The false portrayal of Kerala king Mahabali like an Indian version of Santa Claus

A young cartoonist from Kerala has been portraying the mythical king who ‘visits’ every Onam as a dark-skinned man who looks more ‘Malayali’.
Mahabali portrayals
Mahabali portrayals
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His arrival is not preceded by the jingle of bells or reindeers pulling a sleigh through the air. But Mahabali, a mythical king believed to visit Kerala on one day every year, still looks a lot like Santa Claus. At least from what we see in pictures, portrayals in the media, and the men picked to play the part of the king. Fair-skinned and plump with a paunch, he however has something Santa doesn’t – a poonool, a thread that Brahmins wear and consider sacred. Questions about this unlikely appearance for an ‘Asura’ king from Kerala have been floating around, though not loudly enough to grab the attention of noisy news channel debates. 

For three years now, a young cartoonist who draws under the name of ‘Mean Curry’ has been posting a new image of Mahabali, as a dark-skinned non-poonool-wearing man for Onam – that’s the festival the state of Kerala celebrates at the time of the king’s ‘annual visit’. In 2019, Sabari Venu – the artist behind Mean Curry – put out an image of his dark-skinned Mahabali and invited others to contribute to what he called the ‘Draw your own Mahabali’ challenge. He raised the question of how Mahabali has for so many years been represented as a whitewashed version of the real king through these images.

“The past two years, during Onam, it’s become part of my routine to try recreating our Mahabali in a different avatar. A humble attempt to slowly eradicate the current joke of a caricature of Mahabali that we see all around us which is a disgrace to what he really represents to all Malayalis. An Asura Dravidian King, a just benevolent leader, reduced to this ridiculous Santa in a mundu,” Sabari writes on his Mean Curry page on Instagram, choosing to portray Mahabali as a young man this year. He adds that he took elements of Onapottan, a folk character that represents Mahabali in a ritual of visiting houses in north Kerala. In parts of the state Onapottan has been enacted only by members of the Malaya community, according to a New Indian Express story


A post shared by Mean Curry (@meancurry)

Sabari urges his readers to call out this misrepresentation of Mahabali. “How does one think it is apt for a king, who basically stood against the idea of the caste system and treated everyone as equals, to wear a poonool. How daft does a person have to be to make that decision in this day and age? Call it out,” he says.

The question first came to him when he began reading more about the history of Onam and realised how the festival means different things to different sections of people. “I found a disparity between what the character stood for and what he ended up looking like. He just became a marketing gimmick, a caricature. I am not the first person to call it out, people have tried to change this image long before. I just used whatever little platform I have to present the idea. I drew my Mahabali, inspired by the figures of uncles and others around me – to create a king that looked like a Malayali,” Sabari tells TNM.

How it began

It is not clear when the mythical king of the south got a paunch or a poonool, but culture expert Sunil P Ilayidam reckons it might have evolved in the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of the print media. “I can’t be certain of this but I am guessing this image of Mahabali would have evolved with the coming of colour printing. We need to understand that there are two contradictory traditions in connection with Onam – a Brahmanical one and a folk one. The Brahmanical tradition is centred on Vamanan (the avatar that Lord Vishnu takes to push Mahabali down to the netherworld) while the folk tradition celebrates Mahabali’s return,” Sunil says.

Mahabali songs from the 17th and 18th centuries are about the Asura king’s return to his homeland every year to see his people. “This is also reflected in the Onam games we see now – onavillu, onathallu, the boat race. On the other hand, the Brahmanical tradition can be seen in the middle of the pookalam (floral carpets arranged in front of houses during Onam) where we place the Thrikkaraka Appan (also called Onathappan).  Thrikkakkara Appan is the deity of the Thrikkakara temple, which is Vamanan. The Onam we celebrate now is a mix of both these traditions, each having its influence on the other. It must be what led to the Brahmanical form of the Asura King as we see him portrayed as today,” Sunil says.

References of celebrating Onam as a Vamana Jayanthi can be seen in eighth and tenth-century texts, he adds. But what struck the popular imagination is the story of the king’s return.

‘Mahabali is a myth, not in favour of either’

MA Baby, former minister of culture in Kerala, is not for either representation. “Mahabali is a myth. There is no meaning in saying he is an Asura king. But I am not in favour of his portrayal as a ‘racially superior’ character either. Before there was written history, people lived in an egalitarian society. This was common to every culture, and Mahabali’s story too is a portrayal of that.”

The famous Mahabali song ‘Maveli Naadu’ says that when he ruled, all people were equal. Baby says that the period is also referred to as primitive communism since there were no class differences and everyone hunted together. Hunter-gatherers lived as equals. “You must read the poem Onappaattukar by Malayalam poet Vyloppilly Sreedhara Menon. It says that people speaking different languages, wearing different clothes have memories of a time when everyone was equal,” Baby says and goes on to recite a few lines from the long poem.

Pala deshathil, pala veshathil,

Palapala bhashayil njangal kadipoo

Parithiladiyiludayam kondu polinjoru

Ponnonathin charitham

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