It was quite a sight. Women in white sarees with exquisite golden borders, shimmering in the sun, sitting on the ground making elaborate motifs with flowers. It is called a pookalam, one of them said, smiling as she looked up to me standing in my ragged trousers, and staring. It had been a few months that I moved to Hyderabad to pursue my Masters degree. The sudden alacrity and festivity on campus was all thanks to Onam. It is the annual ‘Mallu festival’, I was told. All Malayalis celebrate Onam, irrespective of what ‘walks of life they come from’. “Just like your Durga Puja,” they added when my Bengali identity was revealed.
This allusion to the universalist nature of Durga Puja and Onam was startling. Let this be clear from the outset, both Durga Puja and Onam are caste Hindu festivals.
Return Asura King Mahabali
Onam is propagated as the official festival of Kerala, hence its universal secular nature emphasised more than anything else. This happens especially with diasporic and migrant Malayali communities. The story of Onam is thus:
Mahabali was a mythical ‘asura’ king who ruled Kerala. He was known for his giving and charitable nature. Vishnu once assumed the form a vamana (diminutive) brahmin and asked Bali for three footlongs of land. The obliging king agreed. The vamana then grew in size and covered the sky and the earth in two steps and asked Bali where to place his third foot. The asura king offered his head and the vamana pushed him to the underworld. Mahabali was granted a return to his land only once a year, and Onam is the celebration of the king’s homecoming.
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’. It is also believed that under Mahabali, Kerala was a prosperous land, a land free from moral evils. Mahabali only become a detractor because he is an ‘asura’.
Onam and its Universal Secularism
Both Eid and Christmas is celebrated with equal aplomb in Bengal and Kerala. But they somehow remain to be religion-specific festivals, never acquiring the universal nature of either Durga Puja or Onam. For example, in Bengal, a lot of the ‘mulnibasi’ or low caste groups celebrate the Hudur Durga festival, where the asura Mahisasur is worshipped. They believe that Durga is a symbol of upper caste, Aryan domination over dalits. They have been organising exhibitions and discussions around their festival for some time now.
Nidhin Shobhana writes in Roundtable India:
As a child, I would always wonder why my house did not look as ‘clean’ as my Nair neighbour’s. Similarly, I always wondered why none of us Christians would look as ‘authentic’ as our Nair friends when we attended Malayalee Samajam Onam programmes. Jokes/comments such as ‘Christians do not take bath regularly’, ‘they do not know many Onam recipes’, ‘these women do not get the perfect triangle when they wrap a veshti around their waist’ - so on and so forth were consistently circulated (and are still circulated) in diaspora circles. So even if someone enthusiastically participates in Onam, perfects the art of wearing veshti and mundu, prepares every possible ‘pure’ vegetarian Onam recipe, claiming authenticity is still a different ball game. I also realized that we were not the only people who were subjected to such ‘agni-pariksha’ to prove our authenticity. There were others too. Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Ezhavas were also subjected to such humour killings.
Onam and the Beginnings of Caste System in Kerala
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.
The Indian Dalit Federation has organised several hunger strikes and demonstrations on Onam days in Kerala. Manoj also speaks about how most Dalits, tribals and backward castes eat meat during Onam.
Kesari, the RSS’s mouthpiece has brought out a special Onam edition this year. The cover story talks about celebrating the birth of Vamana who liberated Kerala from the rule of Mahabali. Has Onam now got its Hindutva stamp as well?
(This story was first published on 13 September 2016. As Malayalees celebrate Onam this week, this story has been reposted from The Quint’s archives.)