Onam is the national festival of Kerala, celebrated with grand fervour retrieving the agrarian lifestyle in synchronisation with the environment. The legend of Mahabali and the Vamana Avatara of Lord Maha Vishnu constitute the basis of the festivities. In this article, I briefly examine the conceptualisations of Trivikrama, Mahabali, and the history of the Onam festival. Various tales of Trivikrama – Vamana- Bali is present in a number of Hindu texts from the oldest Rigveda to many modern works including that of Jainism. Several folklores and oral traditions also are available. The mainstream academics and public intellectuals portray ‘Mahabali myth’ as autochthonous to Kerala, although Gujarat and Deccan region also had Bali worship. On the other hand, Onam was the celebration of the birth of Mahavishnu in the ancient Tamil lands.
Trivikrama in Vedic texts
Vamana is the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Although details of the dashavatara are seen primarily in the itihasa-purana-s, roots of the Vamana story has its origin in the Vedic literature itself. Vishnu in the early Rig Veda was closely associated with Indra. He drank Soma with Indra and helped Indra in defeating Vrtra (RV 7.99.5). However, it is in the Vishnusukta of Rigveda that we find him occupy a centre stage. With his three enormous steps, Vishnu came to be addressed as Tri-vikrama and as Uru-krama. The term Vishnu itself denotes the strides. Sanskrit meaning of Vishnu involves the root viś, meaning “to descend, to enter, to permeate.” Rigveda describes Vishnu as he, who with his three wide-extended paces measured out the entire earthly realms where all living creatures have their habitation. In short, Vishnu’s three strides (Trivikrama) secure life and prosperity. Neither Bali nor Vamana appears in the Trivikrama imageries of Rigveda. The term Asura also doesn’t appear with the Trivikrama images in Rigveda. Hence, the interpretations that put Trivikrama against Asuras also hold no water as far as Rigveda is concerned.
Brahmanas upholds the relation between Vishnu and Yajnas. Taittiriya and Aitareya Brahmanas venerate him as Yajna Purusha. Aitareya Brahmana refers to the Trivikrama (three strides) of Vishnu, who measured the universe. Shatapatha denotes Vishnu as Vamana. However, the Brahmanas also do not mention the character, Bali.
Vamana- Bali in Mahabharatha and Ramayana
Shantiparva depicts an extensive conversation between defeated Bali and Indra. In two instances, Mahabharata mentions Vamana alone without talking about Bali. In Vana Parva, while addressing Lord Krishna Draupadi speaks about Lord Vishnu measuring the universe with three steps. Shanti Parva denotes Vishnu’s birth as Vamana. On the other hand, Bali story has been discussed in Shanti Parva as Bali-Vasava Samvada. Vamana-Bali story also finds space in Vana and Shanti Parva of Mahabharata. It describes the birth of Mahavishnu as the young Brahmachari son of Aditi, who approached the Danava king Bali and measured the whole world with three steps. The Genealogy of Bali is described in Adi Parva. Bali was the son of Virochana, who was the brother of Kumbha and Nikumba, the children of Prahlada, who in-turn was the son of Diti’s son Hiranyakashyapu. Rishi Vishwamitra narrates the Vamana Avatara story to Sri Rama and Lakshmana while taking them to the Siddhashrama for protecting the Yaga in Bala Kanda of Ramayana.
Vamana- Bali in Puranas
The Bali of Puranas is a model character, a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. Mahavishnu blessed Mahabali by promising him protection & care from all ailments in Sutala. Vishnu blessed Bali that he would become Indra during Savarni Manu’s era. The Skanda Purana refers that the capital city of Mahabali was near Someshwara of Vastrapath in Saurashtra Desha and he conducted Aswamedha on the banks of Narmada at Gurukulya theertha. According to Bhagavata Purana, his yajna was on the northern banks of Narmada River at Bhrigukachchha. Vamana Purana tells Vamana lived in Kurukshetra. Some Puranas glorify the personality of Mahabali. Skanda Purana attributes Narada Maharshi as the reason for Bali’s animosity to Devas. Puranas mention, Kshatra Shakti, blessings of Lord Brahma, the assistance of Brahmins, as well as Vishnu bhakti as reasons for his victory and glory in the three worlds. Vamana Purana and Harivamsa explain the prosperity of his country as the grace of goddess Lakshmi.
