Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Maveli and history

Is Maveli a historical memory?

The land of Kerala is in deep South India and Maveli is the legend of that land. The legend says that Kerala was once, long ago, ruled by a king, Maveli (Sanskritised as Mahabali). The King was wise, judicious and extremely generous and it was the golden age of Kerala. Everybody was happy in the kingdom; there was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class.

The story is enunciated in the folk song

“Maveli nadu vaneedum kalam,
manusharellarum onnupole”

(The rest of the song is omitted as it is irrelevant)

“When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people were equal.”

This made the god’s jealous as people stopped worshipping them and was still prosperous and they complained to the chief god Lord Vishnu, one among the trinity. He promised a solution and went to Maveli as a dwarf Brahmin (Vamana) while Maveli was conducting a yaga (Vedic sacrifice). Maveli asked Vamana what gift he desired and Vamana said he only needed the land equivalent to three pieces of his feet. Maveli asked Vamana to measure out his desired three parcels of land. Vamana grew in size until he towered above the heavens. With one footstep, he measured all of the earth. With the second, he claimed all of heaven. Then he asked where to place his third feet and Maveli asked Vamana to place the final step on his head, for he had no other left. Vamana did so and sent him down to Patala, the underworld. From there he is supposed to visit his subjects once a year, celebrated as Onam festival.

Now the history,

Around the beginning of the Common Era, Kerala was a land inhabited by tribes without a definite state. It was ruled by many chiefs some more prominent than others. People were practicing hunter gathering, subsistence agriculture and the chiefs also practiced plunder as a form of livelihood. Brahmins started to settle down in Kerala sometime around this time. At this time, there were no caste or Jati systems and equality (more or less) prevailed.

The most prominent chiefs of Tamilakam (present day Tamil Nadu and Kerala) were the Cera, Pandya and Chola (called the mu (three) Ventars). Most of Kerala was under the sway of Cera or Kera (old Chera, for there was a later dynasty also called Cera or Perumals), who lend the name Kerala. They ruled from Karuvur in modern state of Tamil Nadu and mostly confined their rule to the north and middle Kerala though they held sway over all Kerala. But the south of Kerala there was another prominent chief, the Ays, the most prominent among them were Ay Antiran, Atiyan and Titiyan. Though they acknowledged the nominal suzerainty of the Ceras, most of the time they were independent. They later became the kings of Venad, which later became Thiruvanathapuram district of Kerala in Independent India.  Most chiefs in Kerala were addressed as ‘Vel’ meaning chiefs, but the Ay was addressed as Ma (big) Vel (chief). It is during this time small settlements of Bahamans started possibly by the permission of the Ay kings.

Then came the time named “Kalbhra interregnum”, also called the “dark age” of Kerala. It was a time of major social changes, but we have few data and we know very little about what happened during the few centuries between 3 to 6 ACE. When the dust settled the caste system was in place with Brahmins at the top of the hierarchy. The lower castes were considered impure and inequality prevailed. The Brahmins were so powerful that could even claim that they appointed the later Ceras (later Ceras, also called Perumals or Kulashekharas).

Now you might have got the gist of the story, when Ma Vel (Ay kings) was ruling there was equality and he allowed a few (small, Vamana) Brahmans to settle. They then grew to become so powerful, even to dwarf the very kings who gave them land. So, I presume, the legend is the collective memory of the majority of the people, the people who belong to the majority who were deemed “lower castes” by the Brahmins, the people who lost their equality and social position to the Brahamins. The story lived on as a legend and morphed into the legend of Kerala, a collective memory of a golden past.