Onam is celebrated as
Kerala’s national festival. It is the biggest festival in the Indian state of
Kerala. Onam Festival falls during the Malayalam month of ‘Chingam’ (Aug – Sep)
and marks the homecoming of legendary King Mahabali. Carnival of Onam lasts for
Mahabali was a dalit
king. If you go by the Aryan hierarchisation, lower castes and tribals often
took on the comportment of ‘asuras’ and ‘dasyus’. There are two
ways in which Dalits see Onam. For one, it is the day on which one of their
kings, Mahabali, was murdered. Both in Dalit and tribal folklore, the Dravidian
king known as Mahabali was their king. He was a good king, who strove for
equality and fraternity among his people. For an Indian king to establish
equality, fraternity and liberty… he could only have come from the Buddhist
tradition. But as a consequence of Aryanization, in the struggle for
Aryanization, many kings like Mahabali were slaughtered.
So you have this folk narrative among Dalits, among tribes,
the folk songs of the adivasis in Wayanad, for instance, that their king
Mahabali was killed by Vamanan (a dwarf brahmin).
As far as Dalits and adivasis are concerned, Onam is a Black
Day, the day their king was murdered, a day of mourning. But for the upper
castes, it’s a happy day, a day to celebrate, the day their power was entrenched.
With the murder of the most powerful king in the land, they had nothing left to
Having killed the king, they brought the natives, the tribes,
into the lowest level of their caste system. They introduced slavery. Onam
marks the age when slavery and the caste system were introduced into Kerala, an
age which began with the killing of Maveli (Mahabali).
The historicity is very evident. Mahabali is an Asura, Vamana
is Vishnu. Mahabali, the Asura, treated all his subjects as equals but Vamana,
the avatar of Vishnu, came and stamped Mahabali into the earth.
So the Dalit’s question is, how can we celebrate as a
‘festival’ the day our king was murdered? How do we celebrate the death of our
forefather? For us, it is a day of mourning, not for festivities. But the
Brahmins, using their power and influence, especially over the media, have
suppressed the real history of Onam and turned it into a festival for all
It is also told as
harvest festival which is again a lie. The time when onam is celebrating is not
a harvest season. It is the time just after the rainy season in Kerala and
farmers sow the seeds in their fields.
system in Kerala
of Kerala, began in the 3rd century B.C. following the advent of Jains and
Buddhists. It was a slow but steady progress resulting in far-reaching changes,
in all spheres of human activity. The Aryan immigrants who were generally
Brahmins and who stabilized themselves as the Nambudiris of Kerala were of two
typos. There were those who had taken up small trades and practically settled
down in Kerala.
‘jati’ system had its own peculiarities because the system that evolved here
was a form of hierarchy based on rigid codes of purity and pollution. Elamkulam
Kunjan Pillai (early historian of Kerala) argues that during Sangam age there
was no caste in Kerala but later, the land grants to the Brahmins by the ruling
kings led to Aryanisation of Kerala. After the fall of Perumal rule in Kerala
the Brahmins acquired vast tracts of land and became wealthy and powerful
landlords called ‘Janmis’. The Brahmins thus starts dominating and introduced
the caste system and Janmi-centres land system in Kerala. In course of time
numerous rules and restrictions became the order of the day. These were popularly
known as “Maryadas”. Numerous ‘maryadas’
were formulated to maintain the caste hierarchy system.
The ‘Pulayars’ were the lowest
caste in Kerala, they were the agricultural labour force. Pulayars were
considered as ‘slave caste’. They were brought and sold along with the land.
Dalit women were not allowed to cover their breasts and if they tried to wear
cloths, they were punished severely by the upper caste men. Dalits were not
allowed to walk freely on roads, when any upper caste person is coming on the
way there will be a person (from shudra caste) to announce the arrival of the
Nmboothiri so that the lower castes have to maintain a distance. This distance
is different according to the hierarchy of caste. A dalit person is not allowed
to see Namboothiri and even if Namboothiri saw a dalit he/she considers as
polluted and have to undergo purifying rituals. Also this dalit will be
punished severely even it can be death. They were also prohibited the free
entry to the market. Ezhavas were also an untouchable caste but they also
treated Pulayar caste as untouchables.
