24 Jun 2011

Mahabali & Onam

Once upon a time, long ago, there was a very sagacious, benevolent and very capable king in Kerala called Maha Bali, affectionately called Maveli. Under his able stewardship, Kerala became very prosperous and Malayalees became a very happy, contended lot, almost like how it was in heaven. This upset the creator, Lord Brahma, who created the world with it’s nuances, ups and downs. In his perspective, probably, it was not right to have a heaven on earth. So he decided to take it away from Mahabali and the Malayalees.
Mahabali had one bad quality, generosity.
Anyone who went to him and asked, no matter what it was, Mahabali would give it to him.
Brahma was not really a gentleman, not the kind who had the balls to go to Mahabali and ask for his kingdom. He was the kind of guy who had a glad eye for the young wives of old Maha Rishis (sages). Rather a sneaky fellow, who got caught peeping into a Rishi’s bedroom and got his libido chopped and transplanted to the palm of his hand by the Rishi. This is not something that I invented, my mother told me so, and I believe in it’s veracity more than the ‘Puranas’, because my mother would not have said it if it was not true.  I have impeccable faith in my mother.
Anyway, he went to Mahabali as a poor Brahman, and begged him for alms (this must have been before he was Bobitised, otherwise he would probably have been wearing his underwear on his hand and given the game away !!) .
“Any thing you ask, you shall have it”, said Mahabali.
“Just a small part of your kingdom, just what I can measure in three steps”, asked Brahma.
“So be it”, said Mahabali, least expecting foul play.
Brahma covered the earth in one step, the rest of the universe with the second and put his foot on Mahabali’s head for the third, ordering unconditional surrender and submission, like what Gen Mc Arthur did to the Japanese after the second nuclear bomb, also indicating that the 3rd one was on it’s way.
The Japanese did not protest, but the Malayalees being what they are, they protested very volubly, with accompaniment of the “Chenda and Korava"[1].
As an act of appeasement, Brahma granted that Mahabali could return annually, just for a day, to see his subjects and to share their joys.
So as an act of faith, every Malayalee, no matter what religion, try to put on their best show on the day that Mahabali comes to visit them. This is the spirit of Onam, the scheduled visit of Mahabali, the only festival of any substance in Kerala !!!!   
Usually all Indian mythology has a moral. I am not too sure what is the moral of this unusual Mahabali story. I am inclined to think that it has a hidden message. A message which probably says that Aryans did to Dravidians much the same things as what Rumsfeld did to Iraq. For five thousand years Ram remained the hero and Ravan the villain. Now a research scholar, very sane and informed fellow in Pune near Bombay, is saying that Ramayan has enough clues to say that Sita actually went off with Ravan on her own will and that Ravan was actually a much better fellow than what he was made out to be !!! Stories as you will agree, are usually a distortion of events and facts. The stories (History) are usually written by the victors and not the vanquished. But the vanquished often leave clues for posterity, for someone to unwrap the layers of grit, grime and deceit. I guess persistent investigation and research do find such clues, like the unravelling of the real story of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton and his queen Nefertiti. 
This ‘Onam[2]’, like every Onam for more than 57 years, I dreamt of ‘Payasams[3]’.
My mother says that is only because she splurged on Payasam and ‘Kadali Pazham[4]’ on the Onam, the day before I was born.  My fetish for Payasams is a womb syndrome, don’t you think ?
“What Payasam are you doing for Onam ?”, I asked ‘T’ in eccentric anticipation. Ever since she paused and full stopped me, she goes ‘ding dong’ and requires advanced notice for everything. Like all good wives who have withstood the husband for more years than you can count on fingers, Onam is usually the time she indulges me.
At least that is what I think.
“Are you mad ?”, she asked with genuine concern. Keeping in mind my dwindling overall prowess, her concern was probably appropriate. But I am not a rational being. I am an argumentative husband, rather a male chauvinistic pig, who likes to cook up excuses to keep T in the kitchen, rather than in the PMO. 
That is what she thinks.
“ You do payasams for Onam, don’t you ?”.
“Bloody man, your blood sugar is high, your BP is high, you get so tired that you can’t keep awake after seven in the evening…… and now, now you want to go and drink Payasam”.
“Bugger off…”, she pronounced, like the chief justice of India.
There was no further appeal.

So this Onam, like every Onam for many years, I spent the day dreaming of Payasam, but really feeling sorry for Mahabali. With no Payasam to sweeten the CNS process, the thoughts were not too spiritual. I mused over the story of Onam. About Mahabali, the good king, who was vanquished by ‘Maha Vishnu’ the Lord rather unfairly but allowed to return once in a year to accept the felicitations of his subjects.
very strange story that puts Lord Vishnu in a spot over the moral issue.
So, who was this Mahabali ?  
How did the festival get it’s name, Onam ?

For most of my life, at least till I became computer savvy, my mother was the closest thing to the internet Wikipedia. I didn’t even have to right click to get an answer to my deeply troublesome queries. She would chant sonorous Sanskrit hymns every morning, pelt god with ‘Pichi Poov[5]’ for several hours, and give me answers with the Lord’s direct approval. After she turned 90, the Lord signed a peace pact with her and she has stopped the hymns and ‘pichi poov’ act. I am now left with just the wisdom of internet Wikipedia.

Just before Onam, I went for a Malayalee wedding reception. That of my old boss’s son. My old boss is a very nice man. A man I hold in high esteem. I had promised to help him play the host. He put me in-charge of the bar, a very thoughtful gesture. There, over the bar counter, I found the right intellectual crowd to pursue my enquiries on Mahabali.

“Who was Mahabali ?”, I asked the first “Tharavadi Nair[6]” to look tipsy that evening, and whose attention was focussed all evening on a bottle of ‘100 Pipers’. He is a much revered legal eagle in Delhi page 3 circuit, a grand old man.
My question seemed to have unnerved him a bit. He wrung his hands, mopped his face twice, looked at the ceiling for inspiration, cleared his throat.
“Well..”, he said, “a bit before my time”. There was a long pause….
“In 1936, before the Hindu Marriage Act came into force, there was an appeal in Madras Presidency Court, Nair vs Pillai I think”.
For the next ten minutes he gave me a run down on “Maru-makka-thayam[7]” that made out all Nairs to be a bunch of bastards. I don’t know what was the connection with Mahabali, but then Whisky does that to every one. Makes one explicitly incoherent. Not like Rum, it sets in motion intellectual conversation !!!
I excused myself and went back to tending the bar.