Bhavishya Purana tells Vamana was born on Bhadrapada Ekadasi in Shravani Nakshatra while Bhagavata attributes the Shukla dwadasi of Bhadrapada on Shravana as his time of birth, with Shravana, known as Shronam and later Onam. Skanda, Matsya, Bhagavata, Brahmanda, and Vamana Puranas also describe Vamana – Vishnu’s Vishwaroopa Trivikrama form in much detail. Most of the Puranas narrate that the Trivikrama Vamana assumed the form of Vishnu and disappeared after sending Mahabali to Sutala. Although Guru Shukraacharya warned about Maha Vishnu’s intentions, (Grandfather Prahlada also in some texts), Mahabali went on to agree to the request of Vamana. Many books have recounted Bali’s Vishnustuti. However, Bhagavata and Skanda refer to Garuda taking him to Sutala. There is a story popular in India that Bali showed his own head for the third step of Vishnu and then he pushed Bali down to the underworld. But Puranas do not tell such an anecdote. Bhagavata and Brahmanda Puranas say that Bali told Vishnu that his third step could be on his head or shoulder yet Vishnu did not pay heed. Hence it is logical to believe that Vishnu left his right for the third term and pardoned his devotee. Vishnu himself explains in Bhagavata why he punished a devout Bali. “Before blessing someone, I destroy his wealth. One who is arrogant due to his wealth and power will not respect anyone, not even me.” “Despite being dishonoured and outcast, even after losing his power, wealth, and people, Bali did not go astray from the path of truth. Therefore, after sojourning in the Sutala, he will receive the position of Indra. Also, the texts mentioned that Vishnu as the Dwarapala protects Mahabali in Suthala until Bali assume the position of Indra in the Savarnika Manwanthara. The notion of Bali’s annual visit to his people might have developed from him being a Chiranjeevi.
Scenes from the Trivikrama – Vamana – Bali representations can be seen in several relief sculptures on various temple walls. It depicts Trivikrama of Vishnu, asuras fighting with Trivikrama, Brahma washing the feet of Trivikrama, Bali with his wife serving water for Vamana, Acharya Shukra objecting to Bali serving Vamana, Garuda punishing Shukra, etc.
However, individual sculptures portraying the Vamana Avatar illustrate only Vamana, Vamana- Vishnu and Trivikrama. Bali is not included. Mahavishnu’s sculptures related to the Vamana Avatar are of two types Avatara Rupa and Vishvaroopa. The Vaikhanasa-agama describes Trivikrama to be depicted in three styles – The left foot raised up to the level of the right knee or to the Navel or the forehead – intended to denote his strides over the three Worlds. Trivikrama shows six arms in Badami and eight in Mamallapuram. The sixth-century Trivikrama sculpture of Kadamabas from Badami can be considered as the oldest in South India. Other famous Trivikrama statues are from the Mamallapuram of Pallavas, Ellora of Rahstrakutas. An 8th century Trivikrama Moorthy made of Bronze is the deity of the Chinganellur temple near Coimbatore. It is believed that the deity of the Thrikakkara temple in Kerala also was a similar one.
Different societies across India have observed various rituals and traditions that originated in the practices of devotion to Bali. Brihatsamhita of Varahamihira written in 6th century CE elaborates about the construction and installation of different icons. While giving out the descriptions about different figurines along with their slokas, it mentions that the icons of Rama, the son of Dasaratha and Bali, the son of Virochana should be of 120 digits in height. No further information regarding temples or ritualistic practices regarding Bali’s worship is available so far. However, there have been festivities associated with Bali. Vishnu is believed to have promised to Bali about an annual festival in his name when people wear nice clothes, eat delicious food, decorate their houses with flowers, colours and by lighting lamps. The festival is named as Bhadrapratipada in Skanda Purana while it is described as the Kaumudi Mahotsava known as Deepapradana in Vamana Purana. King Sree Harsha explains Deepapratipadutsava in his 7th-century play Nagananda. According to that, Deepapratipada was celebrated during the autumn season. It can be safely assumed that it is Deepavali that was known as Deepapratipada. Above all, Pratipada associated with Deepavali day is still known as Bali – Pratipada in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Vatsyayana Maharishi mentions Yaksharatri, a festival of lights similar to the Deepavali celebrations. Interpretations of Kamasutra suggest that Yaksharatri later evolved into Deepavali. In that case, adoration for Yaksha might have turned into Bali worship in some areas.