The false story
Story goes that during the reign of mighty asura
(demon) king, Mahabali, Kerala witnessed its golden era. Everybody in the state
was happy and prosperous and king was highly regarded by his subjects. Apart
from all his virtues, “Mahabali had one shortcoming. He was egoistic”.
This weakness in Mahabali’s character was utilized by Gods to bring an end to
his reign as they felt challenged by Mahabali’s growing popularity. However,
for all the good deed done by Mahabali, God granted him a boon that he could
annually visit his people with whom he was so attached. It is this visit of
Mahabali that is celebrated as Onam every year. People make all efforts to
celebrate the festival in a grand way and impress upon their dear King that
they are happy and wish him well. In this story the King Mahabali is said to
But the other story which I heard from my childhood was
that the Gods became jalousie in Mahabali’s growth and popularity. They felt
threatened about their own supremacy and began to think of a strategy to get
rid of the dilemma. They fear that the people will forget to worship them. So
they conspired to kill Mahabali.
It was said Mahabali was very generous
and charitable. Whenever anybody approached him for help or requested for
anything he always granted. Disguised as Vamana, Vishnu said he was a poor
Brahmin and asked for a piece of land. The generous King said, he could have as
much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as
could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed.
A learned adviser of the King, Shukracharya sensed
that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making the
promise. But, the generous King replied that it would be a sin for a King to
back on his words and asked the Brahmin to take the land. The King could not
imagine that the dwarf Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself.
Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana
began to expand and eventually increased himself to the size of cosmic proportions.
With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the
other step he covered the whole of the skies. He then asked King Mahabali “where
is the space for him to keep his third foot?”
The King realised that he was no ordinary Brahmin and
his third step will destroy the earth. Mahabali with folded hands bowed before
Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep
the promise. The Brahmin placed his foot on the head of the King, which pushed
him to patala, the nether world. There the King requested the Brahmin to reveal
his true identity. Lord Vishnu then appeared before the King in his person. The
Lord told the King that he came to test him and the King won the test. King
Mahabali was pleased to see his lord. Lord Vishnu also granted a boon to the
King. The King was so much attached with his Kingdom and people that he
requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year. Lord Vishnu was
moved by the Kings nobility and was pleased to grant the wish.
So Keralits celebrate Onam as welcoming of Mahabali.
But gradually the story seems to change according to upper caste interest.
Ever since the 10th century the dominant
castes have established many myths as history. They said that the Kerala was
created by Parasuram (an Avatar of lord Vishnu). The mythology of Parashurama
tells that he recoveres Kerala from Kanniykumari to Gokarnam from the see with
the help of his axe. If we take the chronological order of Dashavatara is
Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama
and Kaliki. Here in the dashavatara
itself we can see the irony, Vamana came before Parashurama and Kerala was
created by Parashurama. Mahabali ruled Kerala and Vamana killed Mahabali.
Before creating the Kerala how Mahabali ruled Kerala? If Mahabali ruled Kerala
how Vamana can kill him?
Genesis of Onam
It is the day of the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala
that is celebrated as Onam every year. The festival is celebrated as a tribute
to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. Every year people make elaborate
preparations to welcome their King whom they affectionately call Onathappan.
They wish to please the spirit of their King by depicting that his people are
happy and wish him well. The second day, Thiruvonam is the biggest and the most
important day of this festival. It is believed that King Mahabali visits his
people on the second day.
