The popular narrative of Onam goes like this. There used to be a king who ruled Kerala called Mahabali. During his time — according to a popular saying in Malayalam — there was unity among people, who were honest and all around prosperity. Consumed by jealousy, Indra approached Vishnu and requested him to remove Mahabali. Vishnu took the Vamana avatar and asked Mahabali for three feet of land.
The charitable king agreed and Vamana, who was a little boy, grew to a gigantic form. With his one feet, he measured the earth. With the next he measured the entire universe. Mahabali realized who he was dealing with and offered his head for the third foot of land. Vamana placed his foot on the king’s head and pushed him to paataal. Before leaving, the king asked for one boon, — to visit his people once a year — which was granted. Onam is the time when Mahabali visits Malayalis
If you hear this version, Mahabali is a martyr and Vishnu is a villain. Why on earth would Vishnu take an avatar to get rid of someone who had all the noble values? Now you can add the liberal, subaltern flavor to this. Vamana being the avatar of Vishnu was a savarna, who pushed a dalit down. This of course is a perfect example of brahminical patriarchy. There is even an Aryan Invasion version of Onam. Something seems to be incorrect here.
What is the truth as per our scriptures though? In fact, Parikshit had the same question and he asked it to Shukracharya. To know the truth behind this literary conceit, you just need to read Bhagavatam.
Let’s look at the sequence of avatars. In the list Vamana comes after Parasurama. This may not be a well know fact outside Kerala, but Parasurama is credited with the creation of Kerala. It is said that when he threw his axe and land arose from the sea. So if the Mahabali event happened earlier with an earlier avatar, then he obviously was not in the land we call Kerala.
For the next point, we need to go into the details of devas and asuras. The devas and asuras are children born of the same father. Kashyapa Prajapati had children with his wife Aditi and Diti. Though they were born of the same father, the children had different natures. The children of Aditi had more sattva in them, while the the children of Diti turned out to be asuras.
We all know the story of Prahlad who was the son of the erasure king Hiranyakashipu. Prahlad had a son named Virochana and Mahabali was his son. During his youth, Bali went for a war with Indra and lost his life, but the Asura guru Shukracharya revived him back to life. Shukracharya wanted his disciples to vanquish the devas. Bali wanted his revenge.
This was a time when Vishnu stood back. He had noticed the arrogance of the devas and wanted to teach them a lesson. Shukracharya had noticed this as well. That was the opportune moment for him. When the forces of Shukracharya and Bali were combined, the asura strength increased. Bali attacked Indra and defeated him. Bali then following Shukracharya’s instructions, ruled the devaloka as well.
Even when he was without a throne and was wandering around, Indra did not approach Vishnu and ask for his help in making Bali disappear. Who approached Vishnu and triggered the Vamana avatar?
That was Aditi. Seeing the sad state of her son, she approached her husband Kashyapa, who advised her to perform a vrata. Pleased with her vrata, Vishnu appeared before her. Aditi explained the homelessness of her son and pleaded with him to do something. Seeing her hard austerities and heart felt plea, Vishnu promised to find a solution.
Thus on a shravan month, on the Abhijit muhurta, Vamana was born. Mahabali was performing a yaga on the banks of river Narmada (not in Kerala), when Vamana appeared there. On asking why the child came there, Vamana said that he came for a dana of three feet of land. Hearing this, Bali ridiculed him, but Vamana did not change his request. Shukracharya, immediately realized who the boy was and asked Bali to withdraw his pledge to fulfill the request. When Shukracharya told him who the boy was, Bali realized that he was the same person who protected his grand father Prahlad.
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. Prahlad had advised Bali to rule based on dharma, but with his typical arrogance he responded back that he was not afraid of anyone. Prahlad warned him that one day Maha Vishnu would kill him, but Bali told him that the rakshasas were powerful than Vishnu. Even a person like Prahlad could not take this mindless self-righteous posturing anymore. He cursed his grandson that he would lose his kingdom and all his prosperity. When Bali asked for forgiveness, Prahlad asked him to take refuge in Vishnu.
Snobbishness can sometimes be entertaining, other times, it can destroy your life. When Shukracharya found that Vamana was not listening to him, he cursed the king as well. This guru-sapam, sealed his fate. The king went and washed Vamana’s feet in preparation for his dana. Seeing this some of his soldiers tried to attack Vamana. Bali stopped them. He said, the same god, who caused the destruction of the devas and helped with our victory is now doing the opposite. Please be calm. Thus Bali himself did not have an issue with what was going to happen.
When Vishnu was about to keep his feet on Bali’s head for the third boon, Prahlada also appeared there. Seeing him, Vishnu was happy. Prahlada pleaded on behalf of Bali to Vishnu. Vishnu then promised to give Bali something which was impossible for devas to attain. He blessed Bali to live in a place called suthala (made by Vishwakarma) with all the pleasures of life. Vishnu also agreed to protect Bali’s family and the boon to see the Lord whenever he wanted.
“According to Vedic texts, there are 14 worlds in the universe – seven upper worlds and seven subterranean ones. Atalam, Vitalam, Sutalam, Tala-Talam, Rasa-Talam, Maha-Talam, and Pathalam are the seven lower worlds, all of which have been described in detail in the Puranas.
Of these, Pathalam is the lowest world inhabited by Nagas, the serpent people and is said to be a dreaded place. Sutalam, on the other hand, is considered by the asuras as equivalent to or even more desirable than ‘swargaloka’.Revisiting the Onam myth
As Bali prepared to go to suthalam, he asked Vishnu to bless him with his feet. To satisfy Bali, Maha Vishnu kept his right feet on Bali’s head and blessed him. After Bali went to suthalam, the Indra was returned to power.
The part of Bali going to suthalam instead of paatalam has been lost. Even if Bali went to suthalam, he can still come to visit his subjects once a year.
But here is an interesting bit. With the false narrative that is going on, one would think that it is only Mahabali who is celebrated and Malayalis dislike Vamana. But there is a tradition where we keep two banana leaves and two seats and serve feast on them. This is for both Maha Vishnu and Mahabali. Also, one of the traditions followed now, is the creation of a floral decoration called the pookkalam. At the center of the the pookkalam, we keep a clay pyramid called Thrikkakarayappan. Thrikkakara is one of the few temples dedicated to Vamana and keeping Thrikkakarayappan, is honoring Vamana as well.
Finally, why is the festival called Onam? It comes from the name of the month of the birth of Vamana. Shravanam -> Savanam -> Avanam -> Onam. As the name of the month moved from Sanskrit to Malayalam, this change happened.
Bhagavatam, Vishnu Puranam, Vamana Puranam, Mahabharatam, Yoga Vasishtam, and Narayaneeyam reveal the special bond between Mahabali and Maha Vishnu. The name of the festival itself comes from the birth month of Vamana. The traditions followed now also reflect this divine relation. When there was no animosity between them, why is such a narrative prevalent today? Instead of propagating that version, it is better to remember that Onam is a time when both Maha Vishnu and Mahabali come together.