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Mahabali - The Dark-Skinned King: A Cultural Debate

Malayali community all over the world celebrated Onam a few weeks back. For a standard Malayali, Onam is more than an official state festival; it’s an emotion. Onam is a major annual event for Malayali people in and outside Kerala. It is a harvest festival observed with numerous festivities. Onam celebrations include Vallam Kali (boat races), Pulikali (tiger dances), Pookkalam (flower Rangoli), Onathappan (worship), Onam Kali, Tug of War, Thumbi Thullal (women's dance), Kummattikali (mask dance), Onathallu (martial arts), Onavillu (music), Kazhchakkula (plantain offerings), Onapottan (costumes), Atthachamayam (folk songs and dance), and other celebrations.

The story behind Onam is about king Mahabali. Once upon a time, there was an asura called Bali, also known as Mahabali, who conquered three worlds and was famous for his generosity. Nobody remembered Indra, king of the celestial regions, who had been defeated by Bali. So, Indra begged Vishnu to deal with his problem. Vishnu took the form of a dwarf, Vamana, and asked Mahabali for three paces of land. Mahabali granted it without a second thought. The dwarf then suddenly transformed into a giant, and with two paces, he claimed the sky, the earth, and all possessions that Mahabali had. Vamana then asked him where should he take the third step. The only thing Mahabali had left was his body. So, he told Vamana to step on his head. Vamana did so and shoved the asura-king underground into Patal. Mahabali, however, was granted a wish to visit earth once a year to meet the people who loved him very much. His arrival is celebrated as Onam in Kerala.

Mahabali, popularly known as ‘Maveli’, is the icon of Onam (similar to Santa Claus at Christmas). People dressed up like Mahabali is the most common thing we can see in Kerala during the season of Onam. From the gateways of business institutions to playschools, the competition for dressing up as the best Maveli is one of the most common sights witnessed during the Onam celebrations. The most stereotyped image of Mahabali is of a fair-skinned man with a mustache and a potbelly, wearing gold ornaments and silk dress and often a sacred thread. But there are already many fingers raised against this popular appearance of Mahabali.

Many people do not think the present Mahabali character does any justice to what Mahabali represents. These people question the potbellied, sacred thread wearing and the fair-skinned version of Mahabali. They believe the above-mentioned appearance of Mahabali is due to the 'cultural conditioning'. Mahabali, being a Dravidian king, is supposed to be dark in complexion having a stout body. For these people, the debate over the appearance of a mythological character of Mahabali points to a bigger picture. As fierce debates arise over the 'Vamana Jayanthi idea' and attempt to make Onam as a Hindu festival, the appearance of King Bali is becoming a hot topic.

The people who talk about the dark-skinned Mahabali believe that the fair-skinned potbellied 'Santa like' appearance of Mahabali is part of an agenda implying the Aryan-Brahmanical idol. It is believed that thousands of years ago, the Dravidian people were often described as asuras by the fair-skinned devas. The dark skin and different features of South Indians were used as a means of discrimination by those who claimed to have Aryan roots.

As history was written, people of Dravidian descent (Ravana being another classic example) were cast as asuras or demons, while the opposite was portrayed as gods. The depiction of Mahabali as a dark complexed Dravidian seems fair and just. Mahabali, the ruler loved by all. A just and impartial king, who ruled over a perfect casteless society. He is more than just the individual; he stands for much more. Savarna narratives represent asuras as dark-skinned, forest dwellers who are often demonized. Mahabali too was an asura, but since he was loved by all he could not be demonized and instead was "gifted" fair skin and fancy clothes.

Thus, the debate goes on where one section goes against the 'popular version' of Mahabali while a section remains silent on celebrating the 'fair-skinned asura' appearance. These movements can't be ignored as a mere problem of representing a mythical king, it connects with the larger question of Dravidian identity and Dalit politics. Reformers like Jyothiba Phule claimed the Dalit identity of Mahabali in his book ‘Gulamgiri ’ and opposed the Brahmanical idea associated with it. This debate attained serious political importance as the heating debate over the ‘Hindu Festival theory’ and the request made by RSS leaders to celebrate the birth of Vamana instead of the return of Mahabali. When Malayalies fill social media with black-skinned Mahabali with the popular fair-skinned potbellied Mahabali, it doesn’t depict a new trend but echoes strong social and political dissent.


By Devadeth K Reji

Devadath is a student of political science and a member of The Symposium society. Besides having a keen interest in everything political and the domestic affairs, he is fond of books and a cinephile. He loves interactions with anyone comes across him. He wants to spare his career for the welfare of society.

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