The curious case of Onam and Diwali

According to Hindu mythology, Bali was the son of Devamba and Virochana and the grandson of Prahlada.
Under his grandfather’s tutelage, Bali was instilled with a strong sense of righteousness and devotion. Bali succeeded his grandfather as the king of the Asuras and conquered not only the entire world but also brought Patala and Heaven under his control.

The Devatas, as usual, approached Vishnu and requested him to restore their rule over Heaven.

On the advice of his guru and advisor, Sukracharya, Bali began the Ashwamedha Yagya so as to maintain his rule over the three worlds. Vishnu, meanwhile, adopted the avatar of Vamana, a small Brahmin boy. Vamana went to the place where the yagya was taking place and asked Bali to give him bhiksha. The benevolent Bali despite being stopped many times by Shukracharya agreed to grant Vamana his wish. Vamana requested Bali to grant him as much land as he could cover with three steps.

As soon as Bali granted him the wish Vamana grew to an immense size, and with his first pace traversed the all of the earth and the underworld (Patala). With his second pace he covered Heaven in its entirety. Admitting defeat, and seeing that Vamana has no more room for his last step, Bali offered his own head as a stepping-stone. As a result Bali was crushed deep into the Patala.

Lord Vishnu was so pleased by the generosity of Bali that he granted him a boon that he would be the next Indra after Purandara’s reign was over.

The other boon given by him is the source of ‘curiosity’. Let’s look at both the curious cases.

1) It is believed that Vishnu granted Bali a boon that he could return to earth for one day in a year to be with his people and light millions of lamps to dispel the darkness and ignorance and spread the radiance of love and wisdom. It is this day that is celebrated as the Bali Padyami or Bali Pratipada, the annual return of Bali from Patala to earth on the fourth day of the Diwali festival

2) However, in Kerala the Onam festival (which is celebrated a good one-one and a half months before Diwali) also marks the homecoming of the demon-king Maveli (also known as Bali). The story goes that the beautiful state of Kerala was once ruled by an Asura king, Mahabali. The King was wise, judicious and extremely generous. It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali. Everybody was happy in the kingdom, there was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class. Rich and poor were equally treated. There was neither crime, nor corruption. People did not even lock their doors, as there were no thieves in that kingdom. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease in the reign of King Mahabali and everybody was happy and content. Mahabali was ‘tested’ by Lord Vishnu’s Vamana avatar and he passed with ‘flying colors’ (this ‘test’ is the same as that mentioned in the above version). The King was so much attached with his Kingdom and people that he requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year. Lord Vishnu was moved by the Kings nobility and was pleased to grant the wish. This ‘homecoming’ is celebrated as Onam (which is the state festival of Kerala) by the people of Kerala during the month of Chingam.

Which of these two legends is the ‘true’ homecoming of Bali, cannot be told (another post with more references and research will be posted soon).
Let us take this opportunity to remember the King ‘who was able to grant a wish to the great Lord himself’.

Maveli nadu vaneedum kalam
manusharellarum onnupole
amodhathode vasikkum kalam
apathangarkkumottillathanum
kallavum illa chathiyumilla
ellolamilla polivachanam
kallapparayum cherunazhiyum

Meaning –
When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people were equal.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Deaths of children were unheard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbor.
When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless race.

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