Kerala is all decked to celebrate Onam, which marks the return of their beloved Demon King – Mahabali. However, the RSS in a recent cover story in it’s mouthpiece, Kesari had courted controversy by trying to change the significance of the festival, claiming that the festival marks the birth of Vamana, the diminutive Brahman who tricked Mahabali and banished him to the netherworld.
The change in the story has found few takers as Malayalis from across various religions come together to welcome Mahabali on Thiru Onam. Many people could be seen thronging to the famous Padmanabhaswamy temple near East fort. For the first day of Onam many shoppers had thronged to the temple to buy ceremonial clothes for their families as they prepare for Thiru Onam.
The temple has a rich Brahmin community who have lived for several decades. Many of them have told this paper that the Mahabali story is embedded in their Psyche which is hard to shake off with one article in the RSS mouth piece. "We have celebrated this festival for years, the story talks about the golden era of Kerala when we had a welfare state which was the envy of all and it was run by Mahabali, this is that time of the year when we remember that long gone age," said Ramaswamy Nambiar.
Kesari had argued that the festival marks the birth of the Brahman, Vamana, an avatar of the Hindu got Vishnu, and not the homecoming of Mahabali. The author of the article, K UnniKrishnan had said that there are no references in the scriptures supporting the widely held belief.
However, the Malayalis from all age groups recount the famous story. Annu, a ten year old said, " Mahabali was very kind and would give people everything what they wished for. He was the ruler of the all the worlds and the Brahmans became jealous so they sent Vamana who tricked Mahabali and sent him to the nether world. I think it is sad but at least he comes to visit us for ten days".
The CPI(M) had decried the sangh’ attempt at. "Brahminising the Malayali mind" and was an attempt at Hinduising a secular festival. Onam is celebrated across various religious commutes as Christian settlements in Nair dominated, Nemom were adorned with flower carpets and young girls were seen swinging from tree branches according to the custom.
The Christians have claimed that there are no differences between how the Hindus and their community celebrate the festival. " I may be wrong about a few details about the Mahabali story," confessed a visibly embarrassed Jenny Mathew. " But we all follow the same rituals, we lay floral carpets, play the same games and swing from the tree branches. Well also have the same food during the Onam Sadhya (Feast) and visit our relatives and later go out in the city and witness various festivities," she added.
Jenny’s mother, Maria Mathew sounded apprehensive as she said, " This is the first time we are hearing this concept of Vamana Jayanti celebration on Onam. I don’t know what to expect next," she said.
The RSS mouthpiece had further argued that Parashurama was credited with the creation of Kerala for Namboothri Brahmans so how can the story of Mahabali exist before the land’s creation. Furthermore, K.P. Shashikala, the notorious president of Hindu Aikya Vedi, known for her vitriolic comments against non Hindus went one step further and claimed that Mahabali was a tyrant who was deposed by Vamana who was a freedom fighter.
The Malayali community however denounced such acts as politicisation of religion. One such festival goer, Vipin Raj said, " The Sangh can’t win one vote with beef politics and other tricks that they used in North India. We are educated people and can’t be hoodwinked that easily and their strategy of using Onam will only backfire. Every community celebrates it as the homecoming of Mahabali. You can’t change a thousand year tradition can you ?"
The attack on Onam has not only come from the Hindu right wing as just a few days before an Imam of a Salafi mosque in Kozhikode district asked the community not to celebrate Onam. However, the Muslim community gave stiff resistance as many of them thronged near the temple complex for their Onam shopping.
"Forget about the same food we have in Onam Sadhya and the games we all take part in. We also wear the same clothes. I play with the Hindu boys in my community. My favourite game involves clinging to a bamboo tree which has been smeared with oil, we have to climb the slippery tree and take the prize which is hung on top, it contains a lot of money," said Anwar, a college student.
"Mahabali was not a Hindu King, he was everyone’s King and this is not a Hindu festival even though it looks like may look like one, he further said.
As the sun starts to set in the capital many festivities start to unfold with the men dressed in leopard skins dance to the rhythmic beats of the Chanda and various dance performers display their skills in Mohiniattam. Leading the procession is Mahabali, Kerala’s favourite pot bellied, moustachioed demon King wielding his Ola Kudda (wooden umbrella).
In a houses lit by the fire flies around the Padmanabhaswamy temple one can still hear the ancient ballad of Mahabali, " No inequality, no cheating, no stealing, no class division, no untouchability".