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From the myth of Mahabali to connections with Kerala’s Buddhist past, tracing Onam’s origin and evolution

Onam is here again. But the story of Kerala’s popular harvest festival has several layers riddled with conflict and contradictions. Each of these strands can take you down rabbit holes that offer a heady cocktail of myth, fantasy, history, ideologies, identities and even realpolitik.

The most famous legend associated with Onam is the return of the benevolent Asura king Mahabali to visit his people every year. The story goes like this: In Mahabali’s kingdom, everyone was treated equal and all his subjects lived peacefully and prosperously. The Deva king Indra felt threatened by the aura of Mahabali and approached Lord Vishnu to put the king in his place. Lord Vishnu transformed into his fifth incarnation, a small Brahmin boy called Vamana, and approached Mahabali.

The king, who was conducting a yajna, asked Vamana to choose anything he wanted from his kingdom. Vamana asked for just three steps of land, and Mahabali accepted the request immediately. The dwarf-sized Vamana suddenly grew into the skies and covered the earth with his first step and the heavens with his second. With no place left, Mahabali, to fulfil his promise, offered his head, and Vamana sent him to Pathala (netherworld) with his third step. However, Lord Vishnu accepted Mahabali’s wish to let him visit his subjects once a year and that day of his return has come to be celebrated as Onam.

onam Thrikkakara Vamana Moorthy Temple in Ernakulam where 10-day festivities are held as part of Onam. (Express Photo)

So, that’s the story. But why is there no common ground in understanding the myth behind Onam? Has it always been observed as the return of Mahabali? Was it ever celebrated as Vamana Jayanti? Has it always been a festival limited to people living in present-day Kerala? Let us try to find out.

In his paper, The Sociology of Onam, researcher A M Kurup refers to a Sangam literature Tamil ballad from the second century CE about Onam celebrations in Madurai. This is probably the earliest mention of Onam in south Indian literature.

Historian Malavika Binny also refers to one Indira Vizha festival mentioned in the Sangam records to make the point that Onam was celebrated as a harvest festival much before the Mahabali myth was ever heard of. “So, if the Indira Vizha festival later on became Onam, then one could argue that Onam has a pre-Brahmanic history,” she says.

According to historian M G Sasibhooshan, Onam was observed as Vamana Jayanti during the Pallava dynasty. “Onam was celebrated in a vast region spanning from Tirupati (in present-day Andhra Pradesh) to Kanyakumari (present-day Tamil Nadu) between the 6th and 8th centuries. In fact, Tirupati Venkatachalapathy is a form of Vamana’s Trivikrama,” he says.

“A copper plate dated back to the reign of Chera Perumal ruler Sthanu Ravi (861 CE), known as the Kulasekhara, discovered from the Thiruvattuvayi Shiva temple in Thiruvalla (In Pathanamthitta district in present-day Kerala) indicates Vamana Jayanti rituals where scholarly Brahmins were given feasts,” says Sasibhooshan, who also talks about copper inscriptions from Sreevallabha Temple in Thiruvalla from the 11th century that point to Onam celebrations.

The Thiruvalla copper plates, also known as Huzur Treasury Plates, mentioned expenditure to be incurred during the festival of Onam in the month of Avani (fifth month in the traditional Tamil calendar). “Those recorded the amount of rice given to temple servants by the temple for services rendered, and a clear hierarchy can be seen in the remuneration given. So, we can infer that Onam had become a temple-centered festival by this period,” says Binny. However, she adds that no evidence suggests that Onam was ever Vamana Jayanti.

“It seems to have been a pre-Brahmanic or Buddhist festival appropriated into the Brahmanical fold,” she says, adding that anthropologists and experts from cultural studies have pointed to the festival’s association with Buddhism. “The Onakkodi, which is a yellow cloth traditionally given to the young by elders during Onam, has been suggested to be a pointer to the yellow robes given to new converts to Buddhism. The coincidence of Onam to the Sri Lanka Buddhist new year, the vegetarian nature of the festival and the use of the Onathappan, the round flower carpet symbolising the Dhamma Chakra (The Wheel of Law) have all been considered part of Buddhist influences,” says Binny.

Mahabali to the fore in the Onam legend

In medieval Kerala, on Uthradom day (the day before the main festival day of Thiruvonam), peasants were expected to present dryland cultivation before their landlord Brahmins, who, in return, would gift them new clothes (Onakkodi) and throw them a feast. “However, frictions developed over time as landlords demanded more produce, leading to a silent revolt among the peasants. So by around the 14th century, they started to view the Onam myth differently and project the Asura king Mahabali as their hero instead of the Brahmin boy Vamana,” says Sasibhooshan.

