Onam’s journey from harvest festival to shopping carnival (Letter from Kerala)

September 21st, 2008 - 4:34 pm ICT by IANS  

There is a morning-after air in Kerala as the state recovers from the hectic annual Onam festivities.Onam, the most important day in the Keralite’s calendar, fell on Sep 12 this year. Keralites spread across the globe celebrated the festival with as much enthusiasm as their kinsmen at home.

Onam is built on nostalgia. According to tradition, on this day, Mahabali, the righteous ruler of ancient Kerala, visits his erstwhile subjects. The people, who remember his reign as a golden era, decorate their homes with flowers and put on new clothes to welcome him.

In Hindu lore, Mahabali is a demon king, whose power and popularity aroused the envy of the gods. Responding to their entreaty, Vishnu the Creator incarnated as a dwarfish Brahmin, named Vamana, and tricked the king into making a promise he could not keep. Before punishing Mahabali by despatching him to the netherworld, Vamana granted his prayer to be allowed to visit his people once a year.

Folk songs of uncertain origin, handed down from generation to generation, hail the age of Mahabali as a time when all men were equal, no one uttered a lie, and there was no deceit or falsehood of any kind.

The irony of a demon king being remembered as a just ruler whom the gods eliminated through deceit is easy to explain. Kerala enjoyed a measure of equality and prosperity under Buddhist and Jain rulers before the Vedic community gained control of the region 10 or 12 centuries ago and enforced the caste system.

The caste system in Kerala was so harsh that Swami Vivekananda dubbed the place a lunatic asylum. In the 20th century, social reformers launched campaigns that resulted in the destruction of the feudal order and helped the state achieve a level of social development comparable to that of the advanced nations of the world.

There is general agreement that Onam was the harvest festival of the region before it got mixed with the Mahabali story and acquired a religious complexion. It was an occasion for merry-making, but the main attraction was a fabulous feast.

In the feudal era, it was an occasion for the landlord to reinforce his control over the serfs. The men who toiled on the land made offerings to placate him and he demonstrated his solicitude to them by distributing gifts.

Within extended families in the agrarian era, Onam also served as an occasion to reinforce the latent paternalistic element in the matriarchal system. The uncle, who managed the affairs of the family, presented new clothes to all dependants.

Old-timers have recollections of a time when Onam festivities lasted a lunar month of 28 days. The celebrations left many families in debt. Over the next year they would toil and relieve themselves of the debt burden. Then the next Onam would arrive and they would be in debt again.

As agriculture declined - it is no longer the main occupation or means of livelihood of the people in Kerala - and the joint family broke up, Onam saw changes too. The Onam holidays shrank to about five days.

Onam is now commuting time for nuclear families. Couples usually join the Onam feast at the husband’s ancestral home and then travel to the wife’s ancestral home for the next day’s feast.

Some years ago, the state government decided to develop Onam as a tourist festival. A long elephant march, which it organized as a tourist attraction, had to be abandoned as animal lovers mounted protests against the cruelty to the pachyderm. Now it wants to promote Onam as a shopping festival.

Onam was always shopping time. But as the Gulf boom brought prosperity and turned Kerala into a consumerist state, the character of Onam shopping changed. From being an occasion to buy new clothes for all, it became the time to buy luxury goods of every kind.

This year traders mounted campaigns to sell expensive items like automobiles, electrical and electronic goods and jewellery. To accommodate Onam sales advertisements, channels cut into the time of programmes and newspapers raised the number of pages.

No estimate of the Onam turnover of the traders is readily available. But the government-controlled Kerala State Consumer Federation, which is a modest player, has said it achieved record sales of about Rs.2 billion this year.

The state-owned Beverages Corporation, which distributes Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL), reported a turnover of about Rs.1.75 billion, which, too, is a record. IMFL sale during Onam in 2003 was Rs.838 million.

The Beverages Corporation is a major revenue source of the state government. It contributes Rs.24 billion to the exchequer annually.

Every year there is a massive inflow of illicit liquor into Kerala from the neighbouring states ahead of Onam. There is no reliable data about the quantity involved.

Per capita liquor consumption in the state is 8.3 litres, the highest in the country. Punjab, its closest competitor in both income and expenditure, is in second place with 7.9 litres. The national average is about four litres.

(B.R.P. Bhaskar can be contacted at brpbhaskar@gmail.com)

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