I waylaid quite a few people at the bar that night, and I did get a doze of rich Malayalee history but nothing on Mahabali. Till I ran into an old bench mate from Govt Lower Primary School at ‘Amabalapuzha’.
Mani Kuttan (‘MK’) and I shared a bench for all the years that I spent at the Lower Primary as well as the Govt High school at Ambalapuzha, more than half a century ago. Our other bench mate was, a wiry and tall girl who could on occasions do a Mohammed Ali variety of upper cut to our jaw and had a razor sharp tongue. She used to call us “Vella Pokkam[8]” and “Bhoomi Kulukkam[9]”, two natural disasters !!! MK came from a very famous unadulterated thoroughbred Aryan ‘Nampoothiri Illam[10]’, sought after, all over Kerala, as ‘Tantris[11]’. During the years that I trained for a commission and to be a pilot in the IAF, MK went to the university to train as a college professor. I did get my commission, but MK became a Marxist and was ejected out of the university for Naxalite activities and hounded by the Police for many years.  The tragedy was that he was a victim of a Communist govt. A brand of communism inducted by EMS Namboothiripad, another Tantri from an equally famous Illam. The Namboothiris were out to kill each other those days, just to prove that they were better communists than the others, who in general had a thing against all Namboothiri bourgeois Brahmans. As a young person on home leave from Eastern Air Command, I used to go to Cochin Naval base canteen just to get a bottle of Hercules XXX Rum for MK.  Many an evening we sat adjacent to the ‘Ambala Kulam[12]’ of the Sri Krishna Temple of Amabalapuzha, adjacent to where they traditionally tied the temple elephant. The elephant those days had ‘masth[13].  It was the ideal place to kill Hercules, licking salted lime pickle after each sip to get over the shock of molasses and communist propaganda, with out any one coming to know. Sometimes we even fed the elephant ‘Toddy’, from the shop adjacent to the temple east gate, and tickled it’s underside with a stick just to see it’s huge erection. Sins that Lord Krishna, at stone’s throw distance, watched but ignored, probably due to the good deeds done by our fathers. MK’s father was the chief Tantri and my father the Asst Commissioner, both ‘sevadars’ in the Krishna temple. I had not met MK after my mother moved from Ambalapuzha to Alleppey, some 35 odd years ago. By the time we met again, few years ago, MK had done a role reversal, got rid of Marxist leanings and gone back to the family profession. He is now a very famous Tantri, much in demand in Delhi circuit. We were the only ones drinking Old Monk Rum & Coke that night at the party !!! Old Monk is not as good as Hercules Rum, but then neither was Delhi as good as Ambalapuzha, nor were we that foolishly young.
“Who was Mahabali ?”, I asked MK.
“Why Mahabali, I thought your interests were more into elephants and aeroplanes ?”, MK  countered with a twinkle in his eye.
‘Edo Maire[14]’, I said, much in the same authoritative tone and tenor of our infamous ideological debates of the ‘Ambala Kulam’. “You went from Ajitha the Naxalite, to tantra and ‘mantra’. I thought you may have encountered Mahabali somewhere’. We shared a hearty laugh.
That night, sipping R & C, we debated Mahabali with equal gusto, just like the political discussions of yore. To my glee, I found out that MK had an MA in Indian history and political science, and also a very thorough theosophical grounding. It was irrefutable education, better than my internet Wikipedia.      
 ‘The Wikipedia makes out Mahabali as a Gujarati’, I told MK.
‘Why is that ?’, he asked.
‘It says he did his ‘tapasya[15]’ and appeased god near ‘Narmada’ river’.
“Yeh, quite far even for Mahabali”.
MK sang a verse from some unknown veda in a language presumably Sanskrit. I tried to look impressed. Trying to avoid Hindi as a second language in school, I had made a serious endeavor to learn Sanskrit.  I gave it up convinced that it was a mumbo jumbo invented by the Brahmins to confuse the ‘Shudra[16]’, and to make them think that god only understood the highly secretive multiplexed digital codes in Sanskrit that could not be unscrambled by Shudras !! ‘What does it mean ?’, I asked MK with a poker face.   
‘That god is omni present, he could have been everywhere, even on the banks of Narmada’.
‘Can you tell the story, with out the Vedic infliction ? I prefer your Marxist jargon’, I asked with a straight face.

There is one popular belief, interpreted from ‘Bhagwat Gita’ (and some concoction from ‘Maha Bharatha’) that ‘Mahabali’ was the grand son of ‘Prahlada’. Prahlada’s father, ‘Hiranya Kashipu’ was killed by ‘Maha Vishnu’ in the ‘Narasimha Avtar[17]’ (Man Lion). Hiranya Kashipu’s brother was killed by same Vishnu in the ‘Varaha Avtar” (Wild Boar). Mahabali was pushed into hell by Vishnu in “Vamana Avtar” (small boy). It says that ‘Ravan’ was the grand son of Mahabali and going by Ramayan, it is Vishnu yet again in the ‘Ram Avtar’. The ‘Shutindram temple in ‘Kanaya Kumari’ (Cape Comerin) has a painting that depicts Lord Shiva slaying ‘Banasura’, the son of Mahabali. It is believed that Banasura was killed in Cape Comerin.

 It seemed to me that Lord Vishnu, with 10 Avtars, and many slayings, led a more exciting life than Daniel Craig and was probably the original James Bond !! All this happened (god alone knows !!) some time before Chirst. ‘Mahabali Puram’ on the outskirts of Madras came about only around the 7th century, around the time of Chera, Chola or Pandya dynasties. The only known temple, actually of Vamana (the form in which Bhrama vanquished Maha Bali) is “Trikka Kara’ in Ernakulam, believed to be the capital of Mahabali. By the farthest stretch of imagination, the temple could not be older than say 10th or 12th century.

The only believable conclusion that I drew from MK’s Harry Potter like story of Mahabali was that it took place some where in the bottom of Indian peninsula and definitely not in upper India, the scene of Ramayan, Bhagwat Gita and Maha Bharatha, around the Gangetic plain of Delhi, UP and Bihar. A very long way off from Kerala. Assuming that one travelled leisurely those days, it may have taken about three to five years to go from say Delhi (Indraprastha) to Cape Comerin (or 14 as it says in Ramayana). Over ravines, jungles, mountains, across un-bridged rivers, encountering hostile villages, wild animals and not affected by Cholera, amoebic dysentery, Typhoid, whatever. Very few people other than Ram would have ventured to go that far, from Delhi to Kerala. Ram of course had to redeem his hour and retrieve his wife, irrefutable reasons to weather the trepidations.

What was significant was that there was a clash of civilisations, between the alien, progressive, blond, white skinned European origin Aryans (Deva[18]) and the curly haired, negroid primitive original inhabitants of the subcontinent, the Dravidians or ‘Asuras[19]’. A depiction, albeit with artistic leniency, of this clash of civilisations is probably the ‘Amrutha Manthan’ (churning for the elixir) vividly and very accurately depicted in the life size mural in the centre of Bangkok airport. Afterwards, our ancestors in Kerala were a mix of these two civilisations, highly influenced by the progressive idol worship and vedic rituals of the Aryans, but retaining the fearsome Kutti Chathan[20] traditions of the Dravidians (Asura).

 Mahabharath, or Gita for that matter, was not about clash of civilisations, it was all about family politics. There was no indication of ‘Asuras’ in Mahabharath, only in Ramayan, which probably took place before Mahabharath, many centuries before Christ. So Ramayan was probably where I had to go looking for Mahabali.   After all, there was a Bali there too !! Why was it that Mahabali was a hero only for the Malayalees in the narrow strip of land between the Arabian sea and the western ghats ? The land created by ‘Parasuraman[21]’.  Why not in Tamil Nadu, Andhra or the rest of India for that matter, all of whom celebrated Diwali, while the Malayalees did not.

“Tell me about that fellow Bali, the one in Ramayan’, I pleaded with MK when dinner was served and I had shooed away the crowd from the bar.       

 There was once a kingdom of ‘Kish Kindha’, ruled together by two brothers ‘Bali & Sugreeva’, and their common wife Roma (also called Tara, like my wife T !!). Bali was more aggressive and dynamic while Sugreeva was demure and a shadow of his brother. As bound to happen in such a situation, Sugreeva probably got less than his share of both the kingdom and the wife. He was very jealous of Bali.  Kish Kindha was often beset by a foe called Dundhibhi, an Asura with magical powers who lived across the ‘Shushmuna’ river (a place with many burrows). Bali, being the aggressive type, went off to fight a war with Dundhibhi. There was no news from him. When Bali did not return for long, Sugreeva proclaimed himself the King and acquired the undivided attention and affections of Tara. Unfortunate for him, Bali returned after a while. As punishment for the coup d’etat, Sugreeva was banished out of the kingdom in disgrace. ‘Hanuman’, probably Sugreeva’s ‘maitre de[22] , was also banished along with Sugreeva (or chose to go with him). Tara went back to Bali, as any woman would. Some time after the encounter between Ram and ‘Shabari’, the old witch who fed Ram with half eaten berries, Hanuman met with Ram & Laxman, his brother. Hanuman then arranged for a strategic meeting between Ram and Sugreev at ‘Pampa Sarovar’. A treatise was drawn between Ram and Sugreeva where the latter promised to provide the former with the ‘Vanar Sena[23]’ for his battle with Ravan, if the former would kill Bali. A kind of quid pro quo, for recovering each other’s wives. Bali was then killed by Ram using deceit and cunning and Sugreeva made the king. The vanar sena fought besides Ram and killed Ravan. The rest is Ramayana.

