Onam or Vamana Jayanti: The Dynamics of Streamlining Myths

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Vamana avatar and King Mahabali
Vamana avatar and King Mahabali

Emerging out of the collective experience and consciousness of a community or society, myths can sometimes be traced back to a mythopoeic age. An age that was characterised by a non-scientific and non-rational world before recorded history, when gods and spirits were believed to have walked on the earth and interacted with human beings. It is a lost world in which we can no longer participate directly. Discussing the concept of myth, Robert S. Steele in his book, Freud and Jung: Conflicts of Interpretation, says “Myths are structures for organizing experience that are no longer perceptual givens for the critical consciousness that views them as fictions . . . their eventual success depends on their ability to communicate and thereby create a shared understanding of experience.” By creating and communicating people’s shared understanding of experience, myths try to hold the members of a society harmoniously together. 

To streamline the prevailing narrative and significance of a myth is not only to manipulate what the myth communicates but also to influence and control people’s shared understanding of experience for vested interests, often for divisive political interests. Such attempts can introduce disharmony in place of harmony and conflict in place of cohesiveness in society. Attempts to streamline the narrative and significance of the Mahabali myth behind Onam, Kerala’s ten-day-long harvest festival, is an important case study in this regard. 

Celebrated in the month of Chingam, the first month in the Malayalam Calendar (August/September), the festival of Onam provides the people of Kerala with an annual occasion to participate in the long-lost ideal world of their mythical past when their legendary asura king, Mahabali, also known as Maveli, reigned over them. It is the annual visit of Mahabali to his erstwhile people which is celebrated during Onam. On the day of ‘Thiruvonam,’ the tenth day of the festival, Mahabali is believed to visit his people who wait for his arrival with bated breath wearing traditional clothes, adorning their houses with floral decorations, offering special prayers, organising cultural events and preparing elaborate traditional feasts.  

Thrikakkara Appan
Thrikakkara Appan worshipped during Onam

The name, Mahabali, meaning, ‘great sacrifice,’ is reflective of the unparalleled benevolence and self-sacrifice that characterise the life of the mythical king. As per the legend, Bali, the grandson of Prahlada and an ardent devotee of Vishnu was an exceptionally skilful, righteous and ambitious asura king who ruled the land of Kerala. Driven by his desire to become the sole ruler of all three worlds – Prithvi (earth), patala (netherworld) and swarga (heaven) – he conquered them all. In fact, before conquering swarga, he had to defeat Indra, the king of gods, an enviably rare feat indeed!  To ensure that he would remain the unchallenged king of all three worlds, at the suggestion of his learned adviser Shukracharya, Bali began performing one hundred Ashwamedha yagnas (horse sacrifices). At the completion of the yagnas, he would even be crowned the king of the gods. 

All the gods became extremely concerned, afraid and jealous of the success of Bali and began thinking of a strategy to defeat him. At this crucial juncture, Aditi, the mother of Indra, on behalf of her son sought the help of Lord Vishnu to curb Bali’s power and restrict his reign. At her request, Vishnu assumed his fifth incarnation, Vamana, the form of a dwarf Brahmin, and approached Bali for some supposed help. Just then, Bali had completed his ninety-ninth Ashwamedha yagna and was getting ready for the hundredth one after which he would be crowned the king of gods. Being a generous and righteous king, Bali never refused anyone who approached him for help. 

As per the legend, Bali, the grandson of Prahlada and an ardent devotee of Vishnu was an exceptionally skilful, righteous and ambitious asura king who ruled the land of Kerala. Driven by his desire to become the sole ruler of all three worlds – Prithvi (earth), patala (netherworld) and swarga (heaven) – he conquered them all. In fact, before conquering swarga, he had to defeat Indra, the king of gods, an enviably rare feat indeed!

