A column written now cannot ignore what time of the year it is. It is the time of Onam, when the banished Asura king, Mahabali, comes to visit his subjects in this small area of his erstwhile kingdom. Oddly enough, while most festivals are celebrated across India, this is a festival that does not find a place in the calendar of the other states. Why a king who ruled over all the worlds should be forgotten elsewhere and remembered only here is a puzzle. We, people of Kerala, seem to have appropriated and kept this virtuous Asura king, in whose reign there was plenty and when falsehood did not thrive, to ourselves. And his yearly coming is celebrated most joyously, cutting across religions. The celebration is colourful and full of life with dances, races, games. Nature too seems to join in with flowers and butterflies and sunshine. Ten days of celebration, flower patterns, new clothes, rich food, it is celebrated by most people as well as their purses permit them to.
Most celebrations, religious and otherwise, involve births, victories and other joyous occasions. Whether it is Christmas, Janmashtami, Easter or Deepavali, Independence Day or whatever it be, it is the birth of a saviour, the defeat of evil, the birth of a nation that is celebrated. A festival that pays homage to a defeated king and places him at the centre of the celebration is a rare one. The logic of it is difficult to understand. I guess, it is the generosity that resulted in the defeat that is celebrated. Of course, it helps that the time of the year is one of harvests and plenty and serves as a reminder of a time when there was plenty in the land.
Mahabali was that rarity, a king who cared about his subjects and saw to it that no one wanted for anything in his country. There is nostalgia in the remembrance of a ruler who saw to it that there was no falsehood, no cheating in his country, who ensured that all his subjects were taken care of. His pedigree was unimpeachable too. He was the grandson of Prahlada, the virtuous Asura king who was a devotee of Vishnu. He was extremely generous – his subjects had only to ask to be given. And yet, his people were so well off that he was rarely asked and he did not need to give much. So, what was his sin that he needed to be banished to the netherworld?
One, perhaps, was that he was not satisfied with ruling over the earth, but captured the heavens too and brought them under his rule. The other was the sin of so many virtuous kings – that of hubris. Warned by his guru that the young brahmin boy was his enemy in disguise, come to take away his kingdom and perhaps his life too, he will not go back on his word that anyone who attends his fire sacrifice and asks for anything will be granted that request. Like Oedipus in another time and place, who would seek the answer to his question in spite of being warned that tragedy would result, and brought destruction on his family, Bali too brings disaster on himself. By rashly keeping his word, he loses the worlds he rules over and has to offer his head as a resting place for the third foot of the enemy whose request he had granted. And yet, there is glory in the surrender. In case any of us feels that it was unfair to the king to banish him to the unpleasant netherworlds, we are reassured that they became as pleasant as the heavens!
What is it about the reign of Mahabali that captures our imagination and affection? Is it the picture of the egalitarian society, a world where ‘manusharellarum onnupole’, people were treated equally? Is it the memory of a world where there were no cheats, where people did not trick each other or even lie to each other? They say ‘kallavumilla, chatiyumilla, ellolamilla polivachanam’. To a people who are fed up of being cheated, of being lied to, by the leaders they trusted and by everyone they thought knowledgeable and steadfast, the picture of the land of the Asura king has an attraction that lasts.