Onam: A festival to welcome the legendary king, Mahabali

via Daily Pioneer published on August 26, 2007

As Malayalees celebrate Onam today, a lookback on what Onam is and how it became so popular is worth knowing. Like any other festival Onam too has its own legend and King Mahabali is the most fascinating of all the legends.


Onam celebrates the visit of King Mahabali to the State of Kerala every year. The festival is celebrated with fervour as King Mahabali is respected by one and all. King Mahabali is also popular as Maveli and Onathappan.


The story goes back to the days when the beautiful Kerala was ruled by 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 lived its golden era during the reign of King Mahabali. Everybody was happy in his kingdom. There was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class. Rich and poor were equally treated and. There was no crime in the State that people did not even lock their doors.


Mahabali belonged to the Asura dynasty but was an ardent worshiper of Lord Vishnu. His bravery earned him the title of “Mahabali Chakravathy” or Mahabali- the King of Kings. Looking at the growing popularity and fame of King Mahabali all the Gods became extremely concerned and jealous. They felt threatened about their own supremacy and began to think of a strategy to get rid of him.


To curb the growing reign of Mahabali and maintain their own supremacy, Aditi, the mother of all Gods, sought help of Lord Vishnu (the preserver in Hindu trinity), whom Mahabali worshiped. It was said that Mahabali was very generous and charitable. Whenever anybody approached him for help, he did.


To test the King, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf and a poor Brahmin called Vamana. He came to the Kingdom of Mahabali, just after Mahabali performed his morning prayers and was preparing to grant boons to Brahmin disguised as Vamana. Vishnu said he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land. The generous King said, he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed.


A learned adviser of the King, Shukracharya sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making any promise. But, the generous 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 earth and with the other step he covered the whole of 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 and told him that he came to test him and the King has passed the test. King Mahabali was pleased to see his lord. 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 King’s 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.


Onam celebrations are marked in Trikkakara, 10 km from Kochi on Edapally- Pookattupadi road. Trikkara is said to be the capital of the King Mahabali. A temple with a deity of ‘Trikkakara Appan’ or ‘Vamanamurthy’ who is Lord Vishnu himself in disguise is also located there. Nowhere else in Kerala can one find a deity of ‘Vamanamurthy’. This fascinating legend is artistically depicted at Suchindram Temple in Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu.

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