Bengaluru: Demon king Mahabali won’t be amused. This wasn’t the deal when he left Kerala for the netherworld.
That’s because a furious debate is under way, on whether Kerala’s harvest festival Onam is indeed about the king’s return—as most Malayalees celebrate it—or about his tormentor, who sent him packing.
Legend goes that once upon a time, the Asura king Mahabali (or Maveli) ruled Kerala, his reign marked by joy, equality and prosperity in the society. The gods in heavens, rivals to Asuras, turned jealous, and Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu, turned up at his door disguised as a brahmin, requesting three foot-steps worth of land. When the king conceded, Vamana grew in size, occupying heaven and earth in two steps. With no space left, Mahabali bowed, offering his head to place the third step. Vamana stamped him down to the netherworld, just before Mahabali extracted a promise that he be allowed to return once a year to visit his subjects. Onam, a 10-day harvest festival, celebrates the symbolic return of their ruler.
Or so Malayalees were told.
Until, Circa 2016, that is.
Last week, Kesari, the mouthpiece of the Kerala unit of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), published an article urging readers to celebrate Onam as the birthday of Vamana. People bristled.
The article provoked a debate on whether the ideological parent of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was trying to “brahmanise” the festival. (Of course, there are brahmins who worship Vamana).
More was to follow this week.
On Tuesday, BJP president Amit Shah tweeted an image showing Vamana stepping on the head of Mahabali who keeps his hands folded, while Shah himself smiles from a corner. Hearty greetings on Vaman Jayanthi, read the text.
Going by the anger, scorn and trolling that followed, many Keralites seem to be in no mood to pick Vamana over Mahabali.
To be sure, the historical veracity of Onam has always depended on whom you ask. The Kesari article questions the very existence of Mahabali or Kerala itself during the times of Vamana.
Since Parashurama was born after Vamana as the next incarnation of Vishnu, and since Hindu mythology says Kerala was the land reclaimed when Parashurama threw an axe from Gokarna in Karnataka to the Arabian sea, Mahabali and Vamana could not have existed at the same time, the article says. In other words, it argues the legend of Onam consorts more to the Hindu avatar Vamana since he pre-dates the possibly non-Hindu Mahabali.
Some others, such as veteran journalist Anoop Parameshwaran, argue Mahabali is the real deal while Vamana is a figment of imagination. Mahabali or Maveli was most likely the ruler ‘Mavel’ mentioned in Sangam literature, he explained.
Subaltern studies suggest Mahabali was a dark-skinned Dravidian ruler who fought casteist upper class Aryans, which goes all the way back to the Aryan invasion theory in history—Again a contested arena.
Historical arguments aside, this debate has become heavily politicised. Both Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress have hit out against the BJP. CPM leader and chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself hit out against Amit Shah in a Facebook post on Tuesday, seeking an apology for wishing “Vamana Jayanthi”. Leaders of the top rung of Congress such as Ramesh Chennithala and V.M. Sudheeran also issued statements against Shah’s post on Tuesday.
The strong reactions from all quarters seem to have forced the BJP to soften its stance.
On Wednesday —the main day of Onam celebrations called Thiruvonam—Shah put out another Facebook post, wishing all Malayalees a “Happy Onam”.
BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan also issued a statement saying the party did not want to trigger a debate.
“Malayalees celebrate both Mahabali and Vamanan,” he said.
Meanwhile, most Malayalees are busy readying a sadya (feast), unburdened by the thick intellectual debate around.