Musings on the Legend of Maveli

No deep history, religion, culture or theory in this essay – just the random musings of people on a day when they wish they were in the “matrubhoomi”. Yesterday was “Thiru Onam”, or “tiruvonam” as melodized in the language of the Malayalis – “Hillbillies” in American. Our people. The day when our exiled king Maveli of Malayali lore returns to visit. As popular as His Excellency the Chief Minister of Kerala might be today, he can’t hope to match the PR and approval ratings of King Maveli:

“Maveli naadu vaneedum kaalam: manushar ellarum onnu poale.”

Translated into Angrezi, “In the days when Maveli reigned, all humans were as one, and were treated alike.” Wow! Clear proof to my dear friends the “Indic” enthusiasts. Let me express that in typical Swaveda terms. “It is beyond doubt that, unquestionably, Democracy and the principles of “Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!” were invented in Kerala. Q.E.D. ”

Beloved King “Maveli” – shortened from “Maha Bali”. Again, in American, that would translate into “Chief Big-Sacrifice”. And therein lies another of Kerala’s achievements – we invented the tough lesson that “no good deed goes unpunished”. The legend of Maveli is short, sweet, but by no means simple. Mahabali was, you see, an Asura king. Interesting, there, all you Northern bhaiyon aur bahinon! When you refer to those Asuras / Rakshasas as demons, you’re talking about us, heh? Well, we’ll let that pass – while y’all were enjoying your pleasantries at Kurukhshetra or Kalinga, we had already developed the perfect society.

Mahabali was as devout as anyone else. He did all the right things, accumulating brownie points, gold stars, whatever they gave out those days, with amazing speed. His fame and popularity spread to Swargam and all the rest of the Universe. Bad move. The “devas”, sitting around in Naee Dilli or Bollywood or one of those other places so close to Swargam, started feeling deeply insecure (green with jealosy, to be blunt). If this kept up, they reasoned, much as Yahya Khan and Zulfiqar Bhutto did about Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, or the Mumbai Filmee Mafia felt about GanaGandharvan Padmashri Dr. Jesudas singing Hindi songs, Mahabali would have to be admitted to the Council of Devas. Then he would be a shoo-in for Secretary of State in Shri Vishnu’s Administration. A strange idea, if you think about it – a King whose power was feared, not for his cruise missiles, aircraft carriers or horsemen, but for the sheer power that came from the love of his People. In modern desi literature, I could point to this and say: “It is absolutely certain that the concept of “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” was invented in Kerala.

Intolerable, the devas reasoned – given North Indian traditions as seen in Bihar these days, tolerance and inclusiveness were not exactly the virtues that the devas were famous for. You see, Mahabali, while he conducted the right sacrifices and worshipped, was also doing something that few rulers ever get known for doing: he ruled the land for his people. OK, we hunted the web for the original words – no luck. There’s only the usual South Asia Anthropology stuff parroted on several sites. So here’s our contribution to Indic Angrezi e-literature – the rest of the original lyric, courtesy of Ms. Niece199x, a current academic expert and scholar on the subject, who sang it to us full blast over the intercontinental telephone lines and only wanted contributions to her stamp collection in return:

“Maveli naadu vaneedum kaalam: manusharellarum onnu poale.
Amothathode vasikkkum kaalam, apatthonnarkkum ottillathaanum
Aathikal vyathikal onnumilla; baalamaranangal kelppanilla
Dushtare kankondu kanmanilla; nallavarallathe illaparil
Naarimar baalanmar mattellarum; neetiyotengum vasichakaalam
Kallavumilla chatiyumilla, ellolumilla poli vachanam
Kallapparayum cherunazhiyum, kallatharangal mattonnumilla”

A time of living happily, and no danger to anyone (one could drive on the proper side of the road safely). No sorrows or diseases; child mortality is unheard-of. No cruel types to be seen, none other than good people around in the universe. Women and children live anywhere, in fairness and dignity. The crime rate is zero, trickery and backstabbing are unheard of, and there’s never an incident of anyone lying. No false measures, no short-changing in the market, no other scams of any kind.

