Mahabali returns

S. Balakrishnan

The return of King Mahabali (no, not the cinematic Bahubali but legendary Mahabali) is the theme of Kerala's unique Onam festival. Onam is nowadays more a social festival than a Hindu religious festival. The people of Kerala, that is, the subjects of the erstwhile King Mahabali, put up a happy ambience to welcome their King who is on an annual visit. The legend goes like this …..

Long ago, King Mahabali ruled this part of India that is now called Kerala. Though the mighty king was also a righteous one and a great devotee of Lord Vishnu, yet he was overridden with power. So the Lord wanted to teach him a lesson and also test his devotion. When Mahabali conducted a yagna and offered anything to anyone, Lord Vishnu took the Vamana(dwarf) avatar and asked for just three paces of land. Baffled with just three steps of land, when Mahabali was in the process of offering, Vamanatook His viswaroopa avatar and measured with His two steps all the land that was ruled by Mahabaliand the sky above that land. With no place to keep His third step, Mahabaliimmediately offered his head to place Lord Vishnu’s third step.  Mahabali was granted the last wish of visiting his kingdom and his subjects once a year which is joyously celebrated as Onam, commemorating Mahabali’s return.

I was really keen to visit Kerala during Onam to meet King Mahabali and enjoy this show of happiness. My long-time friend Hari was also tired of inviting me every year for Onam. In the year 2018 Onam celebration was officially cancelled due to flood havoc. In 2019 also it almost looked as if it would be cancelled again due to floods but luckily it wasn’t.  So I seized the opportunity to accept my friend's long-pending gracious invite, fearing he might cancel it once for all. Good that I visited because Corona virus is playing spoilsportthis year and Onam celebrations could be muted. This year Onam celebrations began on 22nd August and culminate on 2nd September, on Thiruvonam star day. Onam is also a harvest festival.

Onam brings out the best of Kerala in fascinating colours and flavours. Some highlights are – the floral design (rangoli, called Pookkalam), music & dance shows, boat race, traditional martial skills, girls enjoying the swing, and the elaborate Onam feast called Onasadya.

Though we could not stay for the entire period of Onam festivities in Kerala (it is said “virundhummarundhummundrunaaldhan”, meaning whether feast or medicine, only for three days), we did enjoy what we experienced in Thiruvananthapuram. The last minute rush for shopping of dress, groceries and vegetables for the Onasadhya feast, lighting, music and dance cultural shows, especially Kathakali performance, visit to the famed Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple where we were blessed to see the Lord’s evening procession (Sriveli)within the temple  with lots of oil lamps glittering all around, floral rangolis (Pokkalam) and the colourful flower markets and shops with mesmerizing scent of so many varieties of flowers, the crowded bazaar, etc.

As we had to visit Land’s End, i.e., Kanyakumari, we left Kerala half-heartedly with a promise to visit again during Onam and stay for the entire period of celebrations.Hari was visibly shocked but I think I can take this liberty with my long-time friend from my Sikkim days in 1985! I would be ungrateful if I don’t wish Hari “Happy Onam!”…