Onam celebrations are marked in Trikkakara, a place 10
km from Kochi (Cochin) on the Edapally- Pookattupadi road. Trikkara is said to
be the capital of the mighty King Mahabali. A temple with a deity of
‘Trikkakara Appan’ or ‘Vamanamurthy’ who is Lord Vishnu himself in disguise is
also located at this place. Nowhere else in Kerala can one find a deity of
‘Vamanamurthy’.This fascinating legend is artistically depicted at the
Suchindram Temple in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu.
What is the truth?
The two well-known and deep rooted mythologies are;
one the victory of Vamana over the king Mahabali and the other on the victory
of Parashurama over the see. Both Vamana and Parashurama were glorified as
incarnation of lord Vishnu. Though Onam is celeberated as national festival of
Kerala, it is all about greatest tragedy of the people of Kerala, surrender and
introduction of caste system, making the Brahmins the supreme owners of the
entire land, cows, gold, and women and making the natives mere slaves.
Historians of the ancient and medieval Kerala being whitewashing the brutal
crime committed against the people of Kerala by the Brahmins invaders. They
have deliberately been fabricated evidence to glorify the invaders and degraded
the people of Kerala.
The history of Kerala is very much related to the
arrival of Brahmins, the prolonged slavery of Pulayas the rise of Nairs, the
emergence of Ezhavas or Thiyas, the growth of Christians and Muslims and the
declaim of Brahmins that have lasting impact on the making of the present
Kerala society – its socio political development. Two major invasions had taken
place in Kerala – the first one was aimed at destroying the prosperous
Dravidian kingdom of Mahabali and the second one was the exterminate Buddhism
from Kerala and to establish caste system with external dominance of Brahmins
over the entire Kerala society, as narrated in the mythology of Parashurama who
recovered Kerala from the sea with his axe.
The lasting impacts of those two invasions can be seen
in the 21st century. Even though Buddhism was totally annihilated
from Kerala, the second invasion paved the way for emergence of Muslims and
Christians on the one hand and a divided Hindu society with the Nairs and
Brahmins at the top with greater freedom, Ezhavas at the middle with limited
rights and Pulayas at the bottom as slaves.
The Pulayas, originally the most prosperous and
cultured people of Kerala, have been subjected to slavery worse than African
slaves in America. While the African slaves in America could raise to any
level, the Pulayas still remain socially economically and politically backward
for they had been disintegrated besides denying education, social mobility and
ownership of land. Nobody in the human history had such a dreadful and
prolonged oppression and exploitation, in which both Islam and Christianity or
even communism become helpless witnesses.
The mythology of Onam tells the story of the glory and
prosperity of Dravidian or Pulayanar kingdom under Mahabali in Kerala where
everybody lived prosperity and high culture without any caste or creed
differences. The Bhramins and Kshathriyas, originally the ‘Semitic people’, had
invaded the north India and establish their supremacy. They were jealous of the
king Mahabali the ruler of Kerala and they with the help of treacherous and
cunning Vamana dethroned Mahabali, put him in dungeon, looted his precious
wealth, raped the women and the entire people were made slaves and scattered in
different parts of Kerala. In order to glorify Vamana, the Brahmins had
elevated him as the incarnation of the Lord Vishnu.
In an interview with Kafila, dalit activist MB Manoj
says, “Onam is a black day for Dalits, a day of murder, even as it is a day of
happiness for the upper castes”. According to him, Onam marks the beginning of
caste system and slavery in Kerala. He speaks of folk songs which criticise
Onam’s upper-caste comportment. There are also songs which talk about the
temple entry proclamation of Kerala. Dalits believe that Onam celebrates the
murder of their king by upper castes.
According to the Hindu Mythology the king Mahabali,
also known as Maveli, was a benevolent Asura King in ancient Hindu mythology. Mahabali was
the great great grandson of sage Kashyapa, great grandson
the grandson of Prahlada and
son of Virochana.
