India is a land of festivals. There is perhaps no day in the calendar where some community is not celebrating a festival or the other. Most festivals have a recurring theme, usually the story of the triumph of good versus evil. For example, Diwali is mostly celebrated as the day of the triumphant arrival of Lord Rama in Ayodhya after slaying Ravana or as the day on which Krishna killed Narakasura. Dussehra is celebrated as the day when Lord Rama killed Ravana or Durga vanquished Mahishasura. Even a spring festival like Holi has the gory death of Holika, the sister of Asura Hiranyakashipu associated with it.
Onam is unique because it is not the celebration of good vanquishing evil. It questions the very norms of what is good and what is evil. There is no festival that is so rebellious in its spirit. We can see small strands of subaltern festivals across the country. The greatness of India is her seamless accommodation of differing ideologies. Even a popular festival like Dussehra that is celebrated by most Indians has its traditional detractors.
A small community in the town of Baijnath in Himachal Pradesh doesn’t celebrate Dussehra because of their respect for Ravana, the greatest devotee of Shiva. Greater Noida’s Bisrakh village believes Ravana was born there and mourns the death of their great son when the rest of North India celebrates Lord Rama’s victory. Mador village in Rajasthan also mourns Ravana’s death as they believe it was here Mandodari, Ravana’s wife, was born. The Asur tribes of Jharkhand and northern Bengal mourn the death of their hero Mahishasura on Vijaya Dashami.
However, no subaltern festival is as grand and as universal for an entire state as Onam. Kerala, where the other major festivals such as Diwali or Holi are restricted to the small enclaves of migrated communities, Onam is celebrated with great pomp and grandeur, cutting across the barriers of caste and religion. In the typical accommodative fashion of India, Vamana, the avatar of Vishnu who vanquished the great Asura emperor through deceit, also finds a place in the celebration. Thrikkakara Appan, the patron deity of the ancient temple of Thrikkakara village in Kochi, is Vamana and he finds a place at the centre of the flower pattern made in the courtyards of every home to welcome the Asura emperor. The irony of the great god made to wait in rain and sunshine for 10 days to greet the Asura king! Nothing could get more rebellious than this shift in roles.
If the Asur tribes’ celebration of Mahishasura is marginal, in Kerala the roles are reversed. A minuscule Brahmin population celebrates Onam as Vamana Jayanti, the day when the avatar of Vishnu was born. For the rest, it is the day when the legendary Asura emperor returns to see how his erstwhile subjects are faring. It doesn’t celebrate a victory in war in its all violent detail, nor does it involve branding the other as evil. The image of Onam is not the burning effigy of the vanquished or fiery tableau of death, but the amiable, almost comical, pot-bellied figure of Maveli with his palmyra leaf umbrella. It is a celebration of sacrifice and not valour. It is a reiteration of human values and not about explaining away anything as a play of divinity. Onam is about the unwavering commitment to truth and duty by an Asura king even when faced with sure annihilation.
As per Puranas, the gods cheated Mahabali not once, but twice. The first was when the devas sought the co-operation of asuras for the churning of the ocean. The agreement made between Indra and Mahabali was that they would divide amruta in equal parts. However, when amruta emerged, Vishnu took the avatar of Mohini and ensured that the asuras did not get even a drop. An enraged Mahabali conquered the devas. The devas knew it was impossible to defeat him in an honest warfare. Once again, Lord Vishnu was forced to take an avatar, this time as a dwarf—Vamana. The mendicant sought three feet of land from the Asura emperor when Mahabali was conducting a yajna on the banks of the Narmada. Mahabali’s guru, Shukracharya, warned him about the deceit. But Mahabali wasn’t someone who would go back on his word. The moment Mahabali gave his word, Vamana grew in size and measured the earth and sky with two steps.
Then Vamana asked where he should keep the third step and the Asura emperor lowered his head. Vamana stomped on the Asura emperor and sent him to the nether world. Once every year, Vishnu allows Mahabali to visit his subjects. In Kerala, that day is Onam.
In Maharashtra and parts of northern Karnataka, the fourth day after Diwali is celebrated as Bali Pratipada. Reminiscent of Onam, this day is celebrated in an almost similar pattern among peasants. As the Marathi saying goes, ‘Ida Pida Javo, Balika Rajya Yavo’—Let troubles and sorrow go and Bali’s kingdom come.
‘Bali Rajya’ is an ideal cherished by many people south of Vindhyas. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, the 19th century anti-caste crusader, proclaimed Bali Rajya as an alternative to Ram Rajya, which he thought an upper caste construct where Shudras like Shambuka didn’t have a place. In Kerala, for centuries, Onam is the celebration of equality in all forms—caste, gender and race. When Bali ruled, all humans were equal, there was no cheating, no black marketing, no cruel men, no infant deaths, goes the lyrics of an age-old Onam song. Bali Rajya has a place for everyone, even for Vamana. In its breadth and sweep of its vision, it anticipates our Constitution by many centuries. Onam is a celebration of humanity and equality. Let the kingdom of Bali come soon.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy