The Story Of TERLS

TERLS (Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station) – Its genesis

One of our pastimes while at school in Kazhakootam was to go out and watch the rocket launches from nearby Thumba. The clear line of sight from the hills where the Sainik School was located in Kazhakootam allowed us to see those Sodium vapor trails and take our imagination high and sometimes beyond space. Often we would think about the people behind the launch and on weekends, we would hire cycles by the hour to ride out to frolic in the beaches close by and even cycle down to Veli and go close to Pallithua in Thumba. TERLS (later VSSC) and the many other associated organizations and their special staff buses were always around, and were a part of our growing up years. I thought it would be fun to go down that memory lane and dreg out the story of the launch station and the involvement of stalwarts like Bhaba, Sarabhai and so many others who played their parts in its development.

Some years back, I had written about the scientific importance of Travancore while musing about Swati Tirunal and his observatory. We talked about the magnetic equator and why it is important, but I will review it again. The magnetic equator if you did not know passes through N Travancore, and in the 50’s it was close to Quilon (now Kollam), but one which had been meandering a bit South or North over the years. The line joining all the points on earth where the magnetic needle remains flat or horizontal is called the magnetic equator. The magnetic equator differs significantly from the geographic equator. The magnetic equator passes close to Quilon in India, a little north of Trivandrum, Nigeria, Guinea, Brazil, parts of Malaya and Philippines and finally Peru in South America. Its strongest magnetic section lies between India and Borneo. Directly above the magnetic equator, at altitudes of around 110 km in the atmosphere, exists a system of electric currents. Known as the equatorial electro jet, this has always fascinated scientists. The closer you are to the magnetic equator, the better placed you are to study the electro jet. In the early 1960s, there were very few places in the world close to the magnetic equator with adequate infrastructure to support research in this field, Travancore was one.

You know, the Trivandrum in the 70’s was a sedate place. We could cycle out from Kazhakootam to Trivandrum without difficulty. There were not too many vehicles even on the NH 47 highway and the roads within the city were not so difficult to traverse. English movies would come to Sreekumar and Hindi at Apsara. You could walk from Palayam through the university and the stadium to Statue junction, browse at the British council library, trek down the Ayurveda college junction and bypassing the over bridge, down to Thampanur where the railway and bus stations were located. Or you could trudge straight off past the Pazhavangadi Ganapati temple, Sreekandeswaram, the E Fort, the Padmanabha swami temple and end up at the Chalai bazar. You could walk in peace, drink a bonch (lime juice) from a roadside shop or thattu kada if one got thirsty. Even though the food scene was pretty good, be it veg or non veg, the VRR and the NVRR at the railway station stood tall for the connoisseur.

The richer sect would be sipping their drinks at the clubs around Sasthamangalam or at the Mascot hotel. Outsiders would be camped at some of the star hotels in Kovalam where one could spot bikini clad madamma’s and shorts clad sayips. Meander on and you would see lads sitting on low walls, smoking a Charminar or Scissors cigarettes, eyeing lassies passing by and making unwanted comments, especially near the women’s college environs (then sans the tough Louise Ouwerkerk who was once its principal)! In general it was a clean and disciplined place, except when the red flags came out and strikes, morchas, jathas or sit downs were announced, all converging near the secretariat.

Kazhakootam was considered a faraway place by the city crowd and home only to the sainikam’s (the Sainik school cadets). I presume most people had forgotten the ‘ettuveetil pillamar’ by that time, for one of them had been the lord of Kazhakootam. This was all in the 70’s, so now try imagining the Trivandrum of the 60’s!

If one had to start at the very beginning, you should not start with Vikram Sarabhai like most people would. You would actually start with Homi Bhaba. But I will get into his story another day, suffice to state for now that fortunately for us, Bhaba’s and Sarabhai’s life stories crossed when they both returned to India and pursued their scientific interests at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.  Later, while Bhaba returned to work in his field of Nuclear physics, at Bombay, well-funded by the Tata’s at TIFR, Sarabhai went on to establish the PRL at Ahmedabad, his home town, in order to work on Cosmic rays. The high flying Bhaba quickly established close connections not only at home with Prime Minister Nehru, but also with many eminent scientists all over the globe.

Travancore’s magnetic equator was known already to researchers across the globe. You must note here that in order to study cosmic rays, India is indeed a great location and many a scientist came over just to do that, be it in the southern regions closer to the magnetic equator or the higher altitude locations closer to Kashmir. When RA Millikan, a renowned scientist came over to do some studies in the 40’s, both Bhaba and Sarabhai worked with him, sometimes even borrowing American war planes docked in Bangalore, to fly at high altitudes of 10,000 meters for those tests.  Interestingly Sarabhai had just gotten married and took Mallika along with him to Kashmir during these tests!

Their rapport grew, so also their access to the top educational and research institutions across the globe, generating tremendous goodwill from many top researchers and scientists. Above all, both these brilliant men would teach as visiting professors in elite universities for short periods, providing much exposure to young talent of Indian origin studying there.

During 1954, Sarabhai continued his tests after installing a neutron monitor in Trivandrum. And then it was sometime in 1959 that NASA opened its doors to international cooperation and it made an offer to cooperate in space research with those nations who did not already have a mature space program. In India, the NPL with Krishnan in Delhi had spearheaded India’s space interests, but Sarabhai with his vast connections in France, USA, UK and the USSR found favor with NASA, mainly by working through his friend and mentor, Homi Bhaba who incidentally had by this time become the head of the DAE or Department of Atomic energy. How all that worked out is an interesting story by itself, with a space race of sorts happening in the background between India and Pakistan.

Sarabhai took the initiative by deciding to meet NASA scientists while on a trip to the MIT in the USA. He had two proposals, the first was to create a US - Indian ‘sounding rocket’ program from a launch facility in India near the geomagnetic equator. The idea was that NASA should provide much of the equipment while India would provide the location and the manpower. The second proposal was to have NASA help India establish and operate a satellite tracking and telemetry station. The plan projected Travancore’s unique geographical position, the sounding rocket proposal to study scientific phenomenon over the geomagnetic equator and the telemetry station to ‘close’ gaps in tracking satellites. NASA countered that they would like to discuss these matters with a focused and funded space organization in India rather than Sarabhai’s PRL, a private organization. Krishnan’s NPL did exist but somewhat conveniently for Sarabhai, Krishnan died suddenly and there were only Bhaba and Sarabhai left for NAS to discuss matters with. Nehru provided direction by hinting that if space were to be a priority for India, it would have to be somehow linked to its affluent and influential atomic energy program.

Sarabhai’s PRL was quickly acquired and merged with the DAE which was already well known to the US. By then, the USA had sold 21 tons of heavy water to the DAE, donated books for a library on nuclear energy, and trained and financed over 200 Indians in various nuclear energy facilities in the United States, all through Bhaba’s DAE.

Bhaba was the next to meet up with NASA next in the fall of 1961, visiting Wallops Island. The Americans were a bit reluctant to give rockets to India, quoting a lack of military cooperation between the two countries, unlike Pakistan. Quoting Siddiqui - As a gesture of cooperation, Frutkin agreed to seriously explore the possibility of helping India set up a rocket range. The plan to set up such an organization was already in the offing when Bhabha was being shown through NASA facilities in November but came to fruition early in 1962. The so-called Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was officially set up on 10 February 1962 on the recommendation of the Prime Minister’s SACC headed by Bhabha. To lead INCOSPAR, Bhabha appointed the only logical choice, Vikram Sarabhai from PRL.

In 1961, The UN also got involved in the dissemination of space related technology with the establishment of COPUOS, then listing 28 nations including India, was given a charter which essentially centered on ‘encouragement and facilitation [of space activities] rather than operation.
Of course, behind all this there was the influence of the cold war - the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations gradually enacted a more proactive intervention into India’s efforts to create a space program, driven by the twin and intertwined fears that India would gradually move closer to the Soviet bloc if not helped by the Americans, or that India would develop an atomic bomb if not diverted into space by the Americans.

NASA had found the idea of establishing a ‘facility for launching of sounding rockets near the geomagnetic equator most desirable,’ especially to study ‘high energy neutrons emitted from the sun during periods of great solar activity and suggested launching sodium vapor payloads built by Indians, to very high altitudes. By tracking the trails of the released (and colored) sodium vapor, scientists would be able to investigate the properties of the upper atmosphere near the geomagnetic equator. NASA would provide the rockets, training for scientists, and additional personnel while INCOSPAR would provide the scientific payloads for both experiments, personnel to operate equipment, and, of course, the launch site.

