Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2016 > Controversy over Kerala Onam and Vamana Jayanti

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 44 New Delhi October 22, 2016

Controversy over Kerala Onam and Vamana Jayanti

Sunday 23 October 2016


by Varghese P.J.

From time immemorial Onam has been celebrated for a particular period of time as an agricultural festival based on a common belief of Mahabali’s reign which provided welfare of all irrespective of caste, religion and other class divisions. As for the people of Kerala the only hero during Onam is an Asura king popularly known as Maveli. Hence Onam is considered as a popular festival of the region for all the religions, not a Hindu festival. It has been believed for myriads of centuries that Mahabali was a human king who sacrificed his life to protect his land and its people. It is a true fact that Vamana is regarded as the fifth incarnation of Mahavishnu, he is also revered and worshipped by Malayalees equally with their beloved Mahabali who once blessed them with a perfectly welfare state. The recent comment of the national President of the BJP, Amit Shah, with a term of Vamana Jayanti stirred a lot of controversies and disputes among all sorts of people in the country. This comment evoked several criticisms on this topic from all the political, religious and social circles all over the country.

The Onam season actually offers all kinds of plentifulness and sumptuousness for all types of people all over the country. It is one of the most beautiful and meaningful festivals in the world and has been an integral part of the Malayalee psyche for centuries. This festival is in popular memory the celebration of a bygone age of prosperity for Malayalees. It offers the nostalgia of a lost paradise. Malayalees all over the world still crave for a golden age of prosperity. It is believed that during those days the whole Chingam (mid-August to mid-September) was celebrated as the Onam season.

According to the legend, Diti and Aditi were the two wives of Kashyapa, the son of Prahlad. Diti gave birth to demons (Asuras) and Aditi gave birth to demigods (Devas). On one occasion Indra, the king of the Devas, went on war with the king of the Asuras. Mahabali, who defeated Indra and proceeded to occupy Indra’s territory. Kashyapa, after his penance in the Himalayas, returned to see Aditi weeping over the defeat of her son, Indra. Kashyapa asked Aditi to pray to Lord Vishnu. Since Aditi carried out the Vrata, Vishnu appeared before her and agreed to help Indra. Vishnu decided to teach Mahabali that the God almighty was still above him. Finally Vishnu was born as a boy to Aditi and was known as Brahmin Vamana. During his Aswamedha Yagyam, which was being performed on the advice of Guru Shukracharya, Mahabali once happened to declare that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this yagyam. Taking advantage of Mahabali’s declaration during the yagyam, Vishnu, disguised as a Brahmin, came to the yagyashala. Mahabali received the Brahmin boy with all traditional honours and courtesies. Mahabli asked Vamana what gift he desired. Vamana with a smile replied: “I do not ask for anything great. All I need is some land equivalent to three paces of my feet.” Disregarding his Guru Shukracharya’s repeated advice, Mahabali, determined to honour his promise, begged the pardon of his Guru and asked Vamana to measure out his desired three paces of land. Vamana grew in size until he towered above the heavens. With his first footsteps he measured all of the earth, with his second step he grabbed all of heaven. There was still one foot of territory that Mahabali owed him. Unable to find any other territory, Mahabali requested Vamana to place the final step on his head as a third step of land. Vamana did so and pressed him down to the underworld. The site where he placed his foot is said to be the village of Thrikkakara which means ‘the place of the holy foot’. This place is still the main centre of the renowned Onam festival celebrated in relation to the legend of king Mahabali.

After that Vamanan, the incarnation of Mahavishnu, came to be called Tri-Vikrama (victor of three worlds) triumphing over Mahabali. Before pushing Mahabali into the nether world, Vamanan was pleased with Mahabali’s generosity and granted him a boon. Due to his strong attachment to his subjects, the king Mahabali said that he would like to visit Kerala and his people every year. Lord Vishnu was pleased to grant the request. It is this homecoming of Mahabali Chakravarti which the Malayalees everywhere celebrate as Onam which falls exactly on Thiruvonam of Chingam. However, the celebrations span over almost one month starting with Atham, which is exactly ten days before, and ending with the next Thiruvonam, which falls on the next Malayalam month called Kanni.