Al Biruni also described this festival as Balirajya, which falls on the new moon day of Month of Karthika. Lakshmi, the wife of Vasudeva, allows Bali to return to the earth from the seventh earth for a day every year. Al Biruni had never travelled to Kerala. He lived mainly in the areas in and around Ujjain. Dwashraya Kavya of Hema Chandra also hints to the customs that prevailed in Gujarat in the 12th century. Another text Dharma-Sindhu, also enumerates the rites and rituals observed during Bali Pratipada. Along with the lighting of earthen lamps, decorating the houses, the farmers also conduct puja of cattle, Govardhana puja, etc.
A close examination of the Bali worship rites observed in different of parts of India reveals two types of festivities. In rural areas, the worship of Bali, mainly focuses around agricultural prosperity, whereas urban settings adore Bali as an Ideal ruler. Bharatiya Sanskruti Kosh edited by Mahadevshastri Joshi and the Marathi Vishvakosh edited by Lakshman Shastri Joshi highlight the rituals and ceremonies of various caste communities in Maharashtra region. The worship of Bali survived in Maharashtra until the 19th century. Perhaps the existence of strong Hindu kings prompted the region to be enthusiastic about the ideal ruler. Chandraseni Kayashtha Prabhus of Mumbai, for example, build figures of Bali using rice flour. This is the job of women. Figurine of Bali, his wife Vindhyavali, and four soldiers as his security was kept in silver or bronze tray and was worshipped to ward of evils. The Shudra castes celebrates Bali Pratipada by making statuettes of Bali in a reclining position. In most castes, wives perform Aarti to their husbands to ward off evils. Some western anecdotes suggest the commemoration of the arrival of Balev on the 15th day of Shukla Paksha of the month of Shravana. Plough is worshipped on the Balev day. Hence, the scholars propose that Balev can be Balarama.
Customs similar to Deepavali as explained above exists in south India also, mainly in Karnataka and Andhra, where farmers make figurines with cow dung and worship on Balipratipada. The day of Bali associated with Deepavali is known as Balipaddyami in Karnataka. In the mountainous region, folks worship farm equipment. Washed equipment are decorated with a paste of red clay, lime, and a garland of Mango leaves before the Balindra puja. They believe the farm utensils as being Balindra. However, the festival is known as Galevu puja in the plains. In Konkan also, cattle worship and rituals on water are performed during Balipaddyami. The Gowdas install decorated branches of the Alstonia scholaris tree as Bali and his wife. They keep rice, coconut, cucumber with a lighted lamp on a plantain leaf. Children offer flowers and fruits to Bali and install a crown and an umbrella over the twigs.
Tamizhnadu also celebrates a festival of light on the day of Karthika Paurnami after Deepavali. Karthika Deepam is a very ancient festival in the Tamil land, which finds a reference in Sangam literature like Akanaṉūṟu and the poems of Auvaiyar. This festival might be the same as the Kaumudi-mahotsavam feasted in the north during ancient and medieval times as mentioned earlier. Namboothiris of North Malabar conduct a pooja of Bali on Deepavali day. This denotes the continuity of the ancient Bali worship, although it is not that widespread as it was in the Deccan region. Mainly women perform this pooja, which involves carrying water in a pot from the well.
During the Onam festivities of Kerala, Mahabali and Vamana are revered. Hindus in Kerala have a system of worshipping the Pyramid shaped long figurines made of clay, named as Onathappan. It is believed that Onathappan represents Thrikkakakra appan or Mahabali or both. The head of the family performs the puja. Ila Ada, a sweet is offered during the puja. Trikkakkara appan is installed on Moolam day. On the day of Thiru Onam, total 21 Onathappans (pyramids) are installed. Almost similar Mahabali puja is performed on Thiruonam day in Thrikkakara Vamana Murthy temple also. Clay figurines are kept and worshipped by the Nambiar. Probably the puja might be a modern phenomenon.
Kerala and Mahabali
The Legend of Bali’s family returning to Kerala to see his people on Onam day is very popular. But the origin of this Legend is quite obscure. Perhaps, Onam legend in the present form developed as a mixture of an ancient folk tradition combined with the Tamil festival of Onam and the Bali worship came with the migrants from the Deccan.