With the help of American representatives, Sarabhai orchestrated the creation of a working group (one of the three) on the establishment of an international rocket launch facility near the equator. Sarabhai’s proposal of making a UN sponsored facility in India was hastily approved by the Indian government within a span of 2 months. Nehru told the Indian parliament that ‘India has agreed to have a rocket launching station on her territory under U.N auspices for international use’ but that ‘only Indian scientists would carry out the work of the station.

One can always wonder about the haste and detect quickly Pakistani activities which had progressed farther, by then. In fact, as soon as the UN sub-committee announcement for the need for an equatorial launch site was made public, Pakistan (its pioneer was Nobel laureate Abdus Salam – who ironically had failed a mechanical test required by the railway engineers to gain a commission in Indian Railways, and moreover they decided that Salam was too young to compete for the job. He later attended Cambridge with Sarabhai!) announced that it wanted to host the program basing its claim on SUPARCO’s advanced program in cooperation with NASA. They had by June 1961, already launched two Nike-Cajun sounding rockets supplied by NASA (‘Rehbar I’ and ‘Rehbar II’) successfully from Sonmiani, about 56 km northwest of Karachi. Salam also informed NASA that he planned to invite Indian scientists to attend a Space Science symposium to be held in Pakistan the following March in 1962.

A frantic project was launched to zoom in and locate potential sites for the rocket launches. In July 1962, EV Chitnis, a student of Vikram Sarabhai was deputed to make a short list of locations near the magnetic equator. After 200 odd sorties in a Dakota plane, he boiled it all down to a couple of locations.

Now if one were to ask me if Sarabhai’s wife had a hand in all these during the 40’s (they got married in 1942), I would say No! for Sarabhai knew about the magnetic equator even before he met Mallika in the 40’s. Sarabhai was so much taken into Cosmic ray studies would have known about Caldecott and his magnetic experiments during his younger days.But, I can be sure they discussed Travancore, for Mrinalini was from nearby Malabar, the sister of Lakshmi Seghal and a daughter of Calicut’s Ammu Swaminathan. 

When the decision came to choose a single locale, Sarabhai invited two NASA representatives, R.G. Bivins, Jr. and Robert T. Duffy, and Laurence J. Cahill, Jr., the cosmic ray physicist from the University of New Hampshire. Later, Duffy and Cahill personally visited a number of the potential sites in Kerala; the consensus choice was a location within a 25-km radius around the town of Quilon (now Kollam) on the coast, partly because Professor Cahill determined that the center of the equatorial electro-jet is above a point very close to Quilon in Kerala. This was the Vellana thuruthu (White Elephant sandbar) location near Karunagapalli. Thumba was the second choice, and the Americans opined that it was too far from the electrojet.

The final choice between Thumba and Karunagapalli was debated for over two months. Sarabhai affirms that the first choice locale at Vellanathuruth was axed due to its very name and the prospect of it becoming a national joke should things not pan out! PR Pisharody from Palghat who was part of the discussions, recalled - I said: "Vellanathuruthu means `the sandbar of the white elephant." ``Pisharody, why do you want to annoy me?'' asked Sarabhai. "I'll not have it here at any cost! No white elephant. The Government will not like it, the United Nations will not like it. We won't get it through. I can't. Shift it. Find another place."

Thumba (Thumba, they say, gets its name from a medicinal plant with white flowers which once grew in abundance there) was formally chosen in Nov 62 as it satisfied important criteria laid by the sponsors. An airport close by at Trivandrum, the low population density near Trivandrum (both from a safety perspective as well as relocation of people who once lived in that fishing hamlet) and the possibility of quick rescues from the sea in case of booster failures. The intent if you recall was to launch sounding rockets to study the atmosphere, for astronomical studies, metrology and ionospheric studies.

There were other important reasons discussed from the Indian perspective. At that point of time, India was facing famines and were importing food under the US PL480 scheme. Studying the monsoon and its vagaries was also high on the list. As you all know, Trivandrum is where the SW monsoon makes its onset over India. So Thumba was ideal from that aspect too. A person responsible for getting it through the government bureaucracy was Lakshmi Menon (Refer my article on her if you want to get to know her), she too encouraged and supported the setting up of the ISRO in her home state of Kerala. Pattom Thanupillai was the Chief Minister (in 1962) and his interest was to have a place of importance in his capital.