All Malayalees, forgetting their sectarian outlooks, join together to welcome the auspicious ‘Thiruvonam’ day which is the only festival celebrated by the Christians and Muslims along with the Hindus. A temple was erected in the location where Mahabali was sent down to the nether world. This temple stands over a large area in Thrikkakara, Ernakulam in Kerala. This is the only one temple where Vamanan and Mahabali are equally worshipped. Nevertheless, the celebration of Onam is mainly centered on the worthy and benevolent king Mahabali whom all sorts of people welcome during the Onam season. Onam is probably the only ancient festival in India that is not attached to any caste, religion or God. Unlike Diwali, Christmas and Eid, Onam always carries the true secular character with the tag of a festival of ‘Malayalees’ and not of Hindus alone.

Kesari, the mouthpiece of the Kerala unit of the Hindu nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sangh (RSS), recently published an article urging the people to celebrate Onam as the birthday of Vamana. This article stirred a debate on whether the BJP was trying to brahmanise the festival. On September 13, the BJP national President, Amit Shah, made a Facebook post showing Vamana stepping on the head of Mahabali who keeps his hand folded while Shah himself smiles from a corner. ‘Hearty greetings on Vamana Jayanthi’ read the text. A Hindu Aikya Vedi leader even ventured to state that Lord Vishnu should be seen as a freedom fighter who freed Kerala from an imperialistic force (Mahabali). This statement shows how a religious flavour is added to the Onam concoction that could disturb the cultural fabric of the State.

Several vehement protests cropped up from all the political leaders of Kerala against the distorted wish of Amit Shah turning the term ‘Onam’ into ‘Vamana Jayanti’. According to the Kerala Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, Amit Shah has hurt the sentiments of the people of Kerala. He demanded a prompt withdrawal of the controversial greeting poster and an apology to the Keralites from the BJP President. Vijayan added: “By wishing Vamana Jayanti on the day before Thiruvonam, BJP leader Amit Shah has ridiculed Kerala, Keralites and the culture of Kerala. Onam is the national festival of Malayalees; what is being reflected in this celebration is the unity of humanity beyond the boundaries of caste and religion. To hurt the emotional sentiments of the people is not suitable for responsible political leaders. If Amit Shah has political decency, he should realise this, withdraw the Vamana Jayanti greeting, and render an apology to the Malayali community around the world.” Ramesh Chennithala, the Opposition leader, also criticised the BJP national President for ridiculing the Malayalees by wishing the Keralites Vamana Jayanti on the eve of Thiruvonam. According to him, it was a part of the conspiracy to alter the traditional concept of Onam and to Savarnise the festival. He added that Malayalees will not tolerate such efforts. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the State chief of the ruling CPI-M, too attacked the BJP President for a “hateful call to reject Mahabali and to celebrate Onam as ‘Vamana Jayanti’”. He further said that the BJP national President was ridiculing the Keralites. According to him, such a greeting was part of the ‘Hindu Rashtra agenda’ based on ‘Brahmin supremacy’.

However, BJP State chief Kummanam Rajase-kharan countered the allegation by saying that Amit Shah’s greeting came as Vamana Jayanti which is being observed in various places in the country. Social media, including Twitter and Facebook, has already witnessed a storm of tweets, posts and comments criticising and mocking Amit Shah’s controversial Vamana Jayanti greeting on the eve of Onam. It can be inferred that Amit Shah’s greeting is not technically wrong. Vamana Jayanti is celebrated across the country at this point of time, especially among the Vaishnavites, to mark the incarnation of the fifth avatar of Lord Mahavishnu. Most households in Kerala also have idols made of clay or wood called Thrikkakara Appan (the Lord of Thrikkakara, the only temple in the State where Vamana is the main temple deity), which is worshipped on the eve of the Onam festival.

However, such a greeting from the national leader hurt the sentiments of a majority of Keralites because the Keralites celebrate Onam mainly as the memory of a benevolent and impartial king and of a bygone golden age rather than the worship of one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Therefore, the Onam celebration always remains a festival beyond the limitations of the religious concept and class distinctions. In other words, the universality of such a festival should be kept intact for the benefit of the welfare of the State and for the harmonious existence of all kinds of people in posterity. The cultured people of Kerala will never allow any kind of political exploitation from any political party in the name of Onam, the national festival of all Malayalees all over the world.


Varma, Vishnu, ‘Why the Sangh needs to leave the legend of king Mahabali alone, for Kerala’s sake’, The Indian Express, September 13, 2016.

Business Standard, ‘Amit Shah’s Vamana Jayanti greetings to Kerala raises eyebrows’, September 13, 2016.

The Economic Times, ‘Amit Shah’s Vamana Jayanti tweet sparks a row on Onam eve’, September 14, 2016.

The author is a Research Scholar in Political Science, University of Kerala. He can be contacted at e-mail: varghesepj2007[at]

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.