The Root of All Onams
Finally. It’s here. The topical season to be jolly. I love this time of year. Within the state of Kerala, this is one time when people set aside differences of caste, creed, status, power, politics, wealth, community, gender, and age to unite in a common, though short-lived goal of peace, love, and kindness. And what’s unique, is that this time, it’s not about Cricket. Anything that brings about this level of unity has got the Hammy seal of approval. Especially when the legend behind the festive season has enough special effects to make even Michael Bay go “Hey, come on. That’s a bit overboard, doncha think?” What’s not to love?
The legend of Mahabali is not the only reason why people observe the rites of Onam these days, but it is told and retold to this very day. I remember hearing it when I was a kid. Actually, I don’t, but I DO remember being told about it. At the time, the story was quite immaterial; the only thing that mattered was that there would be lots of payasam to claim later in the day. But with each year, more and more pieces of the puzzle snuck past the mental block and today, I have a complete, though probably inaccurate history of events that shaped the tale of Onam.
The Legend Begins
It all started in the middle ages, around the time King Arthur was waltzing about on the round table of Knights, completely unaware that he had nothing whatsoever to do with the origin of Onam over here in India. Heck, he was not even of the same era. The king we should be more concerned with at the moment is the great king Mahabali. The name ‘Mahabali’ means “great sacrifice” in the local language, which by itself gives an insight into the kind of quirky humor enjoyed by the people of the era.
During the reign of Mahabali, we had paradise on Earth. No wars, no poverty, no hunger, no thievery, no murder, no jealousy, no politics, no plague, no economic crises and no moral policing… It was absolute perfection. Kerala was the land of purity, and everybody was treated equal. Nobody ever elaborates on Mahabali’s fiscal policies, trade regulations, or his stand on gun control (or, as they called it back then… spear control) but it is implied that it was all good.
The equality bit did confuse me, though. In his time, as the story goes, all the people were equal. Exactly the same. No privileges, no discrimination, no special treatment, no winners and no losers. But – I remember thinking – he was the king. Surely he’s treated special. Otherwise, how’s the king thing supposed to work?
“Ah… What a lovely morning. Fetch me my royal robe.”
“Why me? You fetch ME my robe. Better yet, fetch me YOUR robe.”
I’m sure I’m being myopic here, but I don’t see that working out. But then again, we’re talking about a perfect world, and we’re hardly capable of understanding a world like that. And the fact remains that none of that is germane to the story at hand. What is germane is that Mahabali grew in popularity, might, and righteous power. So much so that the Gods themselves got green with envy. From what I remember from artist impressions I’ve seen during childhood, most of these Gods were blue or purple to begin with. As the greenery spread, they decided to throw a spanner in the works.
They sent a special agent for the job, Vamana. (Vamana, it needs to be said, was one of the several known aliases for Vishnu, the supreme God) Vamana, being a master of disguise, approached Mahabali in the guise of a small Brahmin, and requested the benevolent king for three footsteps of land. Ignoring the wise advice from his guru (“Beware. Give this guy an inch, he will take 50 thousand miles. Maybe more.“), the king went ahead and granted the request. Things would have been a lot different today had Mahabali taken the steps himself. Or simpler yet, he could have invented the metric system and kept things in Black and White.
But as the story goes, Vamana was the one who did the measuring bit. And being the top God, he had an ace up his sleeve, which was quite remarkable considering that neither playing cards nor sleeves were popular back then. Vamana suddenly grew so huge that he towered above the heavens. A thousandfold increase in size was pretty impressive, particularly when you consider that all this happened before the fast food culture caught on in India. With one single step, he measured all of the earth. With his second, he claimed all of heaven. He had one more step to claim.
“Moonammathe kaalchuvadu njaan evide vekkum, raajave?”
(“Where am I going put my third step, o King?“)
“Daande, nere ente thalayilottu eduth vecho”
(“Put that one right on the top of my head, why doncha?“)
Legend says that he did this gracefully… in the tone of “I humbly submit that you place the third step on my head“, but I find that difficult to buy. Of course, it’s only my personal opinion, but I rather imagine he would have been a bit miffed at getting his generosity taken advantage of. Consider the facts. Firstly, Vamana had claimed all of heaven and earth, but hadn’t really touched on celestial bodies like the moon. If Mahabali was serious about replying, I kinda think he could have asked Vamana to put the third step on the moon. Vamana would have been happy, Mahabali would have been happy, and well, generally the only one who might have reason to complain about that arrangement would have been Neil Armstrong.
Secondly, here we’re talking about someone who covered the ENTIRE earth with one step, a feat that makes Godzilla look like Gary Coleman. I doubt if Mahabali’s head could have been on a comparable level. So it seems reasonable that his head offering might have been a subtle comeback. But apparently, I stand alone in this theory. I haven’t found a single supporter of the comeback theory to date.
But the point is moot, since Vamana did indeed accept the offer. He placed the final step on Mahabali’s head, which basically sent him down to the depths of hell. Pleased with the way Mahabali handled himself, Vamana made him the ruler of the underworld. As an added bonus, he was granted permission to visit his land and his people once a year for all eternity. A bit like Santa Claus, except he doesn’t climb down chimneys with a bag full of kiddy goodies. The objective is different – He’s coming down to basically ask “Dude, where’s my country?” – An auditor for well-being and goodness around Kerala. And we react the same way any decent company does when it’s being audited. We put on a show. New clothes, dance, happy faces, employee bonus, charity, flower shows, and a grand 15 course buffet lunch ending with payasam and a burp.
But at the end of the day, it’s all fun and games. Whether you know the story or not, whether you’re in Kerala or not, whether you’re at work or on vacation, take the time off to put on a smile, embrace your friends, enjoy your meal and relish the season before we return back to the regular rigors of mundane life.
Happy Onam, everybody. 🙂