Onam: The Annual Sojourn to Egalitaria

The poetic origins of the 10-day long Keralite cultural cornucopia

By Anakha Jayakrishnan

Published: Thu 19 Aug 2021, 12:00 AM

“Maveli nadu vanneedum kalam, Manusharellavarum onnu pole…”

The age-old feisty Onam ditty goes like that. The authorship of this poem is mired in mystery. Some attribute it to an anonymous mythical muse from time immemorial, and others say it was penned by a socialist poet during the renaissance days of early 20th century Kerala, very much later and centuries after the demon king Mahabali, or Maaveli in a more ethnic and endearing tone, had been banished to the netherworld.

A rough translation that encapsulates the socialist spirit of the poem, may read like — “In the yonder days of Maveli, the demon king, everything was fair and kind on the land, and men lived equal, without discriminating each other.”

In its symbolic quintessence, it delineates Onam, which is traditionally a 10-day long jubilation culminating on the D-day of the most auspicious Thiruvonam, which is almost the finale, as a time to rejoice, celebrate and rekindle the spirit of equality and universal compassion. So paying tributes to the good old immortal king is akin to living a socialist dream, and in that sense savouring an experiential recipe made of utopia, nostalgia, mirth and bonhomie.

One is almost tempted to remember the French ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Perhaps an average Malayali, or sophisticatedly Keralite, the eternally peripatetic human specimen who may have put his footprints even in the mythical 14 worlds, can bask in pride that during the times of Maveli, we lived in an egalitarian world, which was not brought about after a violent revolution. But that is like building a political thatch roof over a cultural festival, and better we introduce Maaveli to the mise-en-scène now!

The King and God’s Envy

Maaveli’s story is mythical in its origin ideally begun with the starting line of `once upon a time’ to preserve its vintage charm, and then leading to the reinforcement of its universal import.

In short, it is about a do-good demon king ruling a green and pristine land scoring consistently high on the Happiness Index and attracting the envy of Gods ensconced in the celestial realm who scheme to send him packing. It is in fact a counter-culture story.

However, the Gods were kind enough to give him a 10-day annual parole from the underworld to visit his subjects during the harvest festival during the Malayalam month of Chingam. And that is what we now know as Onam — the return of the king who fell willfully to philanthropic machinations of the celestials.

Mahabali was a powerful king with a benevolent heart, but a fierce warrior too. In the mystical cosmography of the Indian epics, there are three primary worlds — heaven, earth and the netherworld. Mahabali and his clan had their traditional home in the netherworld but a perseverant warrior king he was, he conquered both earth as well as wrested heaven from the celestials. His conquests obviously shook the worlds, and Indra the god of the heavens, was particularly upset over Mahabali’s conquests.

Mahabali was an immortal since he had drank the elixir of eternity along with the gods and a confrontation would not have yielded any result. When a battle was out of the strategic drawing board, the next best thing for gods was to do a SWOT analysis on Mahabali, and before long they could espy the chink in the armour of this great king — a sort of Achilles’ heel — of benevolence and generosity. Before long, celestials pleaded to the supreme god to take up this pernicious errand, and he donned as a diminutive priest, goes to Mahabali and asks for three strides of land from his vast empire sprawled over the three worlds.

Legend has it that the moment Mahabali agreed to the demand the priest’s body grew giant like from the tiny boyish frame and in one stride he covered the earth and in the second the heavens and since there was no world left other than the netherworld, Mahabali offered his head to the priest for the third stride, sealing his fate to the underworld or Paatal Lok.

Of course, after the success of the mission of the celestials and as a fair deal to Mahabali whose humility was his bane in losing his lands and people, gods allowed him to return to the lost earth once a year coinciding with the harvest time. Keralites celebrate his homecoming as Onam, wearing Onakodi (brand new dresses), arranging the Pookalam (floral decorations) to bemuse the visiting king, playing on swings in merriment in golden sunlight, caressed by a balmy breeze that carries the scent of paddy fields and wildflowers.

The migrant’s nostalgia

Onam is no more a religious festival for Keralites. It is a cultural vantage point to spread warmth and harmony, which is why Malayalis all over the world take a headlong plunge into the cultural cornucopia of Onam and celebrate it with an infectious indulgence.

For migrants particularly, Onam is a spirited homeward mental journey and an opportunity to relive the good old days even in the limited environs they live. Perhaps one would feel that the expatriate Malayali population in the UAE are fortunate to live in a land of tolerance and mutual acceptance, where they can celebrate Onam with gusto.

For the millions of Malayali expatriates, Onam is as vibrant a celebration as it is in their home state as the ambience created by the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural demography of the UAE fosters mutual acceptance of the cultural uniqueness of each community. In fact, in many instances, Onam is a shared celebratory occasion for even non-Malayalis who have Keralite friends in the UAE. So in countries like the UAE, Onam is not just a nostalgia trip alone, but a cultural partaking of knowledge and universal camaraderie.

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