The words cult, culture and agriculture are interrelated. The profession of agriculture evolved at a time when man began to settle down at a place and live there. This also gave birth to the tradition of festivals. And festivals started evolving as harvest festivals once agricultural cultivation took firm roots in human history.
Festivals did not remain intact in a place or time but evolved over the period of time through cultural mixes along with the evolution of the concept of ownership of land and trade. In this process, most festivals lost their elements of culture and agriculture, and began to be associated with cult alone.
The first reference to Onam can be traced back to the Sanghom period. There is the reference of Onam in Maduraikachi where it is referred as Indravizha. It is referred to as the festival to celebrate the birthday of Mazhvan, the shepherd god. This god can be easily (mis)understood as Krishna. Then there are references of Onam being associated with Vishnu’s Narasimha avathar and not the Vamana avathar in the Vaishnavite culture.
In the Buddhist tradition, Onam is associated with the month of Sravana and is celebrated as the birthday of a Buddhist king.
In the Shaivite tradition, the festival was celebrated not in the month of Chingam but as Alpasi festival during the harvest season of the month Thula.
During the period of the Perumal rule, Onam had been associated with the Muslim king Cheraman Perumal who went to Mecca to convert to Islam. It was associated with his conversion.
Onam’s evolution can be seen evidently in the period of the Pandya kingdom where it was not restricted to the area which is now Kerala.
One of the peculiarities of the festival was that it has space for personalised celebrations and can be incorporated into various traditions. One of the reasons for Onam being associated with the state, though originally it was not restricted to this state alone, would have been because Malayali personalised it.
There was enough space for each sections, whether Hindus, Muslims or Christians to have a persoanlised Onam well within their cultural space.
Now there is a concrete attempt to appropriate Onam as a festival of a particular cult. This attempt has a political agenda of alienating and eliminating others as foreign and alien. Those who were behind the move are all well aware of the all-inclusive tradition of Onam. These are attempts with a clear-cut political agenda, and this should be exposed by historicising the context of Onam.
(As told to Sabloo Thomas)
Manoj Kuroor is a poet, novelist, researcher and college teacher....