“When Mahabali ruled the land, all people enjoyed equal status and were extremely happy. None had any difficulty and there was no disease or decay. Infant mortality was unknown during the time and the people enjoyed long life. Agriculture was in its zenith and paddy yielded hundred times. All were extremely good and not a single corrupt or cruel person was to be seen. The people were all alike. People used only good gold to make jewellery. Thieves and cheats were unknown; measures and measuring rods were true. There was sufficient rain at the appropriate time; people read the scriptures and invoked deities with reverence.”
The passage above is a rendering of a famous Malayalam folk song into ordinary English by A.M. Kurup from his paper, The Sociology of Onam published in the Indian Anthropologist – it represents the excellence and social justice that prevailed in Mahabali’s ideal, ‘socialist’ country. The classical Onam story goes that Indra, who was jealous of the earthly achievements of Mahabali, an Asura, sent Vamana – the diminutive Brahmin avatar of Vishnu – to end Mahabali’s rule on earth. Vamana demanded three ‘paces’ of land from the generous and kind-hearted Mahabali, who immediately agreed to the Brahmin’s demand. However, before taking the paces, Vamana grew ‘as big as the sky’ and covered the entire earth as well as all the seven worlds in two paces, leaving the overawed king with nothing to offer him for his third step, except his own head. When Mahabali did so, the Brahmin pushed him deep down to the netherworld. However, he bestowed the king with a boon – an opportunity to visit his beloved (former) country and his subjects once every year. Malayalis across the world celebrate the ‘return’ of their Asura king to his usurped kingdom on Onam.
Onam is considered Kerala’s ‘national festival’ and it is celebrated with much ado. The festival has had tremendous influence on Malayalis and continues to be influential for people across castes and even religions. But Onam is also understood to have been a celebration of upper caste values and rituals, leaving many people wondering about why it was promoted by the secular state.
The answer lies in two very fascinating aspects of its origin story. Firstly, Onam imagines a socialist and egalitarian society and, secondly, it is about the undying spirit of the battle of the oppressed under the aegis of Mahabali, an Asura, against his Brahmanical oppressor, Vamana. These two dimensions of Onam have ignited the imagination of modern Keralites since the state’s inception. Kerala witnessed some epic struggles against oppressive Brahmanism that promoted not only untouchability but also ‘unseeability’ – the by-products of a strict and violent adherence to the norms of purity/pollution set by the caste-Hindus in the modern times. In this sense,Onam epitomised the struggle of the oppressed and the lower castes against the yoke of Brahminical colonialism.
The fault lines of socialist imagination
Onam’s socialist message was not lost on E.M.S. Namboodiripad (from his work in Onnekal kodi Malayalikal) who preferred the myth of Onam to the more overtly Brahmanical Parasurama myth, which identifies Parasurama as the creator of Kerala – he is said to created the state out of the sea and brought 64 Brahmin families to become the Kerala’s first inhabitants. Different versions of ‘Keralolpathy’ – anonymous accounts of Kerala’s origin – are known for their Brahmanical ideology and their bias towards the downtrodden. Namboodiripad declared, as the first chief minister of Kerala, his government’s goal to work for “a new Kerala, in which equality and freedom reign, in which poverty and unemployment will be unknown, will begin to emerge… Mavelinadu (the land of Mahabali), which exists only in our imagination, will become a reality in twentieth century.”
The idea of Mavelinadu was a powerful socialist conception that gave hope to the people at a time when caste and class boundaries were splintering the state across it various regions. Though much was achieved by the egalitarian and secular rule under the aegis of Marxist leaders and theNehruvian Congress, as far as social equality was concerned – Onam still represented upper caste Brahmin/Nair values. Mahabali was always depicted and idealised as an upper caste figure holding a royal parasol, wearing royal sandals and a Brahmanical sacred thread across his shoulders. Classical art forms and caste-Hindu rituals were portrayed in the media and social discourses as the ‘core- values’ of being a ‘Malayali’. In modern times, Mahabali came to represent a typical Malayali (male, mostly upper caste) migrant in the Persian Gulf. Both the king and his former subjects seemed to share the experience of exile and ‘return’ as a cyclical process. Much like the treacherous Vamana, the neoliberal policies of the central government rendered many people jobless and landless as a result of which the Persian Gulf, like Mahabali’s Pathala, emerged as an option to migrate to in search of work.
Apart from this, Onam has become a heavily marketed celebration during which the euphoria of buying and selling things overpowers everything else. On the governmental side, Onam also provides a vacation for ten days during which arrears and bonuses are distributed to employees and schools remain closed. The ‘Maveli stores’ – a government owned fair price store-chain – provides a cheaper option to buy groceries and other items needed for the celebration, which is bleakly evocative of the socialist imagination buried in the sound and fury of the capitalist market during this season. Private businesses thrive during the season as people crowd to buy almost everything from flowers, that are needed to make the flowery designs to ‘welcome’ Mahabali, to alcohol, fridges and televisions.
