Myths are powerful carriers of the subversive feelings, protests against injustice and aspirational conjectures of subjugated peoples. The story goes that there was neither inequality nor malfeasance of any kind during the rule of Maveli, before his kingdom was gobbled up by Vamana, the brahmin avatar of Lord Vishnu. Maveli’s distraught consort Vindhyawali and son Banasura strongly resented the injustice done to the asura king. The asuras prepared for war against the invader but were dissuaded by Maveli from shedding blood. The love for Maveli among his subjects was such that they stretched the story creatively: folklore has it that they pleaded with the ousted ruler to visit them every year. The diminutive Vamana, upon realising that the allegiance of those he had conquered couldn’t be easily swayed, decided not to oppose this request. So, come the month of Chingam, on the colourful day of Thiruvonam, this icon of the non-Aryan past ‘returns’ to the Malayali mindscape to a hero’s welcome.
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Here lies the politics of Onam and the Maveli myth. The invitation from the people to Maveli was a politically and ideologically loaded statement, a creative response to an unpardonable act of injustice done to a just ruler. The people were refusing to accept the hegemony of the invader. There are a number of songs which look back nostalgically to the halcyon days of Maveli’s rule which ended with the arrival of the gods. The bulk of these have been authored by members of the panan and parayan communities, dalits both.
Pierre Bourdieu conceptualises cultural capital as a form of power beyond the economic form, exercised through various non-economic means. The arrival of brahminism reversed all mechanisms of cultural production of the original inhabitants: those parts of their mythology which held pride of place were made into the antagonistic principle in the Hindu landscape. This robbed subaltern castes of their accumulated cultural capital, immediately relegating them to the bottom of the new hierarchy. The Tamil-origin god Murugan was one of the first folk gods to be Sanskritised. When the dalit gods were converted to Hinduism, the element of resistance in them faded away. In response to the injustices of brahminical theology and sociality, egalitarian faiths like Buddhism, Jainism and Ajivika developed; to preserve itself, brahminism penetrated into the popular tribal cults. This subsumption happened on both material and psychic levels: materially, the Aryans controlled the economic lives of the old inhabitants, a control which was established through Vamanic force and deceit; psychically, this material proximity and power was exerted to create a social hierarchy in favour of a new order. Witness in the following pages the egalitarian Ayyappa with his Muslim and Christian companions, Mutthappa with an impure dog by his seat, some of the teyyams, goddesses in the kavus, non-vegetarian deities, even the anti-hero of the Mahabharata , Suyodhana, in southern Kerala. This continuity of an older order is a story of a sustained resistance that colours the fabric of Kerala.
The glorification of the asura ruler Mahabali disrupts the decades-long attempt of the Sangh parivar — the cluster of hindutva organisations that are affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — to imprison Kerala within the walls of a fictional Hindu monolith, and their hopes, like that of their predecessors, to sell off an entire society to a crony clutch of billionaires and trillionaires. In this vein, on the eve of Onam in 2016, Amit Shah, then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), extended ‘Vamana Jayanti’ greetings to the people of Kerala. Shah had reason enough to put the myth on its head. Inevitably, the BJP chief faced furious criticism.
The memory of a time when everyone lived happily can be said to have prepared the ground for a series of protest and resistance movements against inequalities and other forms of injustice. It was so that Pottan Teyyam took on Adi Sankara on the question of untouchability and unapproachability; in more modern times, subjugated castes built an ideological apparatus by throwing up a bevy of creative writers and radical intellectuals who questioned the caste system in their own ways. Literature, political fora, conversion and re-reading of religious works were used in shaping an egalitarian ideological apparatus that spawned a new consciousness among the marginalised, and challenged the iniquitous status quo. Potheri Kunhambu’s novel Saraswativijayam (1892) focused on the need for dalits to receive an English education as a means of social progress, while his Ramayanasarashodhana , which appeared in 1893, was a frontal attack on brahmin oppression. Ayyankali (1863–1941) founded the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham in 1907 and confronted upper caste tyranny. Defying an upper caste diktat, the feisty champion of dalit rights rode a decorated bullock cart on a public road. His attempts at getting a pulaya girl into a government school saw the upper castes burn down the entire building. Despite being unlettered, Ayyankali worked tirelessly to secure educational rights for dalits. ‘If our children are not allowed to attend classes, weeds will grow in your fields,’ he thundered, and successfully led an agricultural workers’ strike in the year 1907, well before the birth of the All-India Trade Union Congress in 1920.
Narayana Guru, who coined the slogan ‘One god, one religion, one caste for mankind’, hit at the very underbelly of sanctimonious brahminism by consecrating a Siva idol in a would-be temple. When the brahmins questioned the right of an ezhavan to perform the consecration, the savant snapped back famously that he had installed an ezhava Siva. Did the scriptures proscribe the installation of an ezhava Siva by a non-brahmin? In an act of protest against caste tyranny, Narayana Guru’s disciples Sahodaran Ayyappan and P. Palpu embraced Buddhism. Poykayil Appachan embraced Christianity but soon discovered with dismay that caste prejudices followed him to the supposedly egalitarian faith too. When Appachan found that the Bible could play no emancipatory role in the life of dalit converts to Christianity, he burnt the holy book at a public meeting and many in the audience followed suit. He survived several attempts on his life by ‘upper caste Christians’.
Thus, the privileged castes faced regular and truculent challenges in this southern state long before North India saw the birth of combative anti-brahmin campaigns. Radical namboodiri youth of the day like V.T. Raman Bhattathiripad and E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who fought the deep patriarchal philistinism in their community, and the militant Left, which was voted to office in the state in 1957, drew inspiration from the life and ideas of the leaders of the subaltern movements.
An excerpt from Antigod’s Own Country A Short History of Brahminical Colonisation of Kerala (Navayana) by A.V. Sakthidharan