 I cross checked MK’s story with Wikipedia (both internet and my mother) and found it to be more or less the same as every one else’s story. My own earliest recollection of Ramayana was a loud annual rendition of it by ‘Kutta Vallaichan’, my paternal uncle in our ancestral home at Shertallai. It went some thing like, ‘Parvatham Kutti Parichidinal[24], after which he went like a 33 rpm record that got struck, while he turned the page … ‘Pari[25]…Paree…Paree… Paree, Parvatham Kutti Parichidinal’. Unfortunately it was just the sort of thing that reminded me of what we did to the elephant in my youth at Amabalapuzha. What did occur to me in MK’s story was that there were places now, very famous, called Trikka Kara, Shabari Mala[26], Pamba Sarowar (now part of Silent Valley Dam) and Munnaar (Sush Munna Ar from Sushmunna River). So it was very much possible that Bali of Ramayan could be the Mahabali of Malayalees, all within the geographical precinct of Kerala.

The only Malayalam picture that T and I watched together, just after we got married, had the Malayalam superstar ‘Mohan Lal’ as it’s hero. Just after the movie, I had heard T passing a comment, ‘Ayyyeeee, he looks like a monkey’. Thirty years later, during the Onam musings, it occurred to me that what she said had profound significance of how Hanuman (Bali or Sugreeva) came to be monkeys. ‘Hanu’ in Sanskrit, I believe, means a deformed face, one that juts out. The Malayalees (Nairs as well as those Nairs who converted to became Kuruvilas or Mathappans) have since time immemorial followed the custom of intermarriage and marrying their first cousins. The inbreeding led to several deformities that one can see even today in Kerala, that of monkey like jutting jaws, thick lips, hair lip, body patches with thick matting of hair, all of which when described, let us say to a descendant of Ram (like Laoo Prasad Yadav), who repeats it again and again over centuries in his inimitable style adding his own spice, may make a Malayalee Hanuman (Bali or Sugreev) like what T saw in Mohan Lal.  Mahabali could well have been a Malayalee !!!           

One of the many places that I have dreamt of visiting has been the Bali Islands, not for any other reason than to discover whether Columbus had actually set course for Bali, the original spice island, and instead discovered America !!! Since I have never got a chance to visit, and may never have one, I have done some cursory research on Bali Islands. The denizens of Bali Islands I found are a mutated variety of Hindus, with the same Vedic as well as Voodoo rituals, very peculiar to the Malayalees and most unlike any other Hindu in any other region of India. Their folklore and religion centre around a spiced up Ramayana, but they worship Bali rather than Ram, just like the Malayalees.  They have a custom, called ‘Ona’, in Aug / Sep every year where they set afloat caricatures and the remnants of their ancestors for a safe voyage to the yonder, an unknown heaven. It occurred to me that either Bali (Mahabali) or his followers may have been banished to the Bali Islands by Ram. The ‘Vamana’ story of conquest of his kingdom may be a mutated story of the deceit by Ram, an artistic licence, like Van Gough’s modern art, much like the mural in Bangkok airport of the Amrutha Manthan !!

‘Onam’ is probably the home coming of the spirits that are set afloat in Bali Islands during ‘Ona’, during the same time of the year. The return of the prodigals, the original Malayalees, much like the exodus that comes back to Keralam from Gulf during Onam !!!.     

 May Mahabali bring you much joy and prosperity. He probably comes all the way annually from Bali Islands, a long way to see us happy, prosperous and content.