Wow! I bet things were not all that great – they clearly didn’t have the Kerala State Electricity Board then, nor the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation, the Stock Exchange or the Cochin Customs – and certainly no political campaigns. Mahabali could probably not have prepared a “dossier” on Iraq like Prime Minister Blair did, nor given a presentation at the UN about Iraqi WMD like Gen. Colin Powell did. He wouldn’t have lasted a day in ENRON’s board – nor in the Congress Party’s National Committee. They didn’t have TV to see General Musharraf’s face. But I can see why Malayalis sing of that time with such longing these days.

Dr. Zacarias Thundy [1] gives his South Asian scholarly translation of the ancient song. Ignoring the usual South Asian Anthropology Expert’s gratuitous references to caste, race, snake-worship etc, since they are not in the original:

“And people live joyful and merry;
They are free from all harm.
There is neither theft nor deceit,
And no one is false in speech either.
Measures and weights are right;
No one cheats or wrongs the neighbor.”

I’ll let the other stuff pass – its Onam, and one celebrates the good. One thanks Dr. Thundy for taking the trouble to tell us about Onam, as a proud fellow Malayali. “” [2] is succinct: “Festival of harvest, opulence and floral finery occurring in August -September is the most colorful of Kerala’s festivals. It is a picturesque festival marked by feasting, boat racing singing and dancing. Onam has its origin in a legend. The tradition of Kerala has handed down sweet memories of a period of peace and plenty..”. “Shubhkaamna” [3] and NatureMagics [4] describe the legend with the calmness with which any Malayali used to dealing with insensate government bureaucracy can identify:

“There was neither dishonesty nor deception, nor was there any instance of false utterance, use of counterfeit measures of other kings of unfair practice. Perfect harmony… prevailed. It was an ideal welfare (state), the legend tells us.

This golden age came of a tragic close when Mahabali was expelled from his kingdom by Vamana, the dwarf incarnation of Vishnu. Thus by the designs of the jealous Gods, the glorious reign of the Asura emperor came to an end. But his grateful subjects’ request that their former ruler might be permitted to visit the land once a year, was granted. The time for his annual visit was in the first Malayalam month Chingom (August-September) and this occasion became one of jubiliation throughout the land, reminiscent of the prosperous times of Mahabali.”

What does such a legend tell us? “Vamana” is accepted as one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu – each incarnation having arrived with the stated policy of:

“Paritranaya sadhoonam, vinasaya ca dushkritaam..
Dharmasampsthapanaarthay, sambhavami yuge yuge”

“To protect the good, to destroy evil, to establish justice, I shall take form in Age after Age”.

But the legend of Vamana and Mahabali is surely a bit more complicated than the usual “Good Wins Over Evil”, “Cowboys in white hats beat the villains in black hats” stuff, hey?

In what way was a generous, caring ruler who was better than the devas, deserving of being sent down from earth, much less from lovely Kerala? The usual quarters create the usual stories from this, and seek historical “confirmation” much like David Macaulay’s Archaeology Expert wearing a toilet seat around her neck as “ceremonial burial neckwear of the ancient Yanks” in Motel of the Mysteries [5]. A better answer is rooted in modern corporate management practice. Recently, a very experienced aerospace engineer told me:

“To save this company, they need to fire one-third of the managers. But they should do that at random, to avoid losing too many of the good ones”.

I’d make him an honorary Malayali for that straight-faced classic. Did “Management” mess up here? Not likely.