Vamana asked Bali for a piece of land as a gift so that he could live comfortably in the latter’s kingdom. Bali told him that he could have as much land as he desired anywhere in his country. Vamana replied saying that he needed just as much land as he could cover with three steps. The king was rather surprised to hear about this intriguing request but agreed to grant it. Sensing that Vamana was not an ordinary person, Shukracharya warned Bali against granting Vamana’s request. However, considering that it would be a sin for a king to go back on his words, Bali asked the Brahmin to measure and take possession of the land he required. Suddenly, to Bali’s surprise, Vamana began to expand himself to cosmic proportions. He measured out the whole of Bali’s kingdom in two steps. There was no more land for the third step. Vamana turned to Bali asking him to show him where he could place his third step. Realising that Vamana’s third step could destroy the whole earth, with folded hands Bali asked him to place his third step on his bowed head so that he could keep the promise and the earth would be spared. Vamana placed his third step on Bali’s head pushing him to patala, the netherworld. 

While going down to patala, a bewildered Bali requested Vamana to reveal his true identity. Lord Vishnu appeared before Bali in person and congratulated him for passing the arduous test of generosity and integrity that he was put through. As his last wish, Bali requested Vishnu that he be allowed to visit his people once every year. Vishnu not only granted Bali his wish but also blessed him by making him a Chiranjeevi (an immortal) and crowned him the king of the netherworld.  

Thrikkakara Vamanamoorthy temple in Kochi

During his visit to Mahabali in patala, Vishnu was surprised to learn that without any regret for having lost his earthly kingdom, Bali began building his new kingdom in patala on the principle of righteousness. He continued to be admirably benevolent and helpful to anyone who approached him for help and protection. No adversity could ever break his steadfast spirit. On account of the greatness of his personality characterised by his laudable spirit of self-sacrifice for the greater common good, Bali came to be known as Mahabali Chakravarti. As per the boon granted by Vishnu, Mahabali would visit his erstwhile people once every year. It is the annual return of Mahabali Chakravarti to his erstwhile people that Keralites celebrate at the festival of Onam.   

Keralites have always looked wistfully back at the bygone era of their much-loved Mahabali’s reign – an era of justice, equality, and fraternity; an era of prosperity and peace; an era free of corruption and crime; an era of happiness and contentment. For them, Mahabali’s kingdom is the benchmark of a utopia celebrated in the famous song that begins with the quatrain, “Maveli Naadu vaanidum kalam/Manushyarellarum onnu pole/Aamodathode vasikkum kalam/Aapathangarku-mottilla thaanum” (During the reign of Maveli/All were regarded equal/All lived happily together/None was subject to any form of danger). Therefore, Onam becomes a nostalgic remembrance of as well as a longing for the long-lost utopian dharmic reign of Mahabali. This nostalgic remembrance and longing are symbolised in the annual return of Mahabali to visit his former people. Year after year, as the people welcome Mahabali, their mythical hero, to their homes, they look upon Vamana as a jealous and deceptive villain. 

Onam Pookalam floral decoration
Onam Pookalam floral decoration

The Mahabali myth may be seen as a narrative on the deceptive and forceful replacement of an exceptionally successful socio-economic system built either by a Dravidian society or a lower caste society (represented by the mythical king Mahabali) by an alternative socio-economic system envisioned by an Aryan or Brahminical society (represented by Vamana). In other words, it is a narrative dealing with the Aryan or upper caste subjugation and vanquishment of the Dravidian or the lower caste people (Vamana’s subjugation and vanquishment of Mahabali by deception) and the subsequent justification of the entire process with opportune religious attestation. In their article, “The Return of King Mahabali: the politics of morality in Kerala,” Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella argue, “Here Mahabali gets identified as a Dravidian, autochthonous king who loses his kingdom thanks to the trickery and bad faith of a non-Dravidian Brahman. Mahabali’s defeat is connected to an alleged loss of power, land and statues by local, ‘Dravidian,’ landed elites to north Indian Brahman immigrants.”  Hence, from this perspective, the Aryan or Brahminical notion of the dharmic order becomes synonymous with the non-Brahminical notion of the adharmic order characterised by deception, injustice, immorality, violence, subjugation and misery.   

In every fight between devas and asuras in the Hindu mythological world, the former is depicted as virtuous and victorious and the latter as evil and defeated. The Mahabali myth depicts the jealous, nervous and deceptive gods set against an ambitious, successful, righteous and much-loved earthly asura king. The depiction of Lord Vishnu as a crafty trickster and vanquisher of the virtuous asura king who loses everything he owns including himself is not in consonance with the conventional narratives on devas. Hence, there have been efforts to reinterpret the myth to deify the vanquisher and demonise the vanquished. Such interpretations look upon the myth as a narrative about the vanquishment of a supposedly adharmic order represented by an asura (Mahabali) and the establishment of a dharmic order represented by a deva (Shiva). From this point of view, the myth becomes a narrative about the defeat of adharma by dharma, Bali by Vamana, asura by deva and evil by good. 

The Mahabali myth may be seen as a narrative on the deceptive and forceful replacement of an exceptionally successful socio-economic system built either by a Dravidian society or a lower caste society (represented by the mythical king Mahabali) by an alternative socio-economic system envisioned by an Aryan or Brahminical society (represented by Vamana).

Vamana being the fifth incarnation of Vishnu, the day commemorating the defeat of Bali by Vamana is regarded as the day of the birth of Vamana. The advocates of the alternative interpretation of the Mahabali myth regard Onam as the day commemorating the birthday of Vamana — Vamana Jayanti. In remembrance of the holy feet of the lord touching the head of Mahabali, the place where the event is believed to have taken place came to be known as Thrikkakara (thiru kaal kara, meaning, the place of the holy foot). The two-millennia-old Thrikkakara Vamanamoorthy temple in Kochi in Kerala dedicated to Vamana (Vishnu) is believed to have been built at the ruins of the palace of Mahabali, the location of the mythical event. 

At Onam, the proponents of Vamana Jayanti advocate the worship of Vamana with his idol placed amidst the floral patterns in front of people’s houses so that during Mahabali’s annual visit to his former people, he would see Vamana (Vishnu) being worshipped and return to his abode, patala. According to the exponents of Vamana Jayanti, the four-sided, flat-roofed and pyramid-structured clay idol, referred to as Thrikakkara Appan, Thrikakkarappan (the Lord of Thrikakkara) or Onathappan (the Lord of Onam) placed amidst floral decorations during Onam represents Vamana. To those who commemorate the much-awaited return of their mythical king at Onam, it represents Mahabali. To some others, it represents both Vamana and Mahabali. However, most Keralites celebrate and honour Mahabali and not Vamana at Onam. 

performer dressed as King Mahabali
Performer dressed as King Mahabali

The proponents of Vamana Jayanti look upon Mahabali’s surrender to Vamana (Vishnu) and his self-sacrifice as culminating in the former’s attainment of Vishnu sayujyam (closeness to Vishnu), a stage close to redemption or salvation. However, the critics of this point of view regard Mahabali as a venerable tragic hero whose goodness brought about his banishment and along with it the unfortunate fall of a utopian socio-economic order built on the philosophy of dharma.  

 

Despite the attempts to streamline the Mahabali myth and its long-cherished significance, Onam continues to unite the Keralites of all faiths, castes, classes and walks of life as a community that shares a common mythopoeic imagination. Onam continues to celebrate Keralites’ nostalgic remembrance of their utopian, dharmic and mythical past, and their quest to reconstitute their society on the principles of that past. Any attempt to shift the focus of Onam from Mahabali to Vamana, however pious and politically expedient it might appear, can disrupt this noble quest which in turn can adversely affect the social and religious cohesiveness and harmony that Keralites safeguard as one of their treasured legacies. Let us hope that the people of Mahabali Chakravarti continue to quest for the philosophy of dharma that they lived in their mythical past and thwart every attempt to make them abandon it.  

Images courtesy: Wikipedia

Glossary of terms:

Deva- Hindu Gods residing in heaven

Asura- Demi-gods residing in the netherworld depicted as enemies of Gods and humans alike

Keralite- Residents of the Indian state of Kerala

Indra- King of Hindu Gods

Shiva- An important Hindu God; member of the Holy Trinity 

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