Every year on the day of ‘Thiruvonam’, in the Malayalam month of Chingam, obese men with potbellies dress up as ‘Mahabali’, sort of the Indian version of Santa Claus, and descend upon the streets of Kerala, blessing people on the way. Across offices, residential colonies and schools, Mahabalis abound, dressed in king’s attire, complete with a palm-leaf umbrella. For centuries, the character born out of mythological lore, has been the focal-point of Onam, Kerala’s biggest and most celebrated festival. But this year, an attempt to dislodge Mahabali and add a religious hue to Onam is in order in the state.
Legends say Mahabali was a good-natured Asura king who cared deeply about his subjects. But soon, his influence transcended so much that the gods started worrying. They invoked Lord Vishnu who took the form of a diminutive brahmin ‘Vamana’ to diminish the king’s influence. Mahabali, who was a follower of Lord Vishnu, told Vamana the latter could ask three wishes of him. Vamana asked for three paces of land. Growing into a monstrous size, Vamana covered the heavens in one step, the earth in the second. And when there was no space for the third foot, Mahabali offered him his head. Vamana graciously steps on Mahabali’s head, pushing him down into the netherworld, but blessing him at the same time. Vamana also allowed Mahabali the opportunity to visit his kingdom every year. Malayalis, irrespective of religion and caste, celebrate Onam as a festival to welcome Mahabali, their beloved king, by decking the front porches of their homes with flower carpets and preparing sumptuous meals.
But this year, an article in the RSS magazine ‘Kesari’ called for the worship of Lord Vishnu, through Vamana, instead of King Mahabali. A Hindu Aikya Vedi leader even went to the extent of saying Lord Vishnu should be seen as a ‘freedom fighter who freed Kerala from an imperialistic force (Mahabali)’. The chief problem with that argument is how a religious flavour is being added to the Onam concoction, one that could disturb the cultural fabric of the state. Onam has been a festival, celebrated by people of all castes, religions and communities. The adrenaline-filled shopping rush, popularly known as ‘Uthrada pachil’, is witnessed on the eve of Thiruvonam and unites people without societal differences.
For schoolchildren, Onam heralds a ten-day vacation, which is spent arranging flower beds, doing last-minute shopping, delicious ‘sadyas’ in the afternoon and meeting with friends and relatives. Of course, the customs and traditions are often different as one traverses from Kasaragod in northern Kerala to Thiruvananthapuram, the southern tip. But the festival captured the essence of the state, across diversities without impinging upon cultural or religious differences. Being a harvest festival, Onam has also been instrumental in highlighting the farm produce in a state that was agrarian in nature till a couple of decades ago. Today, ironically, Malayalis have the ignominy of waiting for vegetables, often artificially ripened, to come in trucks from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to have a ‘sadya’ (feast).
There are no historical facts to support legends, but the myth of Mahabali has had a telling positive impact on Kerala, enough to leave a lasting imprint on its people. The idea of a noble king who did not attempt to divide his subjects, but rule them all equally is significant especially in today’s times when social order is invariably breached time and again. By calling for Onam to be celebrated as ‘Vamana Jayanthi’, it is needlessly stoking a controversy that can only puncture a hole in Kerala and its rich cultural diversity.