A much better explanation comes from the one big clue in the story – the fact that Maveli gets to return to Kerala every Onam, the time of year when Kerala is full of flowers, the air is fresh and clean after the Monsoon, and the fields are waving in brilliant harvest green, the Onam Sale is at its height, and the “pazham nurukku” is plentiful. Does that sound like the punishment for someone sent, say, to Siberia or Guantanamo Bay? True, 4 days is a pretty short vacation – but first, it sounds like he gets an expenses-paid non-stop supersonic flight each way to Nedumbassery and doesn’t even have to take off his shoes at the airport, and secondly, the length of one’s vacation is inversely proportional to the importance of one’s post, unless one is President Bush, who seems to be on vacation even when he’s at the White House.

The cover story is that Vishnu stomped on Mahabali’s head and pushed him straight down to Paathalam – the mythological netherworld of the Asuras. Really? Or did He do what any good corporate Chairman would do when He saw top-notch executive talent – whisk him off to HQ? Isn’t King Maveli right there where the jealous devas feared – the Right Hand of Vishnu? Sounds like it to me. And did he really abandon his beloved subjects?

Hardly, I’d say, though the lessons are not lost on the Malayali about the dangers of trusting the Central Government. The land of the hillbillies is booming, primarily with the wealth sent in by those millions of Maveli’s subjects who followed him to the various Paathalams across the green hills and the oceans. In the best traditions of Malayali entrepreneurship, architect Joseph John of Kochi designed a “Mahabali Smarak” to emphasize the “generosity and personal integrity” of the legendary king, as his Masters’ thesis at the University of Texas at Austin [6].

True, true, we hardly ever sing praises of the integrity of our dear elected leaders today unless we’re marching in those “popular rallies” for which the Marxist party gives us free hooch and a bus ride to town. But we’ve learned to put up with all that – we’re not innocents any more like we were in the days of Maveli, nor do we sit around waiting for Divine Incarnation – we try to do our share. As for equality and liberty, well, we thank the Communist Parties for those years of their rule that brought home to us education to move to Paathalam, and our Constitutional Rights to do so, better than anywhere else in India – including the right to kick out our leaders regularly at every election. Nothing personal, but hey, they don’t live up to their election promises like our King Maveli does.

So how’s King Maveli doing these days? Salil Jose [7], claims to have got an email from Him, which goes in part:

“Hi Mallu, This is Maveli. To be frank, I became Internet savvy only recently. Now I spend most of the time browsing – a welcome relief to the boredom in Pathalam… And honestly, the moment I got an exposure to the Net I began to search for an ideal place – a place just like the Kerala under my reign…”

Sounds like you have things well under control as always, Maveliji, and all the really BAD demons are over here – and don’t believe what General Musharraf says about being an Al_lie – “ellolum illa polivacanam” is not exactly descriptive of modern times. Anyway, politics and religion are for other days. Well hate to tell you, Maharajave, there ain’t no other place like that on Earth. Most of us, regardless of religion, politics etc., still get emotional when we hear that old song – the Malloo’s answer to “Georgia on Mah Mind” which starts:

“Naalikerathinde nattilenikkoru nazhi-idangazhi mannunde..
Athil narayanakkili kootu polulloru nalukaalolappurayunde.”

Sorry, no translation there. Too accurate. Too personal. If you’re Malayali, you know exactly what I mean. And Onam is for all Malayalis. Who else can claim to have idealized, since the age of dinosaurs, the tradition of singing:

“Maanusharellarum onnu poale”?

Authors’ note: The article was written by Narayanan and Padma Komerath. Narayanan and Padma live north of Atlanta, Georgia. As usual, any correct facts in the article are from P., the hype and any perceived (and unintended!) insults from N.


[1] Thundy, Zacarias, “The Meaning and Origins of Onam and Other National Festivals”
[2] Anon, “Onam”.,
[3] Anon, “Onam”. Shubhkaama.
[4] Anon, “Onam – the National Festival of Kerala”.
[5] Macaulay, David, “Motel of the Mysteries”. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.
[6] Ittyipe, Minu, “Fantasy Kingdom of Maveli”. The Hindu Online, Metro Plus Kochi, Aug. 22, 2002.
[7] Jose, Salil, “An e-mail from Maveli”. Maa Mallupuram Chennai,

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