Onam festival in the ancient Tamil land
Sangam text Maduraikanchi, written by Mankudi Maruthanar provides detailed information about Onam festivities in the Pandya Kingdom. The King used to present new clothes and gifts to the courtesans. Scholars have found similarities between the Onam celebrations in the Tamil land and modern Kerala. In the Seventh-century work Thevaram, the Shaivite saint Thirugnanasambandar wrote about the Onam celebrations during the Tamil month of Aipassi in the temple of Kapaleeswarar at Mylapore. Mylapore was a Shiva temple. Welbon and Yocum suggest about a festival similar to Onam on Shravana Paurnami at Thiruchendur Temple. Nalayiram Divyaprabandha of Vaishnava Alwar saints also deals with the Thiruvona Thiruvizha marked as the birthday of Vishnu. Many temples in the ancient Tamil land celebrate the birth of Vishnu on Onam or similar day. Tirupati Venkateshwara temple, Udupi in Tulunad, Thrikakkara in Kerala are examples. Some even consider the name Balaji used for the deity of Tirupati is a reference to Vamana. Periyazhvar has praised the Lord of Thiruvenkidamamalai, who measured the earth. Like Kerala, the ancient Tamil land also used to celebrate the birth day on the Janmanakshatra, but, in the course of time, the system changed into Janmathithi. However, the system has been retained in Kerala even now. Birthday of the Deva used to be celebrated in the temples of Kerala also. A copper plate dated back to the reign of Sthanu Ravi (861 CE) discovered from Thiruvalla points to the Onam rituals of the Thiruvattuvayi temple located nearby. Another inscription dated 12th century, obtained from Thiruvalla deals with the expenses and income during the Avani Onam event in Shree Vallabha temple. A stone inscription in the Azhwar temple at Manalikkara in Kanyakumari district of erstwhile Travancore also hints about Onam.
Reference to Onam in ancient Malayalam literature
Vamana avatar and Mahabali are mentioned in the 13th-century text Thirunizhalmala praising Lord Vishnu of Aranamula. Even now, the Boat race, and the extravagant feast of Aranmula Parthasarathy temple during Onam is impressive. Onam is referred to in Unnuneelisandesham written in the 14th century, which equates the revelries to welcome a guest to the rites of Onam. It explains the protagonist embellishing herself with onapudava and practising the games for Onam, when she was five years old. Thus, the early Malayalam literature does not provide any satisfactory data to confirm the contemporary belief of Onam being the festival for welcoming King Mahabali.
Onam at Trikkakakra
The Trikkakara temple is considered to be the centre of Onam festivities in the contemporary Kerala. A 11th-century inscription during the reign of Bhaskara Ravivarman tells about the Pooradam, Uthradam, and Thiruvonam days as auspicious days in the temple. Trikakkara and nearby places have been known as Kal Karai Nadu. This temple festival once celebrated for twenty-eight days with great grandeur, was attended by all rulers in Kerala. Each leader used to take up the responsibility for the conduct of one day’s festival. It was mainly the festival of lights and flowers. Total sixty-five elephants including sixty-four elephants from sixty-four village with one elephant of the Perumal used to parade during Arattu. Atham day’s festival used to be conducted by the Samuthiri and the King of Kochi. In continuation of the tradition, ten days before Thiruvonam, on Atham day, the King of Kochi embellished with festive attire and used to undertake a ritualistic march all the way up to the Thrikkakara temple. This chamayam (dressing up) and the feast of the King is known as Athachamayam and is believed to be the show of power by the King. However, after the temple administration under Edappaly Raja moved to Travancore, Athachamayam trail got restricted to the Thripunithura town. Athachamayam has now been reduced into a carnival sponsored by the government to attract tourists in the modern Kerala state. The Travancore King partially renovated the temple which was in ruins in 1909. Later complete renovation with pranapratishta was done in 1948. Of late, a new myth has been propagated connecting Mahabali and Thrikkakkara. Thrikkakara is said to be the capital city and the spot where Mahabali conducted his yajna.
Onam as return of Mahabali
Avani Onam festivities observed in the temples and the present day Onam festival based on the Mahabali myth shows similarities only in name. Not many pieces of information are available to explain the reason for the disappearance of the Avani Onam celebrations in the Kerala Temples. The legend of Mahabali, which was prevalent in the Deccan region seems to have arrived to Kerala in the 11th and 12th centuries. Probably the escape of folks from the North, West, and the Deccan region of India in the wake of Islamic invasions might explain the expansion of the legend of Mahabali to Kerala.
