Onam across time and space

Onam is celebrated as birth of Bhagvan Vishnu in his Vamana avatar in different locations across India. Bhagwat Purana 8.18.5, describes the birth of Vamana on Shravan Dvadashi. This is also the time of Uthradom (the day before Thiruonam).

Rigveda describes Vishnu as he, who with his three wide-extended paces measured out the entire earthly realms where all living creatures have their habitation. In short, Vishnu’s three strides (Trivikrama) secure life and prosperity. Neither Bali nor Vamana appears in the Trivikrama imageries of Rigveda. The term Asura also doesn’t appear with the Trivikrama images in Rigveda. Hence, the interpretations that put Trivikrama against Asuras also hold no water as far as Rigveda is concerned.

Vamana-Bali story also finds space in Vana and Shanti Parva of Mahabharata. It describes the birth of Mahavishnu as the young Brahmachari son of Aditi, who approached the Danava king Bali and measured the whole world with three steps. The Genealogy of Bali is described in Adi Parva. Bali was the son of Virochana, who was the brother of Kumbha and Nikumba, the children of Prahlada, who in turn was the son of Diti’s son Hiranyakashyapu. Rishi Vishwamitra narrates the Vamana Avatara story to Sri Rama and Lakshmana while taking them to the Siddhashrama for protecting the Yaga in Bala Kanda of Ramayana.

The Bali of Puranas is a model character, a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. Mahavishnu blessed Mahabali by promising him protection & care from all ailments in Sutala. Vishnu blessed Bali that he would become Indra during Savarni Manu’s era. The Skanda Purana refers that the capital city of Mahabali was near Someshwara of Vastrapath in Saurashtra Desha and he conducted Aswamedha on the banks of Narmada at Gurukulya theertha. According to Bhagavata Purana, his yajna was on the northern banks of Narmada River at Bhrigukachchha. Vamana Purana tells Vamana lived in Kurukshetra. 

Onam is a celebration of the birth and victory of Lord Vishnu as Vamana and the return of his devotee king Mahabali to earth. Mahabali comes back every year from sutala to see his land & celebrate Lord Vamana’s birth at Vamana temple in Thrikkakara (=”place of holy foot”) in Kochi. From ancient days, Onam was celebrated in Tamilakam (Tamilnadu-Kerala) as the birthday of “Asura destroying” Bhagavan Vishnu. This is mentioned in ancient Sangam literature in a poem called Maturaikkanci. The Nair community still keep the Onam battle traditions of this poem.

Badami Cave Temples are a part of the glorious rock-cut temple architecture of India. These were constructed between the 6 to 8th centuries CE by the Chalukya dynasty. These cave temples are located at Badami, a small city in the Indian state of Karnataka. In Cave no. 2, there is a TriVikrama form of Vishnu. Here Vishnu is eight-armed holding Shield, Arrow,  Sword etc. His one foot at the ground and another in Akasha. Mahabali is seen giving grant to Vaman(LR). TriVikrama is a projection of Vaman. Note Gana(s) at the bottom.

Even in Middle Ages, Onam continued to be celebrated as birthday of Bhagvan Vishnu. The 10th century Divya Prabandham refers to this celebration. This included preparation of delicacies of rice and fruits.

Halebidu, meaning ‘Old camp’, the famous capital of the Hoysala line of kings between the 11th and 14th CE, is very near Belur, Karnataka. On the left is the dwarf Vamana asking for alms and the asura king Bali offering. Even though in original mythology, this whole thing was a dialogue, it is shown here that King Bali offers water as a symbolic gesture for alms. The right shows the Vamana taking the form of Trivikrama. It shows Trivikrama, with one step covering the entire earth and covers the entire sky with his second leg. When he looks for a third step, the demon King Bali offers his head and Vishnu presses him down to the Patala. On the top left of the image, Bramha is shown washing the feet of Trivikrama and the water flowing over to the earth as the river Ganga. 

In the 19th century too the celebrations were about Bhagavan Vishnu and his descent to earth. It is described in the book “Malabar Manual” written by William Logan, a Scottish civil servant of the British administration.

The same is the observation of Francis Day, a 17th century East India Company administrator who writes in his book.

The earliest record of Onam in Kerala comes from Thrikkara Vamana temple (861 CE). Even today, Onam is celebrated here as birthday of Vamana. It is believed that Bali also returns to worship the Bhagavan every year on this day. Processions of Vamana murti are carried out.

In all Hindu homes, the Uthradam night is not complete without pooja welcoming Bhagavan Vishnu and his avatar Thrikkakara Appan, represented in the form of a clay pyramid in the centre.

The Bhagavata Purana is clear on the beautiful relationship of Bhagvan and Bhakta between Vamana and Bali. According to the Bhagavata, Vishnu comes to test Bali’s generosity. He becomes satisfied and grants Bali and boon he wishes. But Bali has only one wish and that was to be forever with Vishnu. Bhavagan grants it. He leaves Vaikunta and moves to Bali’s new abode Sutala where there is no fear or hatred. Srimad Bhagavatam 5.24.27 says Bhagavan Vamana served as the gatekeeper of Bali in Sutala which is grander than Svarga. Vamana kicked Ravana out of Sutala when Ravana invaded Sutala.

The 1700 CE painting from Mankot shows the disconnect of tradition from the one propagated by Marxist historians. In the painting, the dark-skinned dwarf is Vanama. The brahmin with choti in the painting is none other than Mahabali. He is the great-great-grandson of Rishi Kashyapa, from whom Kashmir valley is named.

Kashyapa’s elder son from Diti was Hiranyakashipu who had four sons, the most famous being Prahlada, the Vishnu bhakt. Maha Bali is the grandson of Prahlada and like his grandfather a great Vishnu bhakt.

It is only recent Marxist historians who have tried to pit Bhagavan Vishnu and Maha Bali using their subaltern lens whereas tradition never had this view. For some of us, it is time for unlearning and relearning.


  1. Bharadwaj (True Indology) –
  2. Anjali George, Trivikrama, Mahabali and Onam –
  3. Badami Temple complex –
  4. Hoysaleswara Temple –

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