Happy Onam.


[1] Chenda is a drum and Korava is a very disconcerting warbling noise made by women
[2]  Onam is Onam, the elixir of  Malayalee ethos !!
[3]  Payasam: Jaggery pudding.
[4]  Kadali Pazham : A variety of Banana.
[5]  Pichi Poov : Jasmine flowers.
[6]  Tharavadi Nair:  Distinguished Nair from good family.
[7]  Maru makka thayam:  Matriarchal form of society.
[8]  Vella Pokkam:  Floods.
[9]  Bhoomi Kulukkam : Earth Quake.
[10]   Nampoothiri Illam : Brahmin house hold.
[11]  Tantri : Tantrik.
[12] Ambala Kulam : Temple Pond
[13]  masth : Routine decease which makes the elephants turn violent from time to time.
[14]  Maire : Literally Pubic Hair. A popular Marxist endearment from my youth.
[15] tapasya : Penance. Vedic rituals to appease god.
[16]  Shudra:  Lower cast Hindu. Any one other than a Brahmin. Much like the term ‘Kafir’ used by the Moslem to indicate non Moslems.
[17]  Avatar: Incarnation.
[18]   Deva : Residents of heaven. Artistic licence which could also mean those who came down the Hindukush Mountains, or from a land that was different and better, the Shangri-La.
[19]  Asura: Demons. Dementors like the Harry Potter stories.
[20]   ‘Voodoo’, the ancient pan African or Latin American customs.
[21]  Parasuraman : The angry sage, who is said to have thrown his axe in anger into the sea and the ocean withdrew in haste to reveal or form a narrow strip of land called Keralam.
[22]  maitre de : Valet, Manager, friend and companion.
[23]  Vanar Sena: Army of the monkeys.
[24]  Parvatham Kutti Parichidinal: A stanza from the Ramayan describing the act of uprooting a mountain by Hanuman during his search for medicine for Laxman, who lay injured during the war with Ravan..
[25]  Paree: Malayalam bad word, meaning ‘penis’.
[26]  Shabari Mala : The mountain of Shabari, now the famous temple of Lord Ayyappa.


  1. Some interesting research :



  2. Sir, some where you say Brahma vanquished mahabali and else where it is Mahavishnu as the popular folklore. Mistake? not withstanding this was good reading, enjoyed it thoroughly, thank you

  3. Hi,
    Thanks for your comment.
    My mother used to say that Vamana was Brahma and not Vishnu. But everyone else said Ram was Vishnu and he killed Bali. There is a lot of mix up in our Hindu mythology and belief about the CIA like 007s that we worship. The ‘Shiv Ling’, a phallus in yoni, the symbol of human creation. Shiva was the destroyer, Brahma the creator. So in my conceited opinion a Shiv Ling should actually be Brahma Ling, we are praying to the wrong God, just like we vote for the wrong MP/MLA, who then sheds their lungi, wear trousers to go and join the opposite party !!!! In Kerala, life is very complicated. There is left and right, then left left and left right, all of them marching as Marxist and Communist, not sure who is right and who did wrong, or what is left of democracy. With her large Bindi, Brinda Karat looks like Kali. Cannot make out the antecedents of Yachuri, whether pro Bihari Ram or Sri Lankan sympathiser Ravan. To confuse me further, the local leadership have adopted strange names like Azhikodan, Chennitala, or Pinarai – just to sound like illustrious Vanar Sena from Ramayan. Another ‘cattle class’ fellow has just joined them, he says he is Mahabali with an imported much married Sita from Dubai. ‘Ram Ram’, where is my Ram ? Sadly, I find it only in a St Old Monk bottle !!!. Cheers.

  4. "The Japanese did not protest, but the Malayalees being what they are, they protested very volubly, with accompaniment of the “Chenda and Korava"...

    Thanks to you sir, now i know that the true origins of the "Protesting Malayalee" runs really deep.