An extremely popular folk song of yore singing of the prosperity of a land in an unspecified past time translates as follows.
“When Bali was the ruler, men were all alike: there were no tricks, no cheating, no idle talk – not even the size of a sesame seed, and none at all of false measuring jars or any other wrongdoings!”
The land is a tiny parcel of 30000 square kilometers, or a measly 0.3% of Canadian land mass; but what it lacks in land, it more than compensates with its princely population of 35 million. Kerala, the southern-most province of India, was once featured in National Geographic must-see list of places. Its tourism department has adopted the catchy slogan ‘God’s own country’ from Thomas Bracken’s poem: “Give me, give me God’s own country! there to live and there to die.”
These achievements notwithstanding, Kerala’s current state of affairs is a far cry from the legendary times of King Bali. That is not to discount the fact that it is still one of the best among all provinces of India. Kerala is a curious case for the statisticians. All the generally accepted indices of prosperity such as literacy, health, infant mortality, women-to-men ratio, life expectancy, extreme poverty, relative peace, per capita income, general hygiene are highly skewed in favor of Kerala, with reported values in the threshold of those of the developed countries. The obvious question to ask is why.
I can think of five reasons for the above conundrum. Firstly, the land with its extended 600 km –long western coastline provided a window to external civilizations over millennia, while itself being naturally sequestered from the rest of India by a mountain range on the east. There are historical evidences for Greek, Roman, Chinese, Persian and Middle Eastern influences over more than two thousand years. These interactions brought in a settlement of Jewish Diaspora in the first century CE, Syrian Christians in the fourth century CE. As a result, Christianity is fabled to have taken root almost at the same time as the apostle Paul was on his proselytizing mission trips in Asia Minor and Rome! Kerala welcomed Islam into its religious ethos during the lifetime of its founder Prophet Mohammed; by contrast, parts of present-day Pakistan would embrace Islam only about a century later. These and other potpourri of civilizations have established a significant influence in the social fabric.
Secondly, women of Kerala have traditionally wielded significant economic and political influences in Kerala. The famous Travancore royalty that ruled the southern part of this land from early eighteenth century has matriarchal succession policy. There were important female rulers of the land from early seventeenth century: the names of Umayamma of seventeenth century and Parvathi of eighteenth are noteworthy. The local tribe of Nairs used to have the matriarchal system too, with the property actually owned by the eldest woman in the family.
Social revolution and communism come third. A particularly noteworthy social achievement in comparison with the rest of India is the complete integration of the low-castes of Hinduism into the main fold as early as by mid twentieth century whereas atrocities against them continue to this day in the rest of India. The atrocities range from denial of admission to important places, rape, physical violence, verbal abuse and disallowing government largesse, so much so that a whole gamut of successful political rulers thrive exclusively on these sentiments in several provinces. Understandably, politics of low-caste hasn’t found substantial resonance in Kerala. Kerala has not always been a paradise for equality and liberty: it used to be far worse! But good things began to happen early as a series of political and literary revolutionaries rose up in early 20th century, inspired as they were by European missionaries, leading eventually to the landmark royal temple entry proclamation of 1936. The temples of the southern kingdom of Travancore were the first to open their doors to people of putative low birth in entire India! Around this time another revolution was sweeping the shores of Kerala with the communist party forming its cadres 20 years behind the success of the Bolshevik revolution. It is interesting to note that Winnipeg has a story of a 1919 revolution close on the heels of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, although it fizzled out in no time. But the Keralite communists began late, but kept at it tenaciously, adapted the original precepts to suit the local persuasions, and rode to parliamentary power in 1957, the very first time a communist government was elected to power anywhere in the world! Development of communism was hinged as much on a robust think tank that spewed out successful theory after theory, as on a bunch of communist writers and performing artists. The communist uprising helped debunk the low-birth myths in no small measure.
Fourthly, economic boom kicked in when the Arabian peninsula boomed with oil riches in the 1970s. Money is a great leveler. Kerala found a new export commodity in migrant labor force, bringing in substantial economic advantages in its wake.
And that brings me back to the original conundrum: why did the prosperity of the legendary king Bali’s times disappear in the first place? And what is its significance in Kerala’s development? The legend attributes the disappearance to the jealous prankster Gods, who feared Bali and wanted to put paid to his rule. God Vamana appeared as a goblin before Bali begging him to gift him just three feet of land, which he would physically measure out, to which the noble King agreed, and whereupon Vamana grew in size to fill all of the known worlds with his two steps. Bali offered his head as Vamana’s third foothold in an act of self-effacing integrity. Vamana and the Gods allowed Bali one respite, though, to be able to visit his land once every year during a festival of Onam. The legend of Onam and the folksong I translated at the outset are part of common knowledge of every living Keralite to this day. The festival of Onam is the biggest shopping and family reunion period in the entire year which interestingly also transcends religious barriers. This is the Kerala equivalent of Christmas and boxing day sales of North America. Every consumer sales analysis would place Onam sales as accounting for even up to a quarter of the annual sales! Onam celebration transcending religious affiliations is the key to my fifth hypothesis: Onam is a driver of growth, liberty and equality in Kerala.
The tailpiece to the folk story is that Kerala does revere God Vamana as a reigning deity in Thrikkakkara temple. Pranks of the Gods are pardoned even to the detriment of the people. Bali and his people are justly consigned to their despicable destinies. Here is a trick Q&A: where on earth would 20 billion US dollars worth of pure gold likely ensconced in underground vaults? A temple in Kerala, Bank of New York’s gold vaults (take USA share), or Warren Buffet’s home? No points for guessing the correct answer as the temple. The Gods must be crazy!