Saturday, September 19, 2009
Onam and Eid
Today is Eid in the U.S. Since it is based on the lunar calendar it might be on different days around the world. So Eid Mubarak to all, around the world.
Eid makes me think of holidays and their significance. Eid is a festival of thanks after a month of reflection, prayer and fasting. There is something beautiful about that. And even though it is a lovely sentiment and one I grew up with, there is one holiday story that is complex and multi-layered and tugs on my emotions. Most of us know about Eid (perhaps I'll write more in my next posting) but few know about Onam.
This year, the Kerala celebration of Onam fell on September 2nd, when I had no Internet access. Onam is not a holiday I grew up with, nor one I've ever really celebrated. But for anyone who loves stories and anyone who lives to write or read, Onam tells a tale unlike any other.
Over 1000 years old, it is a celebration that has survived from Dravidian times, before Aryans arrived in India changing it forever. In fact, you can read into it the realities of the Aryan subjugation of Dravidian India.
Mahabali (the mighty and strong one) ruled over a prosperous and bountiful Kerala. More than that, he was a king most loved by his people for he was fair and kind and loved his people in return. He did all he could to ensure that none went hungry in his realm and worked tirelessly for them. Mahabali (or Mahveli) as he is still called in Kerala was also a powerful warrior and a devout believer, two facts that would change his destiny and that of his people. He waged campaigns, asked for boons from the fearsome Lord Shiva, and soon conquered all three worlds: this world, the world of the gods and the nether world. He was truly powerful and none dared antagonize him.
Of course their defeat had greatly enraged the gods and they waited anxiously for a chance, any chance to take back what was theirs and to teach this upstart king a lesson.
The opportunity arose when Mahabali held a mighty yagna a grand prayer and celebration during which he fed and gave alms to Brahmins and the poor. The celebration went on for days, but as the yagna neared its end there arrived a little Brahmin. His name was Vaman and he was irate when he was informed that there was no food or alms left for him.
He trembled with anger, and Mahabali, with his hands folded, begged his forgiveness. No one wanted the curse of a Brahmin and besides Vaman was his guest and no one who came to his yagna could return empty-handed. The king promised to give Vaman whatever he asked for.
"The land I can conquer with three steps," said Vaman.
Suddenly the little Brahmin grew large, so large that he blocked out the sky. Vaman took one step. And what a step it was, a giant step that covered the earth. He took another step and took over heaven, the realm of the gods. As he lifted one foot for his third step he asked Mahabali to give him space on which to set his foot down. Understanding that Vaman was not all he seemed, Mahabali kneeled and bowed his head. Vaman put his foot squarely on the king's head and pushed him down into the netherworld.
Vaman then disclosed his identity as Vishnu, the Great Preserver. Overcome by the sight of the god, Mahabali wept at his good fortune. He asked for just one boon. It was granted.
"I want to come back for one day each year," he said, "to see how my people are doing. To see if they are happy."
That day has been celebrated for at least a thousand years as Onam. But to me this is more than a story of conquest and defeat. It is also a love story.
For, on Onam, all of Mahabali's people dress up, cook good food, participate in the great snake boat races of Kerala, and make rangolis of flowers at their doorstep to welcome their lost king. They are sad inside, however, because of what befell him, sad that he did not remain with them. They pretend to be happy so that Mahabali can see they are well and can return to the netherworld without a heavy heart. Poor and old alike do all that they can to make Onam a celebration without rival. They put on a show to fool Mahabali so he will not be sad.
If you really analyze it you can see the gods as Aryans (fairer-skinned, from the north) and Mahabali (a southern king, dark-skinned and supposedly savage) as Dravidian. But there is something subversively beautiful about this story that has survived the ages. For the gods do not emerge as the heroes. It is Mahabali, the dedicated and caring ruler, the passionate warrior and true believer who lost the three worlds but never what really mattered: love. And he did it all with dignity and class. And this Onam like all others since I learned about the story from the family into which I married, I take one moment to think of Mahabali and his people.
And in my mind, I see Mahabali smile through his tears as he returns to his exile. And I see his people weep through their smiles as he turns his back. For they know they are bereft forever. And my cynical self smiles...and tears up as well.
So Happy (Very) Belated Onam. And also Eid Mubarak. May the new moon of Eid usher in a time of peace.
And may we all grow towards love and selflessness this year. I am going to try my best.