The site selected at Thumba lay between the railway line and the sea coast, covering a distance of about two and a half km and measuring about 600 acres. The three persons who did much to assuage the angst among the local population about to be displaced were the local bishop Rev Peter Bernard Pereira, the Bishop of Trivandrum Victor Vincent Dereere (a Belgian) and the district collector Madhavan Nair. Then again, the fisher folk did not want their church to become a workshop as Sarabhai had originally planned, they eventually settled on allowing its use as a library. Kalam mentions that the prayer room was his first laboratory, while the bishop's room was his design and drawing office. It is believed that the church was originally built by St Xavier after the Parava conversions, later becoming the Magdalene church after a Magdalene statue was washed ashore.

Even though the locale had been decided and construction of the infrastructure had started, things were not easy for Sarabhai. Import difficulties meant that some equipment could not be brought in from the USA. The French CNES agreed to help based on Blamont’s special relationship with Sarabhai. Federov from the Russian Hydro Meteorological Service helped with vibration tables and a helicopter. NASA would provide four Nike-Cajun and nine Nike-Apache rockets, respectively, for each experiment, plus launch trailers, cameras and so on. A number of engineers were trained in NASA, such as R. Aravamudan and D.Easwardas from the DAE’s research center at Trombay; Pramod Kale, A.S. Prakasa Rao, and B. Ramakrishna Rao, all from PRL in Ahmedabad; and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a brilliant young engineer from the Aeronautical Development Establishment in Bangalore. There was also H.G.S. Murthy who had just gotten his doctorate from the University of Minnesota where Blamont had been based. Interestingly, they were all trained together with a batch of Pakistani scientists. Eventually, they all returned to India in 1963, ready for the first rocket launch. The facility was called the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station or TERLS.

I don’t believe any of the returnees were ready for Trivandrum or the primitive facilities at Thumba, after their comfortable tenure at NASA in America. Yes, they had cultural difficulties in the US, but well, it was no different for them in Trivandrum. Perhaps Kalam adjusted quickly, but the others took a while to adjust to the Kerala food and manners. Some Americans accompanied them too, namely Reginald R. Hindle and James F. Andrews, to help with the preparations, as well as a few other NASA employees from its main office in Washington, DC.

Their stay at the Indira Bhavan lodge near the secretariat, their experiments with Kerala food at the railway restaurant - Thampanoor, their riding around in bicycles to go places and get things done, their preparations of launch vehicles and rockets with payloads on the rear carrier and so on have been gleefully recounted in many newspaper articles, especially as connected to Abdul Kalam who went on to become India’s president after a great professional career and spending many years of his life at Thumba.

Ramabhadran (Dan) explains - In the early days, before the Gulf boom, anybody wearing a pant and shirt in Trivandrum was presumed to be a ‘Rocket man’ as the locals wore only a ‘mundu’ (dhoti) and baniyan (vest),”. Kalam would occasionally saunter along to Xavier hotel for his egg roast. “The church was the only solid building. The rest were fishermen’s thatched-roof shelters. So amidst pigeons, sweltering heat, humidity, constant power failures and non-existent roads we set to work to achieve Sarabhai’s catch-phrase plan of ‘leapfrogging technologies’.”  The Europeans after a series of failures had luckily decided to abandon their plan to build an all-European Satellite Launch vehicle. They were scrapping their brand-new satellite tracking and telemetry stations in Australia when Sarabhai sent ‘Buddy’, Murthy and Dan to lay our hands on the equipment. We got them at 10 per cent of the original cost.

Geeta, his wife adds - We would go in the evenings to the Rocket Recreation Club (opposite the Raj bhavan) which Dan and Kalam and some other pioneering young men had set up in an old colonial bungalow called Ingeldine. They enthusiastically converted it into a club with two badminton courts, a table tennis table and a room for cards players. Kalam, like the rest of us, was an enthusiastic badminton player.

On 21st Nov 1963, the first sounding rocket was launched. Many others have written about the great difficulties the group faced in getting the rocket to launch, so I won’t spend too much time on it. It was a fabulous event, but regrettably it did not get too much coverage outside India, with JF Kennedy’s unfortunate assassination occurring the very next day.

