The Malayalis who are from the state of Kerala are very different from the rest of the Indians in many ways, as their recent celebration of their festival, Onam, has once again shown. No other Indian celebrates Onam. The Hindu calendar shows the day as Vamana Jayanthi (the birthday of Vamanan, the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu) but the Malayalis do not care for Vamanan who got rid of their good king Mahabali.

Mahabali was a descendant of Prahlada and as such an ‘Asura’ (demon) but he was a very good King. The women of Kerala still sing and dance celebrating the egalitarian society that existed under Mahabali:

Maveli nadu vaneetum kalam,
Manusharellarumonnu pole,
Kallavumilla, chathiyumilla,
Kallatharangal mattonnumilla.

(When Mahabali ruled over the country, all the people were the same. There were no lies or treachery or any other kind of dishonest dealings).

According to the legend, when Mahabali’s reputation spread as a noble king, the ‘devas’ (angels) became jealous and asked Vishnu to get rid of him. Vishnu agreed to oblige the ‘devas’ but he found it difficult to do it directly as Mahabali had done nothing wrong.

So Vishnu took the form of a little boy, Vamanan, and came to Mahabali when he was at his morning prayers. It was a custom with Mahabali that after his prayers if anyone went and asked him for anything he would grant it. That morning there was this little boy waiting for him. When Mahabali asked the boy what he wanted he said all that he wanted was three measures of land where he could sit and meditate. The great King Mahabali thought it was a very small thing that the boy was asking for and he asked Vamanan to measure with his feet the land he wanted and to take it. At that Vamanan assumed his real form - he was no longer a little boy but someone so big that he touched the sky.

When he started measuring his first step covered the whole of the earth while with the second step he was able to cover the sky. There was no room for the third step. Now Mahabali realized that Vamanan was not a little boy but God Incarnate. To fulfil his promise of giving three feet of land, Mahabali knelt down and asked Vamanan to put his foot on his (Mahabali’s) head. Vamanan put his foot on Mahabali and pushed him down to the netherworld. Before he went Mahabali asked Vamanan to grant him one wish to which Vamanan agreed. Mahabali’s wish was that every year he should be allowed to come back to his kingdom to visit his beloved subjects. So Onam is the day Mahabali is supposed to visit his people of Kerala.

While for the rest of the Hindu world Deepavali is the most important festival, for the people in Kerala Deepavali is only a minor festival compared to Onam. This is not the only major difference between the Malayalis of Kerala and the rest of the Indian society. Another is that a significant proportion (though not all) of the Malayali community follow the matrilineal system.

The Nair community as well as the royal families of Kerala follow this system. This means you belong to your mother’s family and inherit through the mother. This does not mean that the woman is the head of the family. The eldest uncle is the head but after him comes not his son but his sister’s son. This system has some benefits such as these communities do not have the dowry system and the associated evils as the girls remain with the mother’s family. With the spread of nuclear families the tradition of living in extended matrilineal families is coming to an end but Malayalis still follow those principles. Dowry, for example, is still not common among most Malayalis.

Kerala is unique not only among the states of India but in the whole wide world itself because in the 1950s it had the first ever elected communist government in the world with E.M.S. Namboodiripad, a former Congressman turned Communist as the head. One reason for this is that Kerala, a small state in area (it was the smallest state in the country when it was first established) has a dense population. It also has a high literacy rate and Kerala people are politically minded.

Since they cannot find jobs in their own state, many of them move to other states to work.

It is not only the highly qualified that move. There are the ubiquitous Malayali tea shops where tea making is an art. After brewing the tea (which is served in glasses, not cups) it is poured from one glass to the other. The glass in which the tea is, is held higher than the tea maker’s head and then poured into the other glass which is held much lower, without one drop spilling! After transferring the tea a couple of times from one glass to the other it is offered to the customer. By then the temperature becomes just right for drinking.

In Kerala the tea shop is not just a place to get a drink. It is the local social club and early morning people gather there for the day’s newspaper. There is usually a crowd around a person reading the latest news and discussing it as the Kerala people, as mentioned earlier, are very politically conscious.

If you thought Hillary and Tensing were the first to ascend Mount Everest, you are probably wrong. When they reached the top, according to popular stories, they were deflated because there was this Malayali guy there offering them a hot glass of freshly made tea, saying ‘Chayo’!

The Malayali Christian community, which is an important community in Kerala, is also very different from the rest of the Indian Christians in that they are not recent converts like most of the others. It is believed that in the very early Christian era Saint Thomas came to Kerala and people became convinced by his teachings and embraced Christianity. Later he is supposed to have gone to Madras (the present Chennai) and there he was believed to have been killed on a mountain. The mountain is now called St. Thomas Mount.

The Kerala women traditionally do not wear the sari as the rest of the women in India do. They wear the ‘mundu’ instead which is similar to the Fijian ‘sulu’ but in two pieces, with one covering the chest. The ‘mundu’ is only white but it can have coloured borders. As they move to other parts of India the people of Kerala change some of their customs, such as their way of dressing, but their major traditions still remain.