Every year, as the weather turns cold, the Indian subcontinent prepares to celebrate the return of its king.
This is marked by Deepavali, the festival of lights, the day when a victorious Sri Rama returns to his capital, Ayodhya, with his wife and brother, after 14 arduous years in the wilderness.
At a moral level, it marks the victory of good over evil, of right over wrong, and the re-establishment of Dharma.
Spiritually, it is also the occasion when Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, is welcomed into our homes, to bless us with good fortune and wealth.
At a commercial level, this is a time when ledgers are tallied and closed, debts settled, and a welcome break opens before the annual business cycle begins anew.
And at a social level, Deepavali is when homes are spruced up, decked with lamps and lights, and families go shopping for new clothes.
There is a strong economic element to this festival: in trading terms, a ‘good’ Deepavali with high spends can do more for businesses and treasury revenues than a tax cut or a yojana ever could.
Sweetmeat and firecracker stores spring up, offering tasty sugar shocks and noisy thunderclaps. Everyone has their personal favourite, which vary wildly from province to province: the green ‘atom bomb’, the saffron jangeri, rockets, swirlers, and the ubiquitous gulab jamun.
Yet, strangely, this festive cheer is absent in Kerala, where it is a quiet period of soft evening rains that last for weeks and culminates in the Thiruvathira festival — a temple-centric celebration of Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance.
So, why doesn’t Kerala celebrate Deepavali?
The answer has everything to do with how commerce was traditionally conducted in the state, and the weather.
How many readers know that almost all the merchant classes in Kerala were non-Hindu until independence in 1947?
As amazing as it may sound, the kings of Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore maintained a remarkably effective and fabulously profitable system, whereby trading was carried out by a diverse set of merchants, none of whom were Hindu Malayalis.
Go from Kasargod in the north of the state through Kozhikode (Calicut), Cochin, or Travancore, and you would have to conduct business with Konkani Jains, Malabari Moplahs, Syrian Christians, Kutchi Muslims (who speak a patois unintelligible to either Malayalis or Kutchis), Tamil-speaking Nadars, a smattering of Tamil Chettiars, and, during the colonial period, Protestant Englishmen and Anglo-Indians.
In fact, until the start of the Second World War, dentistry in Kerala and the Konkan coast was the preserve of Buddhist-Shinto Japanese, who sourced their medical instruments from Japan and travelled on bicycles (also imported by them from Japan) from village to village, peddling their services and medications.
After independence, most of the Jews immigrated to Israel, the Anglo-Indians left for Australia and New Zealand, and the English sold their plantations to return to Old Blighty.
In their place took root a small but marvellously enterprising community of Gujarati “banias,” primarily in Fort Cochin, and a much smaller group in Kozhikode, who still run the wholesale spice trade out of godowns on Gujarati Street near the beach.
It is difficult to say how and why this unique system of commerce evolved in Kerala. According to family lore recounted to this writer when he was a young lad, keeping a distance from the business of business allowed the kings to enforce vanijya dharma without conflicts of interest and ensure that trade was conducted in a fair, transparent manner.
There is a story from the late eighteenth century, of the ruthless, even brutal, manner in which Shaktan Thampuran, Cochin state’s greatest king, enforced the law across bankers, traders, and merchants.
Apparently, he once got word that a Konkani Jain (colloquially called “Kini” by the locals) in Thrissur had been charging usurious rates of interest to borrowers.
The king’s instantaneous response was a summary order — “Kini yude thala kani,” meaning: “The first thing I want to see tomorrow morning when I open my eyes is that Konkani Jain’s head on a platter.”
This phrase sounds more poetic in Malayalam, but it encapsulates the royals’ no-nonsense approach to finance, trade, and commerce perfectly.
Yet, the indirect effect of this extraordinary system is that, quite unlike the rest of the subcontinent, Kerala was bereft of a business community that propitiates Lakshmi or celebrates the festival of lights.
After all, Deepavali is a “bania” festival, in the sense that it specifically celebrates wealth, prosperity, and profit. Perhaps, that is why there are hardly any Lakshmi temples in the state. (This writer does not know of a single ancient Kerala temple where goddess Lakshmi is the main deity.)
Oddly, though, the return-of-the-king concept is followed in Kerala, for Onam, when Malayalis celebrate their King Mahabali’s annual visit after he received moksha, or salvation, from the Vamana avatara of Lord Vishnu.
Make no mistake, Sri Rama is central to Kerala. Vijayadashami, which marks his victory over Ravana, is one of the state’s most important festivals. Life comes to a standstill for three days, when families clean and worship their weapons, and conduct elaborate ceremonies.
Further, the second month of the monsoon is called ‘Ramayana maasam’. It is the most sacred month of the year, when people read the Adhyatma Ramayanam by Thunjath Ezhuthachan, and visit the state’s own ‘char-dham’: four temples between Thriprayar and Irinjalakuda in Cochin state, dedicated to the King of Ayodhya and his three brothers.
There is also a climatic reason why Deepavali can’t be celebrated in Kerala the way it is in the rest of the subcontinent.
After the South West monsoon recedes in September, Kerala receives a second monsoon between October and December. It is called Thulavarsham, and characterised by lightning barrages and thunderclaps before the evening rains set in.
Undertaking the mammoth task of manufacturing, transporting, distributing, storing, selling, and lighting fireworks during this period is not just impractical and dangerous, but economically insensible, as well.
The morning dew alone would dampen the costly fireworks, no matter how carefully they were stored, and even more so in the era before modern weatherproof logistics.
As a result, Deepavali celebrations in Kerala are restricted to those few pockets where Konkani Jains, Gujaratis, and Tamilians live. And the ultimate irony is that the temples of Kerala are actually renowned for their firework displays!
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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