On 4 January 1964, a six-member team from the United Nations, representing its Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, arrived on a week-long visit at Sarabhai’s invitation to inspect whether the facilities at Thumba were suitable for official UN sponsorship. The team unanimously recommended to the UN that India’s offer be accepted. This was obviously a blow to the other nations who had been vying for this blessing, particularly, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, and especially, Pakistan. Another factor was enthusiastic support from the Americans, French, and Soviet delegations – especially the Soviets – who saw India rather than Pakistan as a more favorable spot for this kind of activity. On 21 December 1965, at the 20th Session of the UN General Assembly, the international body passed a resolution officially bestowing UN sponsorship of the Indian facility. In return, India offered to dedicate TERLS to the United Nations as a goodwill gesture.

If Thumba and TERLS was a fulfilled dream of Sarabhai, his relationship with Mrinalini suffered, a story which is a sad and complicated one. Bhaba had passed away in 1966, in a mysterious plane crash over Switzerland, Vikram had been tasked with so many more responsibilities. While things were outwardly looking up for TERLS, Sarabhai was under great stress due to a multitude of reasons, his departure from the family chemical business, the issues and rivalry at the DAE with Homi Sethna, his own relationship with Kamala Choudhry and its effects on the running of IIM-A, as well as the creation of ISRO. His special relationship with Indira Gandhi was also trending south. Unfortunately, Sarabhai passed away suddenly in a hotel at Kovalam, an event which is still discussed by those who believe it was unnatural.

After the death of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai on December 30, 1971, TERLS was renamed as VSSC or the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in his honor. The international community also named a crater on the moon after him.

Years later the Indian President Kalam hosted Geetha Aravamudan at the Rose garden in the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises at Delhi and she recounted - Those were wonderful days again when we relived our Trivandrum youth while walking in the Rose Garden or sitting next to the musical fountain sipping the “bonji” he had got specially made. He even served fried potatoes in a small dinner he hosted for us and proudly told me he had taught the cooks to make it the way he liked it.

ISRO a Personal History – Ramabhadran and Geeta Aravamudan
Vikram Sarabhai – Amrita Shah
Science, geography, and nation: the global creation of Thumba - Asif A. Siddiqi
From fishing hamlet to red planet – PV Manoranjan Rao and others
Wings of fire – APJ Abdul Kalam
Almost all the inputs for this article comes from the first three of the references below. Siddiqi’s paper covers much ground and provided many an original input.


Diwali, Bali and Onam

Their esoteric connections

Diwali is around the corner. But what is it really about? Which legend started the celebration? Why is it that Malayalis do not celebrate Diwali? What are the stories associated with this grand festival? How did the stories evolve? So many questions, I guess…but if you start at the very beginning, you can make some sense of it all. Let’s try.

Navarathri poojas had been underway in most parts of India, including Kerala. Out there in Pallavur, the seven day festival has just concluded, the furious drum beats have subsided to the sporadic taps during the sheeveli, Sridharan has perhaps settled into his well-earned vacation (nowadays he is a busy man, with a yearly sojourn to America conducting, teaching and performing with the Chenda in USA) and making sure his understudy’s were hard at work practicing on their own. The 10 day festivities after nine nights will culminate with Dussera and the next celebration to follow (some 21 days later) is the festival of lights or Deepavali (shortened or anglicized to Diwali) when chirags arrayed all around the house will be filled with oil, and the wicks lit by the children of the family. Sweets will be eaten, games will be played, bright dresses will be worn, songs will be sung, firecrackers will be burst and gods will be venerated. Very popular, Diwali is by now recognized as some kind of a national festival of India. Usually considered a joyous harvest festival, and a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, it is most commonly linked in the North of India with the return of the victorious Rama from Lanka, having defeated Ravana and rescued his beloved Sita.