Adivasi myths of Mahabali
The popular myth of Mahabali, however, is not the only myth. There are many versions of similar stories that prevail in the district of Wayanad amongst the Paniyas and the Adiyas – former slaves of Brahmin/upper caste masters. In their versions, Brahmin landlords trick a tribal chieftain, always known as ‘Maveli’, by using various methods to usurp his land and to enslave his people. This researcher has identified at least five different Maveli myths in the district – all from the tribal community.
The recurring motifs of colonisation, Brahmanical oppression and enslavement/banishment suggest that these myths (which are also prevalent in other Indian states as well as other countries such as Thailand, Trinidad and Malaya) emerged as counter narratives against colonialism, Brahmanism, casteist oppression and possible as a powerful narrative against violent Aryanisation/Sanskritisation in the ancient, medieval and early modern periods.
Notably, in these tribal myths, Mahabali does not stand a chance to ‘return’ as he is almost always physically eliminated by the invading Brahmin lords. Now the concept of ‘return’ and exile, as I have already explained, are a reality for millions of Malayalis, since they constitute one of the largest Indian diasporic communities. People from Kerala have always travelled to places far and near such as Greece and Rome in the ancient times and Saudi Arabia in the medieval periods, as proven by historical evidence of ancient trade with Kerala’s trading cities. Adivasis, however, were enslaved and their land was grabbed by the feudal landlords, hence the lack of the ‘return’ motif.
Right wing appropriation
Even though the celebration of Onam, its socio-cultural dynamics and its inherent politics have all been widely debated from various points of view, the current attempt by the RSS and its political outfit, the BJP, has been exceptionally grave. What is more important is the way the new debate on Onam was hatched in the highest offices of both the outfits. An article authored by Unnikrishnan Namboothiri in RSS mouthpiece Kesari argued that the Mahabali myth is a non-myth and what is to be celebrated during Onam is the ‘birth day’ of Vamana – Vamana Jayanthi. The polemical deliberations by Kerala’s avatar of Sadhvi Prachi, Sasikala, who parroted Namboothiri’s arguments in a public speech, kicked up a storm this Onam season. As though this was not enough, BJP national president Amit Shah wished all Malayalis a ‘Happy Vamana Jayanthi’, carefully omitting any references to Mahabali.
The BJP’s attempt to manipulate popular myths to suit its right wing narrative is nothing new, recently it targeted JNU students for allegedly celebrating Mahishsur Martydom Day in JNU. In the two aforementioned instances, the right wing’s Brahmanical ideology of dividing people on the basis caste groups by re-casting myths is clearly demonstrated. There are two major reasons why this is a planned, strategised attempt by the top brass in BJP and RSS – firstly, the right is desperate to bring back caste-based hate politics in places such as Kerala where it is desperate to grow fast.
Secondly, by doing so, the Sangh aspires to alienate two of its main politico-cultural ‘others’ – the left and the minorities. So far, only the left has found the socialistic/subaltern messages encoded in the Mahabali myth appealing to its political aspirations. The right wing, on the other hand, thrives by dividing people and creating walls between them – a strategy they learned from their colonial masters. By dividing people on the basis of exaggerated claims, the right wing plans to strike hard at the very foundations of secularism and inclusiveness enshrined within the framework of democracy. By making Onam ‘Vamana Jayanthi’ and, thus, an upper caste Hindu festival, the BJP aspires to create a Hindu vote bank in Kerala and destabilise Kerala’s deep cultural coherence, unity and diversity.
However, what is even more shocking is the right wing’s relentless endeavouring to manufacture myths that suit its politico-communal goals. Hinduism is manipulated by the euphemistic terminology of ‘Hindutva’ – a violent interpretation of Hinduism – and the word ‘India’ is being re-branded as ‘Bharat’ and ‘Bharat Mata’, to the extent that anyone who does not shout the slogan ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ (victory to mother India) is quickly branded and humiliated as an ‘anti-national’ element. Similarly, cows are increasingly addressed as gaumata (‘cow, the holy mother’) and everyone who eats beef is depicted as an enemy to be eliminated. RSS has long been portraying India as well as cows as sacred religious signs depicted in calendars and posters as divine entities.
Such insensitive and monolithic interpretations are absolutely unsuitable in a country that celebrates its diversity – something the RSS want to demolish in order to pave way for what it aspires to achieve: the Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation). Unless every citizen makes sure that the diversity of India – mythical, religious cultural and political – is protected at any rate, what appears to be a diminutive threat at the moment might grow up to the sky only to push the very idea of India deep down into the pathalas of the RSS.
Vinod Kottayil Kalidasan is an ad-hoc assistant professor of English at Miranda House, Delhi University. He holds a PhD in English from JNU, New Delhi. He works on Adivasi traditions and histories in Wayanad, Kerala. The arguments and quotations in this article are mostly drawn from his article, ‘A King Lost and Found: Re-visiting the Popular and Tribal Myths of Mahabali from Kerala’, published in Studies in South Asian Film & Media.