Kerala's Onam: Mahabali, Vamana, and the Hope of Regeneration

—by Urmila Kutikkad, Sadhana Communications Fellow

Onam, Kerala's annual ten-day harvest festival, has always felt like a time suffused with something beautiful. In my mind I see a reel of flower wheels, of holy basil, chrysanthemum, and rice powder; sadhya leaves holding mango pickle and liquid ginger; a jasmine flower bobby-pinned into dark hair. I also hear the Onam origin story I've heard so many times that I can close my eyes and hear my aunt chanting the fable into my ear--

The story goes like this:

There was once an Asura king, Mahabali, who ruled over Kerala. Although Mahabali was a kind and devout ruler, he was also ambitious and wanted to rule all three realms: the earth, the underworld, and the heavens. He waged war against the Devas, and he won.

The Devas appealed to Lord Vishnu to help them defeat Mahabali, and Vishnu decided to test Mahabali's devotion during Mahabali's celebratory yajna (ritual oblation/sacrifice). During the yajna, Mahabali promised to grant anyone anything they requested, so Vishnu descended to Earth disguised in the form of his fifth avatar, a modest Brahmin dwarf named Vamana, and he requested nothing but three footsteps of land from Mahabali. 

As soon as Mahabali agreed, Vamana began to grow exponentially. With his first footstep, he covered the heavens. With his second footstep, he covered the underworld. Vishnu then asked Mahabali where his third footstep should land, and Mahabali lowered his head and offered it to Vishnu. When Vishnu pressed his final footstep onto Mahabali's head, he pushed Mahabali into the underworld. Mahabali's final request was that he be allowed to return to Kerala once a year, so it is during Onam each year that Mahabali's return is celebrated.

The End

It is strange to be older, now, and to be aware that Onam is more than just a passing montage of bushels of marigold and the smell of burning camphor, that there is more to consider about the ways that myths affect our lives. Culturally, for me and many others, touching another human with your own foot is disrespectful enough that after all these years, I still instinctively touch my hands to my forehead three times if I accidentally graze another person with my foot. I am uneasy, then, that Lord Vishnu, the sustainer and preserver of us all, would put his foot on another being's head and push him into the underworld. I am still more uneasy to know that many Dalit activists in Kerala believe Mahabali to be a Dalit Asura figure and have organized hunger strikes and protests in Kerala on Onam days, which prompts the question of who, exactly, Vamana/Lord Vishnu was trying to push out of Kerala with his foot on that day, and which narratives we choose to validate at the expense of others. As members of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) make increasingly controversial bids to redub Onam as a celebration of Vamana's victory over Mahabali instead of a celebration of Mahabali's annual return, it is a crucial reminder that myths are powerful, contested, and political, and that as we dwell on these myths during this harvest season, it is also our job to constantly reconsider them so that everyone in our communities feels held and seen. 

With the story of Mahabali, Vamana, and the festival of Onam, a possible opening in the text that allows for us to hold and see each other better is the fact that Vishnu's fifth avatar, Vamana, is primarily characterized through two defining qualities: that he is a Brahmin, and that he is a dwarf. While the narrative that is strategically deployed by Hindutva groups like the RSS and the BJP focuses on centering Vamana's Brahmin identity, a possibility for rearticulating the Onam mythology is to instead center Vamana's identity as a dwarf. This was done by the Tamil Alvar poet-saint Nammalvar, who was not a Brahmin. In a translation done by A.K. Ramanajun, Nammalvar writes of Vamana's transformation back into Vishnu:

making great his little body
till it overwhelms
all three worlds,
when my masters,
his great servants
who have taken on small
human lives,
are content to roam this world?

8.10.3

In centering Vamana's dwarf identity over his Brahmin one, Nammalvar draws our focus to Vishnu's act of choosing to make his earthly incarnation not only small, but smaller, even, than what might have been the societal human norm. We are not expected to rejoice over the defeat of Mahabali or read into casteist allegorical implications. Now that hierarchical overtones have been gently disentangled from the theology through poetry, we might instead draw our attention to the more beautiful qualities that the smallness of Vishnu's chosen avatar brings to mind: grace, humility, groundedness.

I think it is beautiful that Onam is a celebration of harvest, bounty, and regeneration, and works of compassionate theological rearticulation—like that of Nammalvar's bhakti poetry—feel very much like acts of abundance and regeneration: as if times like Onam when we choose to meditate on the meanings of our festivals and rites will have profoundly proliferative implications for the love and devotion we can show to those within and beyond our communities.