I could not do the usual weekly update of my blog last week as we were busy with the “Onam” celebration of our college alumni here in the United Arab Emirates. “Onam” is the main festival of the people of Kerala in South India. It’s a harvest festival of mirth and plenty, when people are supposed to forget all worries and celebrate four days with song, dance and feasting. We make the “pookkalam” (floral carpet), have a sumptuous “sadya” (feast) in the afternoon, and there are various traditional games. In the Middle East, due to the abundance of expatriates from Kerala, Onam celebrations go on for literally months.
Belief is that the legendary ruler of Kerala, “Maveli”, comes to visit his subjects on that day from his abode in the netherworld: and we have to show him that we all are living in the lap of luxury as we used to during his reign which is regarded as a mythical golden age. As the following famous song says:
“When Maveli ruled the land,
All people were equal,
All people were happy,
And all free from harm…
There was no anxiety or disease,
Child deaths were unheard of,
Evil people could not be seen,
There were only the virtuous on earth!
There was no deceit or cheating,
Not even a trace of lying,
All the weights and measures,
Were according to the norms…”
This local king is now strangely entwined with the Asura (demon) king, Mahabali, of Hindu myth who was humbled by Lord Vishnu in his Vamana avatar. According to the original myth, Bali was an Asura – one of the permanent antagonists of the Devas, who are the ostensible “good guys” in the Hindu pantheon (however, their “goodness” is highly questionable). Bali was the grandson of the virtuous Prahlada, a devotee of Lord Vishnu. His only negative personal trait was his pride. Bali conquered all three worlds (heaven, earth and the netherworld).
The Devas were distraught, and rushed to Lord Vishnu as usual to intervene. Vishnu was loath to proceed against his devotee; but the Devas had to be pacified. Also, the god was upset that his devotee was subject to the sin of pride. So he took the form of a Brahmin dwarf (“vamana”) and visited the Asura king during the Aswamedha Yaga (Horse Sacrifice) he was conducting to cement his mastery over the universe. Bali welcomed the Brahmin boy and asked him what he wanted as an offering, according to custom. Vamana asked for the land he could cover in three paces.
King Bali was amused and granted the boon, against the advice of his Guru Shukracharya: and Vamana grew to a massive size, and paced out the earth and netherworld with his first step and the heavens with his second. Then he asked the king for space to put his third step. Bali could now recognise the dwarf for what he was: his lord, out to kill the sin of pride in him. Humbled, the Asura removed his crown and asked Vamana to put the third step on his head.
Lord Vishnu was delighted at the grand gesture of his disciple. Bali became “Maha” (great) Bali on that day: and Vishnu raised him to the region of Sutala, where he could reign forever without pride.
This myth has been interpreted in many ways. It is a classic story of the humbling of a great person, thus rounding out his virtues – a staple of Hindu myth. It is seen as a symbolic retelling of the treacherous takeover of Dravidian lands by the Aryans through the machinations of wily Brahmins. In Kancha Ilaiah’s book that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, there was even a very strange retelling where the Brahmin Vamana crushed the Dalit Mahabali’s head with an iron boot!
The classical myth has been appropriated by the Malayali, and the Asura king has been recreated as Maveli, the ruler of Kerala as mentioned at the beginning (maybe a symptom of the Keralite conceit that all three worlds are contained in his small fertile strip on the southern tip of India). However, the conclusion of the story has been modified and a tailpiece has been added. Instead of setting up Mahabali to rule in Sutala, Vamana kicks him down to Patala, the netherworld. Properly humbled, Maveli begs a boon of Vishnu – to be allowed to visit his subjects once a year, and see his fertile country. Vishnu agrees.
Thus “Onam” is born.
Of course, the country is no longer the egalitarian paradise it was earlier. But we should not let the monarch know that, lest we hurt his feelings: therefore we have to pretend. It is said that one should sell even his ancestral property to celebrate Onam!
The fact that Onam is actually the harvest festival of a bountiful country, and Maveli is supposed to come up from the netherworld, set a lot of mythical wheels turning in my mind. The first thing was the abduction of Persephone by Hades in Greek myth.
Persephone, the daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, was coveted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter did not want her daughter to go permanently underground, so refused marry Persephone off to Hades – and the Lord of the Underworld kidnapped her. The angry Demeter made the earth barren in retaliation. Hades had to return Persephone; but he tricked her into eating the food of the underworld before she came back to earth. Therefore, she had to spend part of the year underground – the winter months. Then she comes up along with the first shoots of spring.
This is an agrarian myth, developed around the annual cycle of the crops: and we can immediately see the parallel in Maveli, who comes back to visit his people during the harvest month of Chingom (August-September). The previous month, Karkidakam, is known as “drought-month”, when torrential rain pours down and many people would have starved in the era when the state was dependent upon the produce of the fields for its livelihood. So the golden sunshine of Chingom would have been seen as really divine – and the larders would have been full after a month of starvation.
I would also like to link this myth with the history of the immolated kings. Joseph Campbell, in his The Masks of God, Vol.I: Primitive Mythology, talks about kings among primitive peoples who were killed at the end of a certain cycle of years, as a form of ritual regicide (there is a curious story about the king of “the south Indian province of Quilacare In Malabar[!]” who publicly used to hack himself to death, but I take this with a pinch of salt). Campbell quotes from Leo Frobenius regarding the mythical significance of this gruesome act.
The great god must die; forfeit his life and be shut up in the underworld, within the mountain. The goddess (and let us call her Ishtar, using her later Babylonian title) follows him into the underworld and after the consummation of his self-immolation, releases him. The supreme mystery was celebrated not only in renowned songs, but also in the ancient new-year festivals, where it was presented dramatically: and this dramatic presentation can be said to represent the acme of the manifestation of the grammar and logic of mythology in the history of the world.
The dying and returning god is a motif which is as old as the hills. Krishna has promised to return every time Dharma weakens in the world. Jesus Christ is supposed to return, once and for all, at the end of the universe.
Our king, Maveli, returns every year to bless us with bounty. And as we Keralites spread out across the world, our king’s visit becomes more and more global.
Ultimately (who knows?) he may conquer the universe once again…