Kerala’s harvest festival Onam has turned into a cultural battleground since 2016. While the festival has been celebrated by virtually all communities as one of the secular milestones of Malayali culture, there is now an attempt to give Onam a distinctly (upper-caste) Hindu flavour.
So, as Keralites of all shades sat down to sadhya on Monday, a video of a group of Christian nuns performing the thiruvathirakkali (a dance form) sparked a virulent debate on social media platforms.
For the uninitiated, the thiruvathirakkali or kaikottikali is a dance performed by women – a prominent part of Onam celebrations in the state. Women traditionally dress in the kasavu mundu, and dance in a circle to songs praising the glory and prosperity of the state.
In the video doing the rounds on Monday, however, 10 Christian nuns are seen dressed in the traditional white habit and black head scarf, performing the dance around a pookkalam (floral carpet).
This seemingly harmless 45-second video was picked up by supporters of the Hindu Right, who criticised it as an attempt to appropriate a ‘Hindu’ festival.
"Kerala Church is in a spree to appreciate everything Hindu," wrote one user on Twitter while sharing the video.
Others saw this as a "dangerous trend," substantiating their "conclusions" by posting images of a pookkalam with an image of Jesus at the centre.
Image Source: Twitter
"Christians will appreciate Hindu rituals at the beginning, they will soon claim it as theirs," others claimed. They saw this as a "grand strategy of the Church" to hijack "everything that is Hindu”.
"Gradually these missionaries replace shiva with yeshu n make it yeshuvithara kalli," wrote one user.
Even a columnist with the publication Swarajya got into the act, writing, "Onam lamps with a cross on top, priests dressed in mundu n w a tilak, church elephants, Jesus Suprabhatam...soul vultures are everywhere."
Not an easy shift
However, right-wing efforts at re-describing the narrative of Onam have not gone down well with many others. In 2016, for instance, BJP National President Amit Shah posted wishes for Vamana Jayanthi instead of Onam.
Following Shah’s tweet last year, for instance, Malayalis of all shades went after the BJP National President with the hashtag #PoMoneShaji, and warned him not to meddle with the Onam legend.
Even Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan got involved, calling for an apology from Shah.
"By eulogising Vamana and denigrating Mahabali, BJP national president Amit Shah has humiliated Kerala and our festival Onam. The belief behind Onam is of equality and egalitarianism and it is a festival celebrated by all cutting across caste, creed, religion and other barriers," Pinarayi said in a statement.
On Monday too, Twitter users reacted sharply to the attempts to question the Christian nuns’ celebrations.
Reacting to Shefali Vaidya's tweet on the nuns video, journalist Anna MM Vetticad asked why the BJP was angry that Onam was celebrated in Kerala across people's religious preferences.
"Why is #BJP-#RSS so angry that all communities in #Kerala celebrate #Onam? Are they jealous or genuinely incapable of understanding harmony?", she wrote.
Others like senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and Rahul Easwar also celebrated the video, calling it a reflection of Kerala's "pluralist culture."
Proud of Kerala Church & Sisters, Nuns. Respect for learning Thiruvathira, a great part of Kerala Culture. your faith + our common culture https://t.co/FQFt38kcwG— Rahul Easwar (@RahulEaswar) September 4, 2017
What the fight over Onam is all about
There have been more than a few attempts to change the meaning of Onam in the recent past.
This was in line with a project of the RSS and the BJP, to depose Mahabali, the mythological non-Brahmin king celebrated at Onam. In his place, they want to install Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu, who tricks Mahabali out of his dominion of the worlds and expels him to hell. Mahabali is allowed to return to his kingdom once a year, and that is one of the traditional reasons for celebrating Onam.
For many lower and intermediate caste groups in Kerala, the legend of Mahabali is the story of a progressive and magnanimous shudra king who ruled over an emancipated and prosperous kingdom. Threatened by his acclaim and growing power, this reading says, the Brahmanical pantheon conspired to trick him and dispossess him of his empire.
Onam is also a traditional harvest festival, once celebrated over a whole month. So new clothing, feasting, singing, dancing and contests of physical strength like boat races are all integral to the festival and draw participation from all communities in the state.
The RSS and the BJP, with their traditional constituencies among upper and upwardly mobile castes, are looking to turn the festival away from these secular and non-Brahmin roots towards an explicitly Vaishnavite trajectory.
So, the RSS mouthpiece Kesari argued in a cover story in its Onam edition last year, that Mahabali was not even the ruler of Kerala, since Kerala did not exist during Vamana’s incarnation. According to this narrative, Kerala was only recovered from the sea by Parashurama (the sixth avatar of Vishnu) as penance for killing his mother and kshatriyas in the world. The Mahabali legend, the article argued, had been crafted on to tarnish the image of Hindu gods.
And this year, the VHP and other Hindu groups objected to a statue of Mahabali near the Vamanamoorthy temple in Ernakulam, on the grounds that it would hurt religious sentiments of Hindus. In this narrative, Mahabali is an impure usurper, whose defeat is a victory for Dharma.
Watch the video here: