are so right about it being the biggest land grabbing scam in history!
Spellcheck maamu has his own limited vocabulary, eh? 😂
Can I share please ☺️ It’s the story I know but you have so “just kidding”. Would love for more people to enjoy it.
Sure, thanks 🙂
Loved your retelling, Shail, complete with all the witty dialogues and the poignant ending. Lovely!
Thank you! It started off as a WhatsApp conversation with a friend and then, like I mentioned in the post, I thought why not a full-fledged post? 😉 😀
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