Present Debates on Onam
The Hindu Right’s engagements with Onam and associated
images like Mahabali continue to generate heated public debates in Kerala. The
latest example was a legal suit filed by the Hindu Aikyavedi (Hindu United
Front) against the
setting up of a Mahabali Memorialat
the Vamana Murti Temple at Thrikkakkara in Ernakulam district. The Aikyavedi
argued that Mahabali ‘the demon’ can’t share the sacred space with Vamana, who
is not only Mahabali’s annihilator but also a god. The presence of Mahabali is
said to have polluted the ritual hygiene of this Vamana temple complex.
According to the Puranas, Hindu gods were threatened
by the popularity of the charismatic leadership of Mahabali. But the
Brahmanical narratives consider Mahabali an impure asura and the rustic ‘other’ of pure Hindu divinities.
Consequently, Vamana pushed Mahabali to pathala – the nether world – after granting him the
consolation of being allowed to visit his confiscated land once in a
year. Thus, Onam has broadly been celebrated in anticipation of Mahabali’s
‘annual return’ to his own annihilated self.
In Kerala, Mahabali – the asura-avarna who is a victim of Brahmanical manipulation –
and his kingdom have been postulated as models of progressive emancipation.
This belief is prominent among the Shudra caste groups and many Dalit/marginal
communities. However, on the eve of Onam last year, Shah wished everyone a ‘Happy Vamana Jayanthi’ with the image of
Mahabali under Vamana’s feet, thus changing the narrative. That was a
strategic visual imposition which suits the ongoing political agenda of
Hindutva leaders. Through that singularity, the Hindutva groups intended
not only to redesign Onam as a Brahmanical victory over ‘lower’ caste groups,
but also remake the festival as an exclusively Brahmanical and ‘Hindu’
Nevertheless, Onam’s lived experiences and narratives
– which vary among communities and in micro-regions of Kerala – defy such
singularity. Hindutva narratives of Onam, its images and experiences have been
significantly different from Adivasis, Dalits, and intermediary castes groups
like Izhava, Muslims and Christians. However, one dominant factor that stood
out in the multitude of non-Brahmanical narratives is Vamana’s act of
betrayal, who removed Mahabali, or ‘Maveli’ as he is locally known, as an
autonomous ruler who defied the Brahmanical order. And that Maveli’s trusting
magnanimity caused the destruction of a non-Brahmanical Kerala past. Thus,
representing Onam as the celebration of Vamana’s victory over a Dravidian
cultural domain is seen as unpardonable. Critics have also warned of
Hindutva’s desire to weaken the region’s specific style of community
engagements and civic spaces that emerged through the multiple possibilities
that such festivals offer.
The trajectory of Hindutva’s expansionist agenda and
machinery at work in Kerala over a period of time proves that the ‘Vamana’
valorisation is not the product of some unthinking individual or
certain frontal organisations. The homogenising attempts of Hindutva groups
around festivals such as Onam and Pongal through such re-descriptions show the
umbilical relationship between the sustenance of its ideology and the
reinvention of myths. There is no Hindutva without myth, but the fact remains
that the multitude of myths – and the persistent paradoxes through which they are
born – threatens its very existence. Thus, calibrated attempts are being
made to create a grand narrative around Onam, along with other divisive
Successful at selling festivals through assertive
description, Hindutva uses Onam as an instrument for establishing itself in the
micro-regions of Kerala, following North India where it earned huge dividends
through such tactics. Instilling a hegemonic Brahmanical image through
Vamana as the conquistador of the subaltern has the intent of
tapping into the politics of emotion in Kerala. Through reassembling the
scattered Puranic and emotive imagination of the ‘upper’-caste population of
Kerala, Sangh parivar organisations try to construct an ‘upper’-caste Hindu
solidarity. Such Puranic signs and symbols can also be used to garner
ideological support and spiritual solidarity from upwardly moving intermediary
caste groups as well. Along with it, the persistent presentation of the ruling
Left as those who hold an anti-Hindu ideology has been part of the same
agenda which attempts to earn a long-term emotional dividend for the BJP
in the state. Through the continuous denial of narrative possibilities,
Hindutva has opened up a culture-based political strategy in the state as well.
The relative importance of Mahabali could be a recent
phenomenon—primarily as a result of increasing lower-caste assertions in
Kerala. Dalits and other dispossessed groups of Kerala have, over the years,
continued to express their trenchant critiques against the savarna ethos of
Onam. If on the one hand the festival celebrates the ostracisation of Bali, on
the other, it is marked by vegetarianism and other upper-caste cultural tropes.
The myth of Bali strikes a chord with the marginalised of Kerala, who
rereads Bali as a Dalit-Bahujan king who is subjugated and dispossessed of his
land like them. If Mahatma Jotiba Phule used the term Dalit to denote the
suppressed and broken people of his land, he also reread Bali as the king of
the indigenous people who were usurped of their land by the invading Aryans.
Thus Vishnu, in the form of the Brahmin Vamana, came to represent the usurper
of the land of the indigenous people. Similarly, Dalits use terms like Adi
Dravida, Adi Andhra, Adi Karnataka etc., across South India, to mark their
indigeneity. In short, in this lower-caste appropriation of the myth the
death of Bali coincides with the birth of the caste system or the emergence of
all moral ills that plague the society now.
The Dalit Federation of Kerala, over the years, has
conducted hunger strikes against the alleged cultural violence of Onam.
This is also partly due to the resonances that the Onam myth has on their
material lives. Thus a Syrian Christian family, which claims Brahmin status,
keeps the maximum average land holding of 126 cents in Kerala. An upper-caste
Hindu family, on the other hand, holds 105 cents and a Dalit family a meager 27
cents. Dalits are also relegated to colonies numbering about 13,000 in
Kerala. These colony formations were the result of the skewed implementation of
the celebrated land reforms policies of Kerala. The land reform and the
education bills proposed by the first communist government of Kerala faced
massive resistances from the entrenched Catholic Church (the poor Latin
Catholics were subsumed under the over-arching term) and Nair leadership
(representing ‘Hindus’) that the first government was dismissed by the central
government and president’s rule was imposed on 31 July 1959. Known as the
‘liberation struggle’, this resistance ensured that the first systematic
struggle against upper-caste dominance was neutered and watered-down for a
conceivable future. Incidentally, it was the death of a pregnant Latin Catholic
fisher woman named Flory that turned the resistance decisively in favor of the
upper-caste forces. The continuing and unfinished contestations over land
rights by the Dalits and Tribals of Kerala in the form of Chengara and Muthanga
land struggles etc., should be understood in this light.
It is no accident, therefore, that Onam, until
then a largely provincial festival, was elevated to the level of a national
festival by the succeeding government led by Pattom A. Thanu Pillai in 1960.
For Onam’s national status marked the victory of the upper-caste against the
marginalized once again in the history of Kerala. Therefore, it comes as no
surprise that a state known for its high levels of social development still
harbors 13,687, mostly ‘Tamil’ families who depend on manual
scavenging for their livelihood. These families represent everything that the
state has relegated to its unconscious to construct the secular Malayali
identity that Kerala is now famous for. Like Mahabali, the ‘Tamil’ Dalit
scavengers visit Kerala households only once a year to clean the shit in their
septic tanks, or are found cleaning municipal areas marked as ‘public’ commons,
only to be relegated back to a hellish life and forgotten for most part of the
year. Thus, the celebration of Onam every year marks a symbolic violence
against the lives of the marginalised in India. While Onam is celebrated on the
29th of August in 2012, the birthday of Ayyankali, one of the greatest Dalit
leaders of Kerala, falls on the 28th of August and remains forgotten. The
insistence to continue the celebration of Onam, therefore, is an insistence to
celebrate the defeat of the struggles of the untouchables and the lower-castes
of our country.