Deepavali is a very popular festival in India and the significance is explained as a celebration symbolic of our innate aspiration to progress towards light from darkness, towards knowledge from ignorance and towards prosperity from poverty. It is also described as a festival of thanks-giving to the Mother Nature. Deepavali means array of lights.
In spite of this modern, positive-thinking style of explanations, the fact remains that the festival was originally conceived and celebrated by his subjects as an annual welcome- back ceremony for their beloved exiled King Bali. King Bali variously described as Baliyendra or Bali or Maha-Bali or Bali Chakravarthy (emperor).Remnants of what was originally a pan-Indian custom in ancient days of early civilization remains even today in Tulunadu and Kerala.
The legend of King Bali and Vamana, the dwarf, has been absorbed into Purana-s, with Vamana considered as one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. (cf. Post 34: Ten incarnations).According to the viewpoint of Vishnu’s followers, Bali (a follower of Shiva cult) was pictured as a despicable Asura who deserved to be subjugated. This was in conformity with the Sura-Asura conflict of pro-Vishnu and pro-Shiva cultures in ancient India.
However, the other side of the story is more interesting and throws light on the theological-cultural conflicts during the early historical period.
Asura King Bali
What was the great sin done by this Asura Bali?
He was a philanthropist to the core, who willingly gave away free gifts to the needy people!
If we brush aside all humanly impossible fantasies woven into the said legend, the remaining core story is that King Bali, was fond of giving away gifts desired by the recipient! The standing offers was that Bali would give whatever is asked of him! One clever, dwarf beggar (Vamana) came and begged him to grant land enough to place his three steps.(Or maybe, he asked that he should be given wherever he places his steps ).King Bali agreed to provide him whatever the dwarf desired and the mischievous Vamana placed his foot on Bali’s head! Thus, Bali had no other choice than offer himself to the wishes of the dwarf, who sent him to exile to a place called Patala.
The word ‘bali-daan’ (means ‘sacrifice’, but literally ‘gift of Bali’) might have been coined from the self-sacrificing act of King Bali.
The concept of Patala in Purana-s, describe it as a nether world, a parallel world beneath the Earth. Since, there is no realistic/scientific basis for such a illusory world, we can presume that the ‘Patala’ fantasy represented a sinking island beneath the sea level. Early historical Greek reports like ‘Indika’ report a sinking island called ‘Patala’ near the Gulf of Cutch.
Deepavali in Tulunadu
In spite of depiction of Bali as a villain by the followers of Vishnu, the actual subjects of Bali fondly remembered and continued to respect their exiled King! They believed that their King would return and pay a visit to his subjects once in a year. They celebrated annual welcome their King festival in the form of Deepavali!
The chant of ‘Poli Poli Baliyendra’ in rural Tulunadu during the Deepavali night echoes the age-old custom of welcoming King Bali. Similar customs prevail in Kerala also.
Dr Zacharias Thundy in his ‘Kerala story’ reports similar legends on Bali from Kerala. Onam, in Kerala, is the celebration of the return of Maha Bali,(or 'Maveli') the legendary former and future king of the land. The King Bali according to the folklores, ruled over the Kerala during the Golden Age before castes existed, "when all men were equal, when no one was poor, when there was neither theft nor dread of thieves.
It appears that in the early historical (pre-Sangam) period, the legend of Bali pervaded throughout the south India. In Tamilnadu, Mahabalipuram in the East coast is a town built in honour of King Bali.
Similarly,the town Mavelikkara in Kerala is named after the Maveli or the Mahabali.There are villages named Mavalli in Karnataka also.(One such 'Mavalli' is part of Bangalore city now)
Dr.Thundy reports that the Munda tribes of Chotanagapur area also have legends (somewhat different from those prevalent in Tulunadu and Kerala) built around their Asura King Bali. Asura is a group within Munda tribes. Bali is a common name among Munda tribes.
All these data lead to the suggestion that King Bali was ruling Munda people in early historical days before. It was before the castes existed according to folklores. Caste system was systematically enforced ca.300 BC during the reign of Maurya dynasty. A large section of Early Munda people that inhabited all over southern India once upon a time were a civilized society that honored truth, democracy, philanthropy and other good values of life. Munda tribes were ruled by benevolent Kings like Bali. Possibly this led to the conceptual classification of civilization era into Satya, Treta, Dwapara and Kali Yuga-s (epochs).
Assimilation of cultural components
The immigrant Tulu, Malayali and Tamil and other (south) early Dravidian tribes that came and settled in various parts of southern India during the period 700 to 400 BC, peacefully coexisted, merged and assimilated with the early Munda culture. In the subsequent years Dravidian languages became powerful vehicles of mass communication. Consequently, the independant identity of early Munda culture in southern India was totally masked under the burden of evolving societies. Remnants of original Munda tribes in southern India are represented by some of the tribal groups living today.
The genetic haplogroup studies apparently are in favor of such a theory of assimilation of immigrant tribes with the aborigines that settled and evolved in southern India during Paleolithic- Neolithic period. Manjunath is making concerted efforts to compile the available data on the genome studies done so far.
The current Tulu, Malayalam Tamil and other south Dravidian languages still carry an implicit undercurrent of Munda cultural elements and words in them. The persisting legend of King Bali in Tulunadu and Kerala is only an example of such assimilated undercurrent of Munda elements in our unified culture.
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