Journalist AV Sakthidharan says in an interview how he keeps coming back to the myth of Maveli when he touches unique features of the Malayali religious culture.

Features Books Sunday, December 08, 2019 - 18:23

Maveli, like Santa Claus, has been a nice little myth told to children celebrating Onam for the first time. Onam is what you might call Kerala’s Christmas, when every house is decked up – not with green trees and stars, but flowers laid out in pretty designs and long swings for the children and feasts in the noon. Maveli is a hero, with a brave and hearty story, who visits Kerala every year to see the people he had to leave behind.

AV Sakthidharan, a journalist of many decades, was initially going to write about just Maveli and the myth surrounding him. But it became so much more, and the book that came out in August this year came with the title Antigod’s Own Country with a subtitle – A short history of Brahminical colonisation of Kerala.

“That is why the book begins with the celebration of Maveli and concludes with the hope of the birth of a Mavelinadu. Since the large-scale Onam festival surrounding Mahabali (another name for Maveli) is unique to Kerala, I thought it would be advisable to expand its scope by touching on some other unique features of the Malayali religious culture. Don’t these features raise the question of how Hindu is the Kerala Hindu?” he asks. Sakthidharan is based in Delhi but well equipped with his knowledge of Kerala and its myths, one can see in the book.

To understand how Maveli went from the good old Santa Claus-like figure to raising caste questions, you have to know the context and the background. Sadly, you can’t just tell an old story of a good king who once ruled Kerala without talking about his religion and caste and all the many identities that people “need” to identify other people with. So Maveli is not just the nice King under whose reign people lived as one (the famous Onam song goes: Maveli naadu vaaneedum kaalam / maanushyar ellarum onnu pole) but he has to be an ‘Asura’ king, the enemy of the Devas – the lords sitting up in the sky and enjoying their powers.

The story goes that the lords who envied Maveli and feared that he’d overpower them, pleaded to the god Vishnu to save them. Vishnu, who has the habit of taking on many avatars, added one more to his list, adopted the role of the little-sized Vamana and tricked Maveli into giving up his powers and life. There is the famous ‘three paces’ request that Vamana makes to the generous Maveli that Sakthidharan was particularly interested in. But he found out a lot more about ‘Bali’, as Maveli is sometimes referred to as, in many alternative histories.

“The work on Antigod’s Own Country was a good education for me. I discovered that Bali is a subaltern icon in Maharashtra, while for some, he was a Buddhist ruler who provided an alternative to the Aryans’ chaturvarnya-based political paradigm. The Buddhist roots of ‘vidyarambham’ (initiation of tiny tots into the world of letters), Ravana’s popularity in some parts of the country and Joitiba Phule’s (anti-caste social reformer from Maharashtra) demand for renaming Hindustan after Bali, among other things, were surprises for me.  Egged on by various facets of the myth, I was convinced that the myth needed a closer look,” Sakthidharan says.

Maveli’s name came into national media some time ago when Union Home Minister Amit Shah wished people a Vamana Jayanthi at the time of Onam. This obviously outraged the people of Kerala. In the tale, Vamana had pushed Maveli’s head down to the netherworld.

Now, why did a BJP leader and many others outside Kerala feel the need to paint this new picture, blurring Maveli, Sakthidharan’s book asks. Reason: caste. The book details the coming of the Brahmins and contrasts it with the casteless Shramanism. 

The Asura king’s popularity was not working well in the political equation. “The invitation extended by Malayalis to Mahabali to visit them every year, despite being an Asura and a mortal enemy of the Hindu gods, has profound political implications,” the author says.

He appears to celebat Kerala has resisted all attrate this fact in the book, thempts at this caste whitewashing of the myth. But Sakthidharan doesn’t deny that casteism and Hindutva are making its presence felt in Kerala. It’s been too obvious after last year’s Sabarimala verdict, and a chapter added later to the book, addresses this.

“I agree that there is a sizeable Hindutva presence in Kerala. The Supreme Court judgment in September last year, allowing women of every age to enter the Sabarimala temple, came as a godsend for the Sangh Parivar. Sreedharan Pillai, the then BJP chief who is now Governor of Mizoram, gushed that it was a ‘golden opportunity’ for his party. 

The Sangh Parivar did tremendous work through its feeder organisations, like the khetrasamrakshana samitis, not just by projecting a Rama culture. Every supposedly Hindu god is given a Hindu label. Rama is not a popular god (in Kerala), but still, there have been efforts to introduce his worship. The observance of Karkitakam as the Ramayana month was the brainchild of the supremo of the Bharatiya Vichar Kendra, a Hindutva think-tank,” Sakthidharan says.

He adds: “Casteism in Kerala cannot be wished away. One reason for the growing clout of caste leaders is the brazen exploitation of caste loyalties of the electorate by political parties. The caste factor is taken into consideration while choosing candidates. The massive unemployment also leads to the phenomenon, albeit indirectly. The temples, too, have helped spread the upper caste hegemony. Some scholars have rightly suggested that educated people are going back to the decadent feudal past. At the same time, there are the so-called god-persons whose followings cut across religious and caste barriers.”

But he is not without hope. “I am not pessimistic. It is quite possible that in the long run people will see more clearly how frightening is the threat from fascism. That will make the masses and the opposition parties unite against the common enemy and build an equitable Mavelinadu.”