The Murder of Dalit-Bahujan King Mahabali and the Myth of Onam

James Michael

(For Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes)

onam

Onam is the only national festival of Kerala that has assumed a universal secular character. Other popular festivals like Christmas or Bakrid are closely identified with particular religions like Christianity and Islam. Although many Keralities participate in non-Hindu festivals, Onam assumes its certain universality in terms of its close identification with the 'essence' of Kerala. Onam celebrates the return of the mythical asura king Mahabali who was pushed down to the nether world by Vamana, an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Vamana, in the form of a diminutive Brahmin, asks for three paces of land to Bali and grows so huge that the king has to offer his own head for placing Vamana's third step. Mahabali, then, is pushed down to hell from where he is granted return only once a year. It should be remembered that, before the appearance of Vamana, Kerala was seen as a land free of moral ills like lies and deceptions. Anyhow, the 'gift of the land to Brahmin' myth goes well with other 'gift of the land' myths in Kerala like the Parasurama myth. In the Parasurama myth Kerala is founded by sage Parasurama who then proceeds to gift this land to Brahmins.


It is highly inaccurate to call Onam as a festival exclusive to Kerala. It is observed as Vamana Jayanthi, or the victory of Vamana, across various places in India. The relative importance of Mahabali could be a recent phenomenon—primarily as a result of increasing lower-caste assertions in Kerala. Dalits and other dispossessed groups of Kerala have, over the years, continued to express their trenchant critiques against the savarna ethos of Onam. If on the one hand the festival celebrates the ostracisation of Bali, on the other, it is marked by vegetarianism and other upper-caste cultural tropes. The myth of Bali strikes a chord with the marginalised of Kerala, who rereads Bali as a Dalit-Bahujan king who is subjugated and dispossessed of his land like them. If Mahatma Jotiba Phule used the term Dalit to denote the suppressed and broken people of his land, he also reread Bali as the king of the indigenous people who were usurped of their land by the invading Aryans. Thus Vishnu, in the form of the Brahmin Vamana, came to represent the usurper of the land of the indigenous people. Similarly, Dalits use terms like Adi Dravida, Adi Andhra, Adi Karnataka etc., across South India, to mark their indigeneity. In short, in this lower-caste appropriation of the myth the death of Bali coincides with the birth of the caste system or the emergence of all moral ills that plague the society now.


The Dalit Federation of Kerala, over the years, has conducted hunger strikes against the alleged cultural violence of Onam. This is also partly due to the resonances that the Onam myth has on their material lives. Thus a Syrian Christian family, which claims Brahmin status, keeps the maximum average land holding of 126 cents in Kerala. An upper-caste Hindu family, on the other hand, holds 105 cents and a Dalit family a meager 27 cents. Dalits are also relegated to colonies numbering about 13,000 in Kerala. These colony formations were the result of the skewed implementation of the celebrated land reforms policies of Kerala. The land reform and the education bills proposed by the first communist government of Kerala faced massive resistances from the entrenched Catholic Church (the poor Latin Catholics were subsumed under the over-arching term) and Nair leadership (representing 'Hindus') that the first government was dismissed by the central government and president's rule was imposed on 31 July 1959. Known as the 'liberation struggle', this resistance ensured that the first systematic struggle against upper-caste dominance was neutered and watered-down for a conceivable future. Incidentally, it was the death of a pregnant Latin Catholic fisher woman named Flory that turned the resistance decisively in favor of the upper-caste forces. The continuing and unfinished contestations over land rights by the Dalits and Tribals of Kerala in the form of Chengara and Muthanga land struggles etc., should be understood in this light.


