Onam and the legend behind it

S Balakrishnan

 King Mahabali
Onam festival of Kerala is unique in that it celebrates the vanquished rather than the victor as is the norm. Onam honours King Mahabali who was conquered/banished by Lord Vishnu. Mahabali or Maveli, as he is fondly called in Kerala, was a righteous king whose period was the golden age of Kerala. He was also a great devotee of Lord Vishnu as taught by his grandfather Prahalada.
But then why should Lord Vishnu banish his devotee Maveli to the netherworld? Though Maveli was Lord Vishnu’s devotee, he had seized heaven from Indra, the King of Devas. Besides, Maveli was performing the Aswamedha yagna to proclaim himself as the supreme power of the three worlds. The devas feared the consequences of this yagna and wanted to stop him. They prayed to Lord Vishnu for relief. Lord Vishnu took the Vamana avatar (dwarf from) and came to King Maveli seeking alms during the yagna.
Maveli’s Guru Sukracharyar felt something was wrong with the dwarf. But despite Sukracharyar’s warning, Maveli welcomed the dwarf and agreed to give whatever was sought for. The dwarf said “I need just a three foot measure of land”. The king felt slighted by this silly request; he told Vamana to ask for something richer and bigger. But Vamana stuck to his simple request of a three foot measure of land. The king had to agree to this silly request.
 Upon acceding to the dwarf’s request, Lord Vishnu took His Vishawaroop and with one step measured the earth, with the other He measured the Heaven, and there was no place for the third measure. King Mahabali, the righteous one he was, immediately offered his head and he was pushed down to the netherworld by Lord Vishnu. The Trivikrama incarnation is called as Ulagu (World) alantha (measured) Perumal (Vishnu/Narayana).
It is said that Guru Sukracharyar tried all his best to stop this misadventure of King Mahabali.
The Guru even went to the extent of transforming himself as a beetle to block the mouth of ‘kamandal’ to stop the flow of water from it to give effect to the king’s offering to the dwarf. Unaware of his Guru’s efforts, the king poked the kamandal mouth with a dried grass which hurt one of Sukracharyar’s eyes. ‘You are doomed!’ the Guru must have helplessly shouted at King Mahabali.
But before going down to the underworld Mahabali sought one boon from Vamana-turned Trivikrama – to visit his kingdom once a year to see his citizens. That is how the Onam festivity was born.
On Onam day, Keralites wear their best, decorate their homes and especially the front yard with flower rangoli, and prepare a great feast to welcome and show their king that they live happily.
If lucky, you can encounter a Mahabali here and there visiting the homes of his citizens!
What is interesting is that Mahabali’s  great grandfather, Hiranyakashipu, was the cause for the Narasimha avatar of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu took this fourth incarnation to save Prahalada from his father, King Hiranyakashipu, who insisted that everyone should worship only him and not Lord Vishnu or any other god. Narasimha appeared from a pillar when Hiranyakashipu kicked it, mockingly asking Prahaladha if God existed even in the pillar. The same Lord Vishnu appeared in Vamana avatar, His fifth incarnation, to banish Mahabali into the netherworld.
Religious legends apart, Onam is a great occasion to visit Kerala.
The writer can be reached at [email protected] /9840917608 Whatsapp