Modern Onam celebrations involve two aspects – Social festival and household festival. The Household festivities include worship of Onathappans (clay pyramids), flower carpets, gifting clothing, delicious feast, games, etc. Although the community activities conducted in public places vary from place to place, duels, bow (Onavillu), ball game, boat race, puli-kali (Tiger parade) etc. are important. The oral traditions about the household festivities of Onam connect the festival to the Thrikkakara temple. However, except for the writings of a westerner in the 17th century, no reliable evidence is available to link the household festivities of Onam with Mahabali tale.
The home based rituals during Onam most likely originated from the worship of the Deva of Thrikkakkara, which later got altered to involve Mahabali. Attempts have been made to suggest that the clay pyramids, which are known as Thrikkakara appan, Onathappan etc. actually denote Mahabali. However, as described earlier, the practice of Bali worship existed in the North of Kerala, which coincided with the Deepavali. The political and social instabilities caused by Islamic invasions might be a reason for the popularity of the Mahabali legend in Kerala after the medieval period. It was a time of political upheaval and restructure in Kerala.
The earliest and perhaps the only mention of Onam being a festival commemorating the return of Mahabali is interestingly from the book ‘Livro da seita dos Indios Orientales’ written by a European Jesuit missionary named Jacobo Fenicio (1558-1632), who was stationed in Kerala in the 17th century. Fenicio also talks about a poet who was rebellious and critical about Brahmins and their ways. The modern poem about Mahabali’s reign is believed to be written by the said poet. However, Francis Day who wrote a book about Kochi in the 19th century says according to the legends, it is Vishnu who visits the people during Onam. Although William Logan said Onam celebration is in memory of Mahabali, he ascertains that the visitors of the day are Vishnu and Parashurama.
Recent writings within Kerala, however, look into the Onam festival and the legend of Mahabali predominantly through a Marxist lens where the narrative is set to tell the tale as a duel between the oppressor and the oppressed. These theories stem out from a fundamental misunderstanding that Mahabali is honoured only in Kerala.
Onam is portrayed as a harvest festival. Usually, in Travancore region, the harvesting of Paddy would be over before Onam. There are other ceremonies followed in Kerala, which are associated with harvest traditions, such as Kathiru, Niraputhari etc. Kathiru is a ritual observed by the agriculturist Pulaya caste during the month of Vrishchikam. Nira is the ritual of bringing the harvest either to the Tharavadu (House) or the grain storage. The newly reaped paddy spikes are taken to home after offering a part to the devata. Similar rituals are followed by tribal communities as well. During the Vishu also several communities observe harvest rites.
There is a folk performance called Oneshwaran purappad prevalent in North Malabar. The members of Malaya caste dress up as Oneshwaran, who visit houses during the ten days of Onam festivities.
Mahabali and Phule
The 19th-century Dalit activist Jothirao Phule presented an alternative reading of the tale of Vamana avatar and addressed Bali as the representative of the downtrodden oppressed by the ‘evil’ Brahmins. He reinterpreted the legends and traditions associated with the Balipratipada. He called Jesus Christ as Bali, the second, since Jesus took birth to liberate the oppressed and to enforce truth and justice. Nevertheless, neither Phule’s Baliraja nor the later interpretation of the Christian missionaries could gather strength in Maharashtra.
From the oldest text of Rigveda to the various texts of the ancient, medieval, and modern India depicts the tale of Vamana avatar of Lord Mahavishnu. Thiruvonam of the Month of Shravana is the birth star of Vamana/ Mahavishnu, and it has been an occasion of celebration in various parts of India. The ancient Tamil land, of which the present day Kerala also was a part had been celebrating a festival called Onam even during the time of Sangam texts. However, somehow the ancient festival of Onam was turned into the arrival of the ‘Ideal King’ Mahabali, and the myths and dreams of a bygone socialist paradise got placed in the forefront. Thus has born the contemporary pop culture saga of Onam as the return of the utopian Maveli.
K. Ananthakrishna Iyer – Tribes and Castes of Cochin.
Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer – Kerala Sahitya Charithram
P.K. Gode – Notes on the history of Diwali festival, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute
P V Kane – History of Dharmashastra
K.L. Mankodi – Vamana-Trivikrama in Indian Art
K T Ravivarma – Mahabali enna mythum Onathinte charithravum