Amit Shah wishes ‘Vaman Jayanti’ on Onam

screenshot_20160913_164522It is customary for politicians to wish people on festivities. Doing so is supposed to give the audience a feeling that the politician connects with them and shares in their joy.

However, it is also possible for this to have unintended consequences in a different cultural context.

BJP President Amit Shah wished his followers ‘Vaman Jayanti’ (Brahmin Birthday) on Onam — a day when Malayalis observe Balipratipada (return of the just king Bali). While Balipratipada is celebrated around Diwali in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka, it is celebrated during Onam in Kerala.

To make matters more complicated, some sects in India do celebrate Vaman Jayanti on the occassion of Shukla Dwadashi in Bhdrapad, which falls today.

It is not clear whether Shah was aware of the difference in how Bali and Vaman are perceived in Kerala compared with how the myth is seen elsewhere and whether he was targeting his wishes at the above sects only.

However, coming close on the heels of an exhortation by a right-wing Hindu leader in Kerala to celebrate Onam as the day when Vaman delivered freedom to Kerala, the tweet has caused some unease.

Many Malayalis, especially from OBC and SC segments, see in Bali a great king who belonged to their community and who was exiled through treachery by outsiders.

According to Malayali legend, Bali — honorifically called ‘Maha Bali’ or Mahabali (the great Bali) in Kerala, was a great non-Aryan King whose rule was synonymous with justice, progress, peace and equality — a sort of ‘Ram Rajya’ for South Indians.

However, the ‘devas‘ (people who lived by Vedic rites) considered him a rival and an arrogant leader.

They sent a Vaman (Prakrit word for Brahmin), who sought three feet of space from the King for carrying out his religious activity.

Bali, being the just king that he was, obliged.

However, before the king’s eyes, Vaman suddenly became big (or numerous) and could no longer fit in the space that the king had allocated. Once the Vaman ran out of space, he asked the king where he should step, and the king — not the one to break a promise — showed him his head.

At this, the Vaman pushed the King out of his kingdom.

Onam and Balipratipada celebrate the annual return of the great king to his old country.

Some believe that the tale is the mythified rendition of the events surrounding the exile of a great non-Aryan king by Aryans.

Though some interpretations, particularly in Gujarat and Maharashtra, seek to justify the actions of the Vaman, the Kerala version of the myth usually includes no such efforts, and it’s Mahabali who is always the hero.