Growing up in rural India with close emotional and cultural ties with Malabar the land of Maha Bali, the benevolent asura King who came up on the day of Onam and ruled the earth till deepavali. The legend was that goddess Lakshmi the goddess of wealth was enslaved by the King Bali’s goodness so lord Vishnu had to descend as Vamana the dwarf and retrieve her. Stories that Kitta-doddamma narrated to us at Malumatta my mother’s ancestral home. These would be accompanied with golibajje the traditional snack from coastal Karnataka, and of course the raagi malt a drink made of millet and milk.
Param-ajja my grandfather’s brother and patriarch of the family and our uncles would return from the fields, or their place of work at sundown, when the second round of golibajje would appear, and as Kitta-doddamma walked in to make these, he would snort, at her of course well assisted by the snuff that he used. A deck of cards would materialize and coffee this time round. Doddamma would refuse to give us coffee since we were kids, but ajja (grandpa) would look at benevolently, and say give the kids half cup coffee each. That was the first treat. These coffees were special as they were made of jaggary a sweetener extracted from sugarcane.
He would then tell us the real meaning behind the story of Deepavali. The essence of Bali, the sacrifice and de-romanticize the entire story. To him the tale of Bali was the sacred codification agricultural knowledge or truths handed down from one generation to the other. It was the lore that inspired the agricultural karma yogis the quality of Bali (sacrifice). A good harvest required sacrifice giving a part of oneself to nature, whether it was the seed which shed its skin the worm that contributed their organic components, the former who contributed his labour, the soil its nutrients, mother earth the Lakshmi who reside in the earth nurtured these to spring a rich crop. Bali was the contributor or the sacrificed that enslaved lakshmi with this goodness. To Paramajja Vaman of lesser importance.
To my maternal grandmother who had an urban upbringing and convent education the story of Bali symbolized something else. Bali to her inconsequential, but the concept of Vamana the dwarf’s feet enlarging enough to gulf the three world meant that any thought if dwelt upon too much could engulf your entire being and existence.
Today when I sit back and try to understand these myths I realize the shifting fortunes of devas and asuras are cyclic again area’s are not destroyed only put in their place. If Bali and goodness rose from the nether world above to the earth then balance is disturbed. Bali rises every year on onam, he oversees the nurturing of the crops then after harvest he returns to nether world on Balipadya. After which lakshmi or wealth enters the house on deepavali. Incidentally most major festivals are associated with the death of an asura. This is again because asuras are the keepers of sanjivini vidya or the knowledge of restoring life i.e. the rejuvenation of nature.
The saga of deepavali also involves the destruction of narakasura, — personification the slough created by the rains and harvest. Interestingly he can only be destroyed by his mother, the mother earth. Goa actually has this gathering of the slough making an effigy of Narakasura and then setting it flame. This takes care of the environment.