Festival of Onam, from legend to mirage

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Commerce as King: Amid the bustle of Onam shopping in Kochi this past week.
Commerce as King: Amid the bustle of Onam shopping in Kochi this past week.

V.R. Krishna Iyer

How Kerala’s once-egalitarian festival has been vulgarised by commercialisation

Onam as a festival is an ancient tradition that makes the people of Kerala rejoice, across community divisions and regional differences. It is based on the legend of Mahabali, a ruler who was extraordinarily generous to his people who were all peers in prosperity. His socialistic governance was ended by Mahavishnu. But Mahabali expressed a royal desire to see his people in the same prosperous state at least once a year. This desire is manifested in Onam, which every non-penurious family celebrates. This legendary event over 10 days is marked by flower carpets, feasts, fine new clothes, gifts… Businessmen now give a bonus to their employees, and middle class youth imbibe intoxicants. All this put together, the occasion makes the people as a whole an egalitarian fraternity with dignity and excitement. However, of late this grand occasion has been entirely vulgarised by an outrage of commercialisation. The mafia and the merchant class exploit it in every dimension. The craze for consumerism by the new wave of money-making mega-business groups is abetted by the media who profit from a surfeit of advertisements. Glitterati, gluttony and luxurious pleasures are exaggerated beyond measure. Some newspapers, in addition to their regular daily issue, distribute special supplements with a glut of advertisements. They are rich in illusion, tempting the youth and the fairer gender into expenditure beyond their means.

Onam has today become robbery, bankruptcy and alcoholism, fleecing the spirit of the festival. Even flowers are sold in shops. No more the tradition of children picking flowers from nature and displaying beautiful designs in front of every home and institution. Now more than ever before, everything is shopping and drinking and allied extravaganzas. What a pity that the socialistic pattern of society, with a secular content, is drowned in corporate business, ruining families by corrupting it to beg, borrow or steal and buy the joys of the flesh. This cultural counter-revolutionary process must be extirpated, the poor remembered and the true ethos of Onam restored to its pristine state of universal happiness in spontaneous felicity.

Let me recall the legend. When Mahabali was the ruler of the world and was generous to everyone in philanthropic excess, Mahavishnu tested the measure of magnificence of the people’s prince. He incarnated as a humble and diminutive Brahmin and requested the ruler for a three-foot stretch of earth as a gift. Maveli readily granted it, not knowing that the request was coming from none other than Mahavishnu, the Infinite Power. The first and the second paces of earth covered Maveli’s whole kingdom. “Where is the space for me to put my foot on the third step?” asked Vamanan, the dwarf.

The King never refused a gift and so, for the third step, he offered his head before Vamana. Down went the king into the bottomless depth. But as he descended into oblivion, the humiliated royalty, beloved of his subjects who were prosperous in equal measure, realised that the midget Brahmin who begged was really the Lord of Universe. He made a prayer expressing his last wish: ‘Lord, give me an opportunity, once a year, to see my dear subjects who were ever happy during my time, to behold them in the same happy mood as they were when I was with them”. The Lord, in his mercy, granted this glimpse of glory.

Onam is that occasion and all are happily equal as Mahabali comes to the earth and graces what was once his kingdom. The emperor and the subjects in limitless delight celebrates Onam day, and everyone rejoices by getting a gift from the elders and receiving the blessings of Mahabali.

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