Legend of Mahabali. Historical search

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Onam festival is round the corner. People from Kerala round the globe awaits the arrival of their mythical king Mahabali, to his erstwhile kingdom of prosperity and equality. Similarly during dipawali times, on the fourth day, in parts of Maharashtra, South Gujarat and Goa, people celebrate the Bali Padiyami or Bali pradipada meaning the coming of Mahabali. These are the two known festivals of celebrating the coming of a lost King. Both these festivals have the common factors of flowering one’s houses, making special foods and dances, signifying welcoming of a guest. On a rational mind set, we can say that the guest here is actually, coming of the spring season, the time to sow the seed to bring in wealth and prosperity. However how do these two festivals echo the same spirit in terms of personification of the guest which is home coming of King Mahabali?

The legend of Mahabali which is common in both festivals comes from the same puranic story of this king of the asuras, grandson of king prahlad and son of King Virochana , who defeated Lord Indra . This righteous king who was pushed upon to another world by Lord Vishnu during his Vamana avatar but was permitted to visit his kingdom once in a year marking the start of both these festivities. Setting aside the myth associated to the legend, a rational mind will try to unearth the historical significance of Mahabali which this article strive to do.

Any historical deductions have to be based on, archaeological, numismatic, epigraphic and literary sources and evidences.  Unfortunately a major part of our ancient history is shrouded in myth and mystery and modern historians due to lack of evidence have not unearthed the stories of many such historical characters and not much scholarship has gone into that area. In such a scenario what that is only possible is historical deduction from a set of references.

Looking into the geography of the Mahabali legend, there are few places where names associated to the king are still prevalent. Mahabalipuram in Chennai, and Mahabaliswar in Maharashtra. In a book named ‘’Mamalapuram’’, the author S Swaminathan discounts the claim that the city derives the name from Mahabali but from the word Mamallan which means wrestler since the King Narasimhavarnam-1 who found the city was a wrestler. Mahabaleswar is a hill station in Pune and the word derives from Mahabali which according to locals is the name of Shiva the deity in the Mahabaliswar temple there. Available records in the local gazetteers does not say that the name has any historical link with Mahabali the king.

Epigraphically there is mention of ‘Mahavali’and bana kings in a few inscriptions from kolar region deciphered by Benjamin Lewis, the British historian in the 19th century. Banas claimed they are decedents of Mahabali and his son Banasura and later banas were vassals of the Chollas and the Pandhyas ruling the present north Karnataka In the Girnar Jain inscriptions in the Junagadh district of Gujarat the chalukyan minister vastupal is compared to ‘’Bali’’ because of his benevolence in making temples in the region, which means that the legend of a benevolent king called Bali existed in those times.

The only direct mention of Mahabali the king is in the Bhagavat, Vishnu and Matsya purana. In Bhagavatpurana Mahabali ruled near the Narmada River and his son Banasura ruled Shonitpuram which is present tezpur in assam while the place associated to Mahabali’s  father Prahlad and grandfather hiranyakashapu is in Prahladpuri near Multan in present Pakistan leaving a large geography to trace the lineage of Mahabali.

Ironically NV Krishnawarrior the Malayalam polyglot in an essay written in 1960 called Kalotsawam compares Onam to an ancient Sumerian New Year festival and the lineage of Hiranyakaspu , prahlad and Mahabali to Sumerian immigration to southern India and Assyria was a Sumerian kingdom ruled by the asurs deviated as asuras in the purana. In an article published by the Indian archaeologist AM Kurup in 1966 titled Sociology of Onam, he opines that Mahabali may be a pseudonym of an early chera king who was a shiavaite and defeated by the immigrating Vaishnavite Brahmins.

Besides these anecdotic references king Mahabali is shrouded in mystery but few historical deductions can be made 

  • Based on the purana and legends King Mahabali was powerful and benevolent and ruled the dakshina pada the region south of the river narmada comprising regions of Gujarat, parts of madhyapradesh, Maharashtra, Konkan region, and habited regions of southern India. His benevolence was so intense that his glory of governance was passed over to generations resulting in folklores and festivals which included Onam and Balipradipada which were intermingled to local agrarian traditions.
  • The myth of his association with the devas and his attack on the abode of Indra is associated with the expansionism of Mahabali to regions beyond the Narmada and the resistance from early Janapada rulers of the Indo Gangetic plains.
  •  The myth of vamana avatar and the engagement with Mahabali signifies the Vaishnavite religious expansion to the south of Narmada reaching up to Kerala.
  • The territorial legacy of Mahabali was carried forward by Banasura and, but upon his defeat by Krishna the Yadav King of Dwaraka the kingdom declined to certain peripheries in southern India and their decedents re-emerges as the Bana kings of Karnataka

Well how is then the Mahabali in the Onam tradition so intense in Kerala? According to Keralolpathi ( A book written by ancient kerala brahmins on the origin of Kerala)  Brahmins and dependent castes under the leadership of  sage Parasurama immigrated to present Kerala which was  carved out by the sage for their settlement . Parasurama is considered a Vishnu avatar and manifested after the vamana avatar which gives a contradiction but traditional hearsay goes that Onam was started as a festival by Brahmins in the early Christian era upon their settlement glorifying the Brahmanic boy avatar Vamana albeit Vishnu’s dominance over the non brahmanic asura king Mahabali.

Literary reference to Onam is there in Madurai Kanji one of the poems of the Pattupattu a tamil sangam era literary source ascribed by historians to 2nd century AD. The next source is the 3rd Century Malayalam era inscriptions discovered from the trikkakara temple (9th/10th Century AD) about the details of the festivities called Onam in the chingam month in the temple attended by the local chieftains.

The Malayalam era started in 825 AD which was the period from which the distinctiveness of the Malayalam language and culture started deviating from its parent Tamil culture and language mainly ascribed to Brahmanic sanskritisation. Onam and Mahabali started as a significant social festival after this period only but the central question of who Mahabali was still remains in mystery.

In our culture where myth and reality are not distinguishable, beyond the image of a moustached potbellied king there lived a glorious and benevolent king somewhere in peninsular India.

Happy Onam to all the readers:

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