Monday, July 22, 2024

Onam: Celebrating King Mahabali’s Legend

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The annual festival of Onam holds a special place in all of Kerala. This lively celebration weaves together the tapestry of a Vedic legend, many time-honored rituals, and profound lessons of devotion. While predominantly a Kerala festival, Onam’s significance transcends all borders. The echoes of Onam reverberate in regions of Uttar Pradesh (Balia and Baway), Gujarat (Bharuch), and Maharashtra. Additionally, Malayali families across the globe preserve their Sanatani heritage by commemorating this auspicious occasion in their distinctive ways.

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At the core of Onam’s customs and traditions lies the story of King Mahabali’s selfless sacrifice and devotion to Lord Vishnu. This tale intertwines vibrant customs to foster a sense of unity and joyous celebration that has bound India together for generations. In most urban places, the ten-day festival has turned into a single day of celebration. However, all true Sanatanis make every moment of Onam count by remembering their Vedic culture and the legend of King Mahabali. 

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The Legend of King Mahabali

The Rise of King Mahabali

In Vedic times King Mahabali was a just and beloved ruler who governed the region of Kerala. Legends resound with songs of his compassionate nature that led him to be adored by the people of the land. His dedication to his kingdom was known throughout the lands of Vedic India. Mahabli was the grandson of Prahlad, an iconic figure from the legends of the Holi festival. Similar to his grandfather, Mahabali was a devout bhakt of Lord Vishnu.

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In addition to his love for the people of his kingdom, King Mahabali was a mighty warrior. He successfully waged war on the Triloka and became the uncontested ruler of Paatal Lok, Prithvi Lok, and Swarg Lok. Once Indra Deva lost to King Mahabali, he went to Lord Vishnu to beg for protection and restoration of his crown. However, Lord Vishnu refused to grant Indra Deva any favors against King Mahabali.

The stories of Mahabali as a kind and generous ruler had already reached Lord Vishnu’s ears. Since he did not want to hurt his dear devotee, Vishnu turned a deaf ear to Indra Deva’s pleadings. 

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Lord Vishnu’s Leela: The Vamana Avatar

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Soon, King Mahabli conducted a Yagya to gain divine blessings. He vowed to grant the wishes of any Brahmin or poor who came to his doorstep to bless him on the day of the Yagya. Lord Vishnu decided that it was time to test the bhakti of his bhakt. Bhagwan Vishnu took on the Vamana Avatar, i.e. he took on the form of a short, young Brahmin. This young and short Brahmin approached Mahabali for the ‘bhiksha’ promised to all. Like all those before the coming of this young Brahmin, Mahabali asked “How can I be of service to you, O’ Knowledgeable One?” To this, the young Brahmin said “O’King, I am a poor soul. I just wish for three paces of land from you to live in peace.” Hearing this humble request King Mahabli immediately agreed.

However, the ‘Leela’ of Lord Vishnu soon made an appearance. The short young Brahmin grew into a giant in front of Mahabali. In the first pace, he covered all the land on earth; in his second pace he covered Paatal Lok and Swarg Lok. Thereby, taking over all of King Mahabali’s kingdom. With a naughty smile, the short Brahmin asked “O’King, in two paces you have lost all the land of your kingdom! It seems there is no more land for me to place my third pace. It looks like this time King Mahabli will not be able to fulfill his promise!”

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King Mahabali knew that it must be the Great God Vishnu behind the mask of this young Brahmin. He immediately kneeled before the Brahmin saying “My word shall not go unfulfilled, O’ Great One! There is indeed no land left from my kingdom that you do not own now. Please place your third pace on my head and claim me as your servant. This way my promise will be fulfilled and you shall be satisfied.” And so Lord Vishnu placed his foot on the Mahabali’s head. He claimed back all of the Triloka from Mahabali and made Mahabali his servant. 

Paatal Lok’s Mahabali and His Annual Earthly Visit

Lord Vishnus’ easy conquest did not sit well with him. Vishnu could not bear hurt his devotee so egregiously. Thus, he gave Paatal Lok to Mahabali to govern and rule. When the people realized that they had lost their beloved King to the ‘Leela’ of Lord Vishnu, they cried out for mercy. Besieged by their sorrow for their kind and just ruler, Lord Vishnu granted Mahabali a small boon. As per this boon, Mahabali’s legend shall always be remmebered. Moreover, he blessed the people of the land with another boon. As per this boon, once a year Mahabali will be return to earth and walk among his people. 

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Every year Onam marks the day that Mahabali walks the earth among his beloved people. The legend of Mahabali teaches all Sanatanis to fulfill their promises irrespective of personal loss. It also teaches that reverence of the divine is never in vain, the cosmic powers shall always favor those who pray with diligence. Lastly, it teaches that material possession is not as important as winning the hearts of fellow human beings with kindness. The festival of Onam is the homecoming celebration of King Mahabali. Additionall, it is a festival that embodies selfless devotion to the divine supreme. 

Rituals and Customs of Onam

While the tale of King Mahabali is the heart and soul of Onam, the celebration of this extraordinary festival extends over ten days from Atham to Ponnonam. The tenth day, Thiruvonam marks the pinnacle of festivity. Malayalis, irrespective of caste and religion, unite to honor Mahabali’s spirit through unique customs and traditions.

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On the streets and homes are adorned with intricate and vibrant flower carpets called pookalam. This marks the first day of Onam when Mahabali is believed to prepare for his earthwards journey. The second day is marked with flower arrangements in all homes and offices. On the fifth day, the traditional Vallamkali boat races of Kerala are held. On the eighth day, idols of Mahabali and the Vamana Avatar of Lord Vishu are placed in the center of pookalams for prayers.

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The tenth day marks the day of Mahabli’s arrival on earth. The sumptuous feast Onasadhya marks the day. This feast is a dazzling display of vegetarian dishes served on the traditional banana leaf. The eleventh day marks the end of the Onam festival. The water immersed idols are bid adieu. Thereafter, the devotees restart their year-long wait for the next visit of King Mahabali. 


Onam is more than a festival; it’s a celebration of traditions and devotion. As the legend of King Mahabali continues to inspire all, Onam builds bridges across generations and cultures. It reminds Sanatanis to be selfless and generous. Additionally, the true spirit of Onam lies in being kind to all living things and in having faith in the path of Dharma. Through colorful customs and heartfelt rituals, Onam joins communities across India in festivities that pay homage to the cherished past of Vedic India while planting seeds for a better tomorrow.

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