Onam: A Celebration of Kerala's Mythical Proto Communist Past

Cheeky cartoon depicting Mahabali throwing Vamana in the trash

Cheeky cartoon depicting Mahabali throwing Vamana in the trash

 

My home state of Kerala has this popular festival called Onam about life at the beginning of time when King Mahabali ruled over a proto-Communist utopia in which, "all were equal, it was a time of happiness with no misfortunes, no worries and no illness, and no children dying, there was surplus food for everyone and there were no evildoers", according to the Malayalam folk song.

What subverted this egalitarian order? Among the ancient Indo-Iranian tribes, Vedic Indians divided their deities into (good) Devas and (bad) Asuras, whereas their Zoroastrian cousins had the reverse connotations for the same dualistic pantheon, suggesting they may have cursed each others gods at some point before parting ways.

Accordingly Mahabali was an Asura "demon" who made the Devas jealous, so to subvert this "kingdom of heaven on earth", Vishnu takes the form of a Brahmin dwarf, Vaman, who takes advantage of Mahabali's kindness by asking for three paces of land. When this wish is granted, Vaman grows to the size of the known universe but has nowhere else to place his third step, so to save humanity, Mahabali, offers his own head and is banished to the underworld, a kind of hell.

In Abrahamic religion, the garden of eden, the original paradise, is negated by the "original sin" of Adam & Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, which Marxism rationalises by narrating that at the beginning of history, primitive communism was negated by the formation of class society, and thus, "from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority" to quote Capital Volume 1.

Similarly there's a popular theory in Kerala among Dalits and Communists that the Onam story is about the formation of caste society, India's "original sin", founded upon the murder of Mahabali the ancient Dravidian king, hence the controversy when three years ago, Amit Shah of the ruling BJP insulted Onam by declaring "Vamana Jayanthi" or "Victory to Vaman", the Brahmin dwarf who figuratively kills Mahabali.

The story goes that Vishnu allowed Mahabali to return to Kerala every year during the festival of Onam, or alternatively, the new ruling order reinvented Mahabali in their own image by making a virtue out of his subjugation by Vishnu, who later, according to a less popular myth, incarnates as the warrior Brahmin Parashurama, slaughters all the other warriors (Kshatriyas) on earth, throws his axe into the sea which recedes creating the reclaimed "promised land" of Kerala, which is then granted to 64 Brahmin families to settle.

When I was in Kochi in late 2017 with friends, taking photos on that well-known street with the large paintings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, one of the workers walked over and gave me a DVD of a documentary titled "Balimoksham" which covers the Onam story, which I will link below.

Onam Ashamsakal, or Happy Onam!

 
Jay TharappelComment