It is no accident, therefore, that Onam, until then a largely provincial festival, was elevated to the level of a national festival by the succeeding government led by Pattom A. Thanu Pillai in 1960. For Onam's national status marked the victory of the upper-caste against the marginalized once again in the history of Kerala. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a state known for its high levels of social development still harbors 13,687, mostly 'Tamil' families who depend on manual scavenging for their livelihood (TOI). These families represent everything that the state has relegated to its unconscious to construct the secular Malayali identity that Kerala is now famous for. Like Mahabali, the 'Tamil' Dalit scavengers visit Kerala households only once a year to clean the shit in their septic tanks, or are found cleaning municipal areas marked as 'public' commons, only to be relegated back to a hellish life and forgotten for most part of the year. Thus, the celebration of Onam every year marks a symbolic violence against the lives of the marginalised in India. While Onam is celebrated on the 29th of August in 2012, the birthday of Ayyankali, one of the greatest Dalit leaders of Kerala, falls on the 28th of August and remains forgotten. The insistence to continue the celebration of Onam, therefore, is an insistence to celebrate the defeat of the struggles of the untouchables and the lower-castes of our country.

~~~

James Michael (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) for Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes. 

Other Articles from the Author

Other Related Articles

Affirmative action in workspaces – the tick box phenomenon
Thursday, 23 February 2017
  Dr. Sylvia Karpagam Large organizations working on human rights and development programs have a massive amount of resources and the luxury of separate departments for each aspect of... Read More...
ನಾಲ್ವಡಿ ಕೃಷ್ಣರಾಜ ಒಡೆಯರ ಕಾಲದ ಮೈಸೂರು ಸಂಸ್ಥಾನಕ್ಕೆ ಅಂಬೇಡ್ಕರ್ ಅವರ ಪ್ರವೇಶವಾಗದ ಕುರಿತು ಕಾಡುವ ಪ್ರಶ್ನೆಗಳು
Thursday, 08 December 2016
   ಡಾ.ಎನ್. ಚಿನ್ನಸ್ವಾಮಿ ಸೋಸಲೆ (Chinnaswamy Sosale) ಮೈಸೂರು ಸಂಸ್ಥಾನದ ಇಂದಿನ ಕರ್ನಾಟಕ... Read More...
The Janeyu in My News Story
Thursday, 01 December 2016
  Rahi Gaikwad Years ago, while studying journalism, a remark made by a foreign national classmate during a class discussion on caste has stuck in my mind till date. From what I remember, she... Read More...
The Making of the Region: Perspectives from a Non-Savarna Newspaper (Part II)
Monday, 28 November 2016
  P. Thirumal Continued from Part I Disciplinary axis From a certain disciplinary and a temporal axis, region has been studied as an objective entity in the form of center-state relations.[43]... Read More...
The Making of the Region: Perspectives from a Non-Savarna Newspaper (Part I)
Thursday, 24 November 2016
  P. Thirumal           Abstract This intervention concerns itself with elaborating the administrative category ‘region’. The federal units qualify as... Read More...

Recent Popular Articles

The Janeyu in My News Story
Thursday, 01 December 2016
  Rahi Gaikwad Years ago, while studying journalism, a remark made by a foreign national classmate during a class discussion on caste has stuck in my mind till date. From what I remember, she... Read More...
B R Bhaskar on Chalo Udupi: My Food, My Land
Friday, 28 October 2016
  B. R. Bhaskar Prasad was interviewed by Palani Samy and Nidhin Sowjanya for Dalit Camera before the Chalo Udupi rally. The text was translated from Kannada by Savitha Rajamani, Vinod... Read More...
When the Eye of Justice Is Jaundiced
Wednesday, 16 November 2016
  Gauri Lankesh Karnataka High Court Chief Justice Subhro Kamal Mukherjee is a man who proudly wears his belief on his forehead. While that might be his personal choice, what is problematic is... Read More...
ಎಬಿವಿಪಿ ಭಯೋತ್ಪಾದನೆ: ಪ್ರಸ್ತಾವನೆ
Saturday, 08 October 2016
  ಹಾರೋಹಳ್ಳಿರವೀಂದ್ರ (Harohalli Ravindra) ಉಗ್ರ ಹಿಂದುತ್ವವಾದಿ ವಿ.ಡಿ. ಸಾವರ್ಕರ್ "ಯಾರಿಗೆ ಭಾರತ... Read More...
ನಾಲ್ವಡಿ ಕೃಷ್ಣರಾಜ ಒಡೆಯರ ಕಾಲದ ಮೈಸೂರು ಸಂಸ್ಥಾನಕ್ಕೆ ಅಂಬೇಡ್ಕರ್ ಅವರ ಪ್ರವೇಶವಾಗದ ಕುರಿತು ಕಾಡುವ ಪ್ರಶ್ನೆಗಳು
Thursday, 08 December 2016
   ಡಾ.ಎನ್. ಚಿನ್ನಸ್ವಾಮಿ ಸೋಸಲೆ (Chinnaswamy Sosale) ಮೈಸೂರು ಸಂಸ್ಥಾನದ ಇಂದಿನ ಕರ್ನಾಟಕ... Read More...

Recent Articles in Hindi

पेरियार से हम क्या सीखें?

पेरियार से हम क्या सीखें?

  संजय जोठे  इस देश में भेदभाव और शोषण से भरी परम्पराओं का विरोध करने वाले अनेक विचारक और क्रांतिकारी हुए हैं जिनके बारे में हमें बार-बार पढ़ना और समझना चाहिए. दुर्भाग्य से इस देश के शोषक वर्गों के षड्यंत्र के कारण इन क्रांतिकारियों का जीवन परिचय और समग्र कर्तृत्व छुपाकर रखा जाता है. हमारी अनेकों पीढियां इसी षड्यंत्र में जीती आयीं हैं. किसी देश के उद्भट विचारकों और क्रान्तिकारियों को इस...

Read more

कृष्ण: भारतीय मर्द का एक आम चेहरा...!

कृष्ण: भारतीय मर्द का एक आम चेहरा...!

(कृष्ण की लोक लुभावन छवि का पुनर्पाठ!)मानुषी आखिर ये मिथकीय कहानियां किस तरह की परवरिश और शिक्षा देती हैं, जहां पुरुषों को सारे अधिकार हैं, चाहे वह स्त्री को अपमानित करे या दंडित, उसे स्त्री पलट कर कुछ नहीं कहती। फिर आज हम रोना रोते हैं कि हमारे बच्चे इतने हिंसक और कुंठित क्यों हो रहे हैं। सारा दोष हम इंटरनेट और टेलीविजन को देकर मुक्त होना चाहते हैं। जबकि स्त्री...

Read more

राष्ट्रवाद और देशभक्ति

राष्ट्रवाद और देशभक्ति

संजय जोठे धर्म जो काम शास्त्र लिखकर करता है वही काम राष्ट्र अब फ़िल्में और विडिओ गेम्स बनाकर बनाकर करते हैं. इसी के साथ सुविधाभोगी पीढ़ी को मौत से बचाने के लिए टेक्नालाजी पर भयानक खर्च भी करना पड़ता है ताकि दूर बैठकर ही देशों का सफाया किया जा सके, और यही असल में उस तथाकथित “स्पेस रिसर्च” और “अक्षय ऊर्जा की खोज” की मूल प्रेरणा है, यूं तो सबको...

Read more