But eons ago, it had nothing to do with Ramayana or Durga or such well accepted legends followed today. And to check it out one has to go way back, to the most original verses of Rig Veda which can variously be dated to as early as 2000BC or more commonly to 1500BC, well before the advent of Mahabharata, Ramayana and so on, which are relatively modern epics with many new gods and characters. Like everything else, as time elapsed, a number of new concepts merged with the practices of the ancient to create what we consider as Hinduism today. Brahmanism, Vaishnavism and Saivism made their impact and the advent of each resulted in insertion of bits and pieces to the epics and works we peruse today. This complex process took over 3,000 years and it is virtually difficult to trace out the details, a task left to such researchers specializing in theology. An orally passed on set of verses lost their sync (as the ancient version spoken Sanskrit used for these verses gave way to new languages, new script and new words and phrases) and was to some extent modified over time by changing conditions, was committed to text down sometime in the 3rd or 4th Century AD and since then repeatedly commented upon and analyzed.

A number of academics (during British rule) doing their studies on these puranas in India did mess things up a bit with their western concepts intruding into the analysis of something they found very difficult to comprehend, leaving behind inadequate translations which have lost some of the original meaning during what was otherwise painstaking work. Later researchers were either nationalistic or were guided primarily by current religious notions when reworking on these scriptures. But that is not what we started out to discuss, so let me not digress and let us get back to unraveling something of a mystery.

From various sources such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhavishya Purana we can gather that in the initial accounts where Indra was the main god, Bali was a great king, much revered. Indra is termed as Vasava in those pages. Bali is a wise sage of unwavering intellect and a teacher, a model man who had attained his goals according to Bhishma, was one who remained serene and not sad and was one who understood reality.

Brahma advises Vasava who was setting out in search of Bali - He remains unseen by us, like the sun that has set. He brightens all the directions. He faithfully sends the rains in due season. That Bali ... He is the Wind, He is the Ocean, He is the Sun, He is the Moon, He is the Fire giving warmth to all creatures. He is the Earth. That is Bali ...

Later on, a serious dialog takes place between the two and it is said that the gist of some of those gets replicated later in the Bhagavad Gita too. Indra states to Bali when they meet: You have understood the reality of existence. You are indeed a wise man, full of wisdom and penance. You see the meaning of the present moment as clearly as you would see a gooseberry in your hand. You have understood thoroughly the working of time. You have mastered all the sciences. You have full control over yourself and thus winning the admiration of all discerning people. By your intellect you have penetrated [the mystery of] this whole universe. Though you move about everywhere you remain free from everything, not getting attached to anything. The lower instincts rajas and tamas do not soil you as you have fully disciplined your senses. You find joy within yourself, free from all unbecoming attachment, free from all resentment. Finding in you a friend of all, free from enmity, possessing a serene mind, my mind is drawn towards you.

But it also becomes apparent that Bali is not quite prepared for negative events and deceit, for in an instruction, Prahlada his grandfather advises him that it is good to practice forbearance (khsama), but there is a limit to this since a king who is always good can be exploited even by his own servants (This may well be one explanation of how Bali lost his kingdom!).What we can also note is Bali’s association with the sun or Virochana, his father and the fact that during his reign there were no classes or castes. It was after his defeat that the Chaturvarna Vyavastha was instituted according to the Mahabharata.
Bali fighting Indra
A version (Taittriya Sanhita) explains a related event but sans Bali, as follows -This earth formerly belonged to the Asuras, while the gods only had as much as a man can see while sitting. When the gods asked for a share in the earth, the Asuras said, ' How much shall we give you?  The gods replied, ' As much as this she-jackal can go round in three steps.' So Indra, assuming the form of a she-jackal, stepped round the earth in three strides. Thus the gods obtained the earth.

We note from Fr Anand’s studies that while the original meeting between Indra and Bali resulted in an extensive dialogue, later texts point of a war which was won by Indra with support from Vishnu, his good friend. While Bali is mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Bhavishya Purana, and there are accounts of his wars with Indra and the next recounting refers to Bali’s encounters with Narayana. So we see that epics now start to drop Indra out totally and mention only his misdeeds against Brahmins, encounters between Vishnu directly with Bali and in later texts through his Vamana avatar with Bali.

In the present version of the extended story, Indra meets and defeats Bali, but Bali obtains additional powers from his teacher Shukracharya and attacks Indra. Defeating Indra, he rules over devaloka. Indira’s mother pleads to Vishnu and he agrees to take birth as her son, the dwarf Vamana. Vamana comes to Bali and requests a boon asking for the three steps as we all know. With the first step he possesses the earth, with the second he takes the heavens and with the third he pushes Bali down into the netherworld.

Thus, as time went Indra gets replaced by Vishnu, Vamana appears as an avatar and the Bali story takes the form which is popular today, depicting Bali as an Asura king. All texts end the story or event with Bali getting exiled to the netherworld but for some strange reason allows his visitation rights annually to visit his subjects. There are other sub plots and stories as well, with the entrance of Yama or Narakasura the lord of death and so on, but let us not get into too many complexities in this study.

In fact the discussions between Vasava and Bali are profound and experts even discern many similarities of text between these and the Bhagavad Gita which was written much later, so also the characters of Arjuna, Krishna and so on. While I can go on to provide a gist of these studies, I prefer not to because I do not understand them fully, not having read the original texts myself and since I do not trust any translation to be an honest one. So let us conclude that according to the scriptures or epics, there once lived a great and honest king, who fell afoul of the gods and was punished. He was kicked down into the dark corners of the universe, but his good deeds resulted in his being allowed to come and visit earth once a year. A great feast (maha-utsava) was also ordained to Bali by Vishņu who was pleased with the gift of the earth. Lord Vishnu makes a proclamation to his people - On the afternoon of the 15th of the Krishņa-paksha of Kārttika, Today is the Rule of Bali, enjoy yourselves. Later in the day we have the solemn worship of Bali and his wife, and alms given in memory of Bali.
Vamana with Bali and Shukracharya

This day of visitation was originally termed the dipa-utsava or Kaumudi and was instituted by Lord Vishnu in honor of the king Mahabali as a maha utsava (mega festival), to be celebrated over just one day, commemorating the great reign of this king. Bali per the accepted tradition was the king of the asuras, and thus the festival become an asura mahotsava. This feast is known as Kaumudi because on this day kumuda flowers are offered to Bali. Hence the first day of the bright half of Karttika is also known as Bali- pratipada.

How did this festival originally meant in commemoration of Bali’s rule get connected to the return of Rama? Perhaps Rama over time replaced Bali as a great king. Note here the similarity between Bali’s return from exile and Rama’s return after an exile. The western parts starting with Maharashtra and down to Kerala celebrate the return of Bali. This perhaps indicates that Bali (and consequently his wife Vindhyavati – Vindya southern mountain range) was a major king in the South West area. Other parts of today’s Bharat celebrate Rama’s return to Ayodhya. Or was it just that the celebration is meant to give the devotee a foretaste of good tidings around the corner (return of Bali) and to serve as an ideal for life here on earth? Bali could thus be the leader of the world to come.

Then again, what if Bali was not a king at all and was just a representation of the sun? His father was Virochana and so that is a pointer. The sun as you know rises and sets daily, and perhaps in the past was seen as going into or setting into a netherworld. What if the three steps were simply meant to signify sunrise, its visible period on an earth hemisphere and the sunset? The movement of the sun annually may also be observed in this connection, as it moves down to the southern hemisphere. The Diwali celebration comes after the autumn equinox. Days become smaller and the sun is seen lesser and lesser. Is that the significance of the departure of Bali into the netherworld, but for a longer duration? Is that why lamps are lit to bring in artificial light? Is the festival of lights thus an offering of lit lamps to the setting Sun-god in the month of Karttika? Is it a way of telling the Sun-god that we need his light, and that we look forward to his return to our hemisphere? Perhaps a practical way to look at it, I suppose.

Tragically nobody remembers the very core of Diwali or the Bali anymore, as prescribed in the many scriptures. The entire celebration has new concepts and stories attached to them. As we now see, the one day celebration ordained by Vishnu in the honor of Bali, an earthly king went on to become a 5 day affair. Today it is an event honoring a number of gods instead. It stretches between the 13th and 15th of the dark half of Kartika and the 1st and 2nd of the bright half (The three days incidentally, is accounted to a request by Bali for a compensatory three days against the three steps). The first set of 3 days is more connected with the world of the dead and the next two or 2½ days a celebration of life in the present world. The first day deals with prayers to please Yama and ward off untimely death, the second relating to worship of wealth (Dhanteras), birthday of Dhanvantari and later the third day is Naraka Chathurdasi, freeing man from the grip of Yama. Then comes the day of honoring ancestors and heralding the arrival of Bali, Lakshmi, much merrymaking and so on. With lamps lit through the Kaumudi festival, it took the practical name Deepavali. Other regional stories connect Diwali to the slaying of Yama Dwitya, slaying of Narakasura, Mahavira’s attainment of Samadhi, Durga or kali etc.
Now let us observe the accounts of the very same story as attached to Kerala. We have studied earlier that Onam follows the dark days of the monsoon, honoring the arrival of Bali. Malayalis are emphatic that Bali is their king, and it has been a time honored event since ancient times (That it was also observed in Madurai and some other Tamil areas is a point to be noted). People who have noticed these events and their connection to Bali in passing, have stopped and wondered about the time gap of approximately a couple of months between these two celebrations (Onam for those who do not know, comes a couple of months ahead of Diwali). Why do we have this gap? We will get to this by studying some regional calendars.