Historian M G S Narayanan, in a way, concurs with Sasibhooshan in how he sees Mahabali becoming the centrepiece of Onam in Kerala. In his book Kerala Charithrathile 10 Kalla Kathakal, he says that Vaishnavite tradition entered Kerala temples in the 9th century and with it came Vamana worship. Onam became a harvest festival, spring festival and later, through peasants’ protests, became Mahabali worship, Narayanan writes. Narayanan, however, takes strong exception to the story of Mahabali ruling Kerala. No mythological texts ever mentioned it, and it was all the fantasy of imaginative storytellers to portray an egalitarian society, he suggests in his book.

onam2 The Mahabali platform at Thrikkakara Vamana Moorthy Temple. (Express Photo)

Sasibhooshan, nevertheless, says such sacred lores are essential for a festival to exist for centuries. “Just like you need the story of Rama killing Ravana for Dussehra, you need the story of Mahabali being sent to Pathala and being allowed to return once a year to see his subjects for Onam.”

“In fact, according to Hindu mythology, the Asura king Mahabali was not sent to Pathala but to a place called Suthala. Mahavishnu blessed Mahabali by promising him protection from all ailments in Sutala and told him he would become Indra during Savarni Manu’s era. So, the story of Mahabali ruling Kerala and his return every year is the folk version of the myth that developed over time,” says Sasibhooshan.

Some others have tried to explain the connection between Mahabali and Kerala differently. Since Bali has been a figure worshipped in the Deccan and parts of north India during Diwali, people who migrated from these areas to south India might have brought the story with them, and it might have got assimilated with the local folklore over time.

The Bali myth, Binny says, has been prevalent on the western coast of India from Maharashtra to Kerala as an alternative republic ruled by an honest ruler. “Mahatma (Jyotirao) Phule has written about Balirajya or Balisthan. (Sociologist) Gail Omvedt has also mentioned the Bali tradition as a counter-narrative in Maharashtra.”

“In all probability, the Mahabali legend is an archetypal myth that resonates with later legends such as that of Cheraman Perumal, who embraced Islam or left for pilgrimage. The idea of a righteous or ideal ruler cast out to be replaced by an unjust structure and one day returning to reinstate a welfare state is seen as a trope in most ancient cultures. In the case of Onam, the myth has been beautifully preserved and celebrated.”

Even though Mahabali was projected as a symbol of the downtrodden, the upper castes in Kerala also traditionally came to accept him as the primary symbolic representation of Onam. They went about rituals surrounding Vamana, or Lord Vishnu, either in temples or at houses, as well as social celebrations, such as vallam kali (boat race), puli kali (leopard dance) and public feasts, without second guessing.

What possibly might have helped this frictionless integration is that even as Onam became more secular and crossed barriers of caste and religion, the more visible specifics of the celebration, such as the attire and the cuisines, retained an upper-caste flavour, especially after Kerala declared it the official state festival in 1961. “In the case of Kerala, Hindu Savarna practices have masqueraded as secular practices for far too long. In fact, during the social renaissance period, Savarna practices replaced a significant chunk of traditions and practices of oppressed castes, and the formation of the modern Kerala state was one modelled on a Savarna past,” Binny argues.

How a temple provides the perfect antithesis to rumblings over Onam

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The debate of whether Onam should be celebrated as Vamana Jayanti or as Mahabali’s return is a relatively new one triggered by right-wing Hindu organisations that claim its commercialisation has overshadowed the rituals and traditions. Those opposing this claim say it is another attempt by the Aryan society to subjugate or hijack a festival rooted in Dravidian moorings.

While that debate can go on, the Thrikkakara Vamana Moorthy Temple in Ernakulam presents a picture of how the concepts of both Mahabali and Vamana can co-exist without additional ideological baggage. The temple, dating back over 2,000 years, is the only shrine in Kerala, and among the very few in India, with a Vamana deity.

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On the day of Thiruvonam, a boy dresses up as Vamana and welcomes Mahabali from the Mahabali thara (platform) to inside the sanctum in a symbolic procession. The belief is that Mahabali would spend the day there and bless his people. While the practice may not be based on hardcoded temple rituals, it is a welcome sight at a time when people are ready to go to wars against their own shadows for no reason.

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