Festivals are about collective identities and remembrances and Onam is no exception. The festival’s foundational myth speaks of a land where everyone was treated as equals and there was enough and more for all residents. An asura king, Mahabali or Maveli, ruled over this land until Lord Vishnu took the avatar of a Brahmin boy, Vamana, and cheated the king of his kingdom. Mahabali was banished to the netherworld but allowed to visit his people once every year. Mavelinadu celebrates the return of its beloved ruler by laying out a feast, invoking memories of a plentiful past. The remembrance of the great sacrifice — maha bali — of King Mahabali is the occasion for Onam. Or so Malayalis thought, until the other day when the RSS brass in Kerala claimed that the festival was in celebration of Vamana’s birthday. BJP chief Amit Shah’s Vamana Jayanti greetings followed and all hell broke loose. Shah has since clarified that his greetings were meant for Vamana Jayanti and had nothing to do with Onam but the Sangh Parivar leadership in the state has not retracted its view that Onam is about Vamana.
So, what is Onam about? There is no one defining narrative about the Onam myth, though Maveli is the central persona in all of them. The Mahabali-Vamana encounter is just one of the versions of the myth that gained pre-eminence when Onam got established as the “national festival” of the Malayalis. In his scholarly work, Malayaliyude Bhootakalangal: Onavum Samoohyabhavanalokavum (Malayali’s Pasts: Onam and Social Imagination), P Ranjith examines the many narratives about Onam and offers insights into the transformation of a diverse festive tradition into today’s Onam. He links it to the rise of print capitalism in Malayalam-speaking regions and the making of the Malayali identity in the 19th century and early 20th century. The Onam that emerged thus through an intense process of public debate and curation firmed up the festival’s link to the exile of Mahabali, the just ruler, by Vamana, and the establishment of an unjust order where inequality became the new norm. Mavelinadu became the lost paradise and an aspirational utopia for Malayalis to march towards. As notions of statehood emerged, Onam became an occasion to recall the lost paradise and renew trust in an egalitarian utopia.
Over the years, the Hindu roots of the myth were pushed to the background and the festival became a secular celebration. It helped that the private and public aspects of Onam celebration have limited religious overtones — the feast and the floral arrangements have become the defining features of the festival in recent times. This political idea of Onam needs the presence of Vamana, representative of a hierarchical social order, as the Other of the just ruler, Mahabali. And he can only be the villain, especially since Mahabali has been even interpreted as a representative of the subalterns. The Sangh Parivar’s attempt to reinvent Onam as a celebration of Vamana’s birthday could be interpreted as an attempt to reverse the Onam myth and restore the supremacy of Vamana.
Vamana or Mahabali is a debate that cropped up in the early decades of the 20th century. In his study, Ranjith discusses an article, Onam, Mahabali, Rigvedam, published in Unni Namboothiri (1927), the mouthpiece of Yogakshema Sabha, a platform of Namboothiris, where the author, C Kunjan Raja, situates the Onam myth in the Mahabali-Vamana story, which is narrated in Bhagavatam. He links it with the Rigveda and claims that Mahabali represents ignorance and his exile symbolises Vamana banishing ignorance. Ranjith reads this interpretation as an attempt by the author to establish the Namboothiri community as part of the pan-Indian Brahmin sphere.
In contrast are the many articles that sought to identify Onam as a pan-Kerala harvest festival. An essay by Sanskrit scholar Punnasseri Nambi Nilakantha Sharma that Ranjith quotes, makes the claim that Onam is a festival practised, though with variations, across the Malayalam-speaking land. Though he upholds the Mahabali-Vamana myth, Sharma believes that Onam is a harvest festival and its celebration has been pegged to the availability of paddy and fruits. However, the most popular of the Onam narratives, according to Ranjith, was Mahabalicharitam Onappattu (Story of the Mahabali Onam Song), which, between 1870 and 1960, sold about 15,000 copies, a large number considering the low literacy levels then. The author of this work has not been identified and historians aren’t even sure if it could be attributed to a single author but what is interesting is that Vamana is missing in this tale. The story, instead, is about King Maveli, who ruled from Thrikkakara, a town near Kochi and closely linked to the Onam legend. Maveli had asked his subjects to celebrate the birthday of Mahadeva, the deity of Thrikkakara. However, the festivities stopped after the king’s death. When an upset Maveli seeks an answer from Krishna, he lets the dead king revisit his subjects on earth once every year.
In the 20th century, influential writers like Kesari Balakrishna Pillai and NV Krishna Warrier sought to locate Mahabali in West Asia. In his historical writings, Kesari had tried to establish Mahabali as the king of Assyria, near present day Iraq, and Malayalis as his descendents. Warrier argued that Onam was a pan-Dravidian festival celebrated across all of the old Dravida land and finds evidence of its celebration in Madurai-Kanchi about 1,500 years ago. This was, perhaps, an attempt not just to establish the claim of Onam to be the national festival of the Malayalis, but also to build a lineage for them as representatives of the Dravidian race. In short, Onam has, for over a hundred years, served as a cultural tradition that defined the identity of the Malayali.
Perhaps, the finest work that sought to establish Onam as a foundational myth of the egalitarian utopia that Kerala aspires to, is Vayiloppilli Sreedhara Menon’s poem, Onappattukar. Epic in its scope, this poem turns Onam into a universal myth remembered by people in the plains of the Ganga, the steppes of Russia, the islands of Greece, China, the roaming gypsies, in different lands and languages. That was a time before the advent of history, before the birth of religions, when the perfect man had walked on the world. Those evolved beings had lived in perfect harmony, until Vamana cheated the king of earth and destroyed the world. Centuries later, with the advent of history, it is the turn of prejudiced Vamanas to walk the earth where once great humans lived. Despite the dominance of the Vamanas, the poet says, in the collective memory of the people lived the dream of Onam, the utopia to which man was destined to travel. Vayiloppilli’s Onam is the product of a time when modern Kerala was being dreamt of as a secular, socialist, cosmopolitan space which would consume all the divisive identities.
Decades later, that idea of Onam is being challenged. If the Sangh Parivar wants to refute the utopia represented by Mahabali, there is a subaltern critique that questions the universalist claims of Onam. Is this debate then hinting at the unravelling of the Kerala that emerged in the past century? Economists had started questioning Kerala’s growth model in the 1990s itself. Is this the turn of cultural Kerala to face uncomfortable questions? The debate over Onam could well be a battle for Kerala’s future. Onam, as we know it today, has been a product of the Malayali’s search to define her self. She may need to reinvent or reinforce the myth and exorcise the Vamana in her midst once again.