Diwali in Kerala


It’s Diwali. The whole of India celebrate the festival though the legends that go with it are different in different parts of the country. Perhaps Kerala is the only State in India where this festival is not celebrated in a big way. In my younger days we were not even aware of such a festival passing by – no lamps, no firecrackers and no sweets. It was just another holiday in the calendar. But I remember some of our Hindu neighbours taking a detailed early morning oil bath on Diwali day. This was perhaps a borrowed tradition from other States having severe water scarcity as Keralites even otherwise take bath at least twice a day. And interestingly there is a popular Malayalam saying about diwali bath implying squandering away all your savings. I think this lackluster celebration of Diwali reflects in more than one way the essence of Kerala – the hard nut of BJP. It may not be easy for them to crack it with their repeated rallies to the CPM headquarters with angry slogans as they are barking up the wrong tree.

There could be many reasons for this lesser enthusiasm for Diwali in Kerala. As per the leading legend the festival commemorates Lord Rama’s home coming after fourteen years in exile and Rama does not appear to be the favorite of gods among the Hindus of Kerala, though many of them religiously read the Ramayana and recite rama japa every evening.  Sree Ramachandra is one of the most popular deities in Hinduism elsewhere but none of the 20 most famous temples (be it Sabarimala, Guruvayur, Chottanikkara, Ambalapuzha, Ettumanur, Thiruvanchikulam, Lokanarkavu, Parassinikadavu etc) in Kerala have Sree Ram as the presiding deity.

Another reason I can think of is that we Keralites are more keen to celebrate festivals like Onam and  Vishu which are more secular in nature and of course Christmas and Bakrid too in recognition of the minorities around. The traditional harvest festival, Onam has always ruled the number one slot among festivals in Kerala since centuries. Seven days of frenzied celebrations of shopping, mass spending, socio cultural celebrations, sports, booze, feasts and fireworks may not permit another big festival too close on the heels. So essentially what rest of India does for Diwali, Keralites have already done. By the time Diwali hits, Keralites are dead broke. They already had their “diwali bath” at Onam. The rest of us are stashing away for the upcoming huge festivities of Christmas.

Kerala’s racial, cultural and religious mix is unique – Aryan and Dravidian, Jews, Christians, Muslims, migrants from Middle East, Saurashtra, Kutch and Konkan. We had more cultural and trade exchanges with foreign civilizations through the ocean routes than with our own countrymen beyond the State boundaries. There are historical evidences for Kerala’s trade relations with the Arabs, Romans and the Chinese in the ancient times and with the Portuguese, Dutch, French and the British in latter days. This cultural and demographic mix has made Kerala less sectarian and more secular. So the festival of Onam, though it has a few Hindu elements at its core, fits in to the essential secular ethos.

The weather too has a role in choosing Onam as the main festival, falling in the sunny break between two spells of torrential rains of South West and North East monsoons, a logical reason why our ancestors chose to celebrate it over Diwali.

The other day the party that rules the country concluded a statewide Yatra with an impressive public meeting in the capital with none other than their national president lashing out at the Chief Minister of the State. Earlier in the Yatra, Yogi Adityanath had criticized the way hospitals are run in Kerala, Mohan Parrikkar found a set of goons at the helm of affairs in the State, some petty BJP leader had offered cash reward to the head of the State’s CM and another threatened to gouge the eyes of Keralites. I wonder how even the non-political citizens of this State will read these impious attacks on a democratically elected government and their Chief Minister. Do we need leaders from outside to tell us who killed whom? May be the BJP leadership is unable to make out the reasons why their party is not making any headway in the State and all on a sudden there is this revelation that Communists are the villains, making  them the main opposition in national politics. Either the BJP leaders do not understand the ethos of Kerala or looking from the north they see things in dim light led by dimwitted local leaders. Ram temple, Ayodhya, cow protection and beef ban will not make any headway here. Playing the religious card may not work here as the history, traditions and culture here are different.

History is replete with instances of mutual respect and give and take among the followers of different religions in the State. The naval chiefs of Zamorin of Kozhikode were Muslim Moplahs. Jews and Christians were granted special rights and privileges by the kings of yore. There were instances of issuing royal proclamations appointing the supreme head of the Syrian Christian Church. Many Ayyappa devotees on their annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala routinely visit Arthunkal Church and the Erumeli Mosque. Kerala is the only geographical area in India that is not conquered or ruled by invaders. On the other hand we have a history of defeating the Dutch navy and holding back Tippu’s army. Communal riots are unknown here.  We are living in harmony for thousands of years by giving up religion of the extreme kind. Our culture is different, our history is different and our ethos is different. Any attempt by outside political leaders at wooing the voters should have their basics right. BJP’s think tank should realize there is no one size fit all solution when it comes to Kerala. They have to realign their strategy to suit the State. Diwali tells it all.