Vamana's 3rd step
The sacred month of Karthika (of the lunar calendar), the 7th or 8th month, typically falls somewhere between the end of October and the beginning of December corresponds to the Tulam month in the Kerala Kollam calendar or the Libra of Gregorain. The Onam festival lasting 3 days occurs in the first month of the Kerala New Year (Chingam) or Malayalam Kollavarsham, which is a solar calendar. In Kerala the official New Year (the Zodiac New Year by the way, is on the day of Vishu, the first day of spring) follows the dark monsoons and the harvest, per the Kollavarsham. Up in the Gujarat regions, looking at the Amanta Calendar (the one used in India for festivals), Kartika is considered to be the first month, the best month and the month of a New Year. It could be a bit mind boggling for the uninitiated, but that is how it is. So to put it all in a nut shell, the arrival of Bali heralds a new year, which for Malayalis is in Chingam and for others up North it is Karthika.

Now would that mean that Bali comes twice to his old kingdom? First in August-Sept to Kerala and later during Diwali? Take your pick, and if you believe in Bali, leave him to the people of Kerala and Maharashtra, since the others have forgotten him. You can also observe that Rama followers are not seen aplenty in Kerala and there is perhaps just one or two Rama temples in Kerala. Siva and Vishnu temples are quite common, but interestingly there is no Vamana temple anywhere! Anyway I guess we should let them celebrate Rama’s victorious return or any other event from the lot above. As you can conclude, we are quite flexible and democratic.

But one aspect is evident, Diwali is or never has been celebrated with gusto in Kerala and now I guess you know the reason. Others explain that Bali is a metaphor for a thanksgiving offering after a bounty of rice harvest during monsoon and the Onam season, while Vishnu is the metaphor of the Kerala sun and summer that precedes the Onam. Then again, you can choose a more practical explanation provided by some who term themselves pragmatic. The Malayalis spend a lot of effort, time and money on Onam and being a practical lot, they will not spend it again on Diwali. That is all it is, according to them. Whatever said and done, leaving aside the myths, lore and legends, most people celebrate Diwali these days. You can see and feel the warm golden glow of the festival season, and many a person gets together, like we all did during the last weekend.

There are some who are a bit curious and one such may ask “so where does Bali reside during the rest of the year”? Well, he was consigned to the netherworld or Patala and that will be the topic of an article presently in progress.

According to Narada who was a rare visitor to Patala - What," exclaimed the sage, "can be compared to Patala, where the Nagas are decorated with brilliant, and beautiful, and pleasure shedding jewels? Who will not delight in Patala, where the lovely daughters of the Daityas and Danavas wander about, fascinating even the most austere; where the rays of the sun diffuse light, and not heat, by day; and where the moon shines, by night, for illumination, not for cold; where the sons of Danu, happy in the enjoyment of delicious viands and strong wines, know not how time passes? There are beautiful groves, and streams, and lakes where the lotus blows; and the skies are resonant with the Kokila's song. Splendid ornaments, fragrant perfumes, rich unguents, the blended music of the lute, and pipe, and tabor; these and many other enjoyments are the common portion of the Danavas, Daityas, and snake-gods, who inhabit the regions of Patala.

That will be our next study destination.

Bali-Life bestowing Offering - Subhash Anand (Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 74, No. 1/4 (1993), pp.63-84)
Major Hindu festivals, A Christian appreciation (pp 103-132) – Subhash Anand

Pics – Vamana pics from Wikimedia, Indra Bali battle (courtesy Bonhams auction exhibit