Keraleeyatha – Nearly Extinct

via Dr.P.E.S.Kartha published on August 23, 2006

The Keraleeyatha or the Kerala cultural heritage which gives Malayalees their cultural identity is fast fading into oblivion. It may be due to globalisation or our usual callousness. The reason doesn’t alter the consequences. What is worrisome is that we don’t seem to be bothered about it a bit.

The culture of a community is indescribable in its finer or subtle form. It becomes tangible through its array of customs, traditions, conventions or rites in the realm of the rituals that prevails in social, religious and communication spheres, the last includes the linguistic persona as well. In fact, a community gets its cultural identity from the blend of these concrete aspects.

As the time moves forward, some of the older customs give way for newer practices. That is a natural way of the evolution of any cultural entity, into a flourishing and dynamic cultural dominion. In reality, a culture keeps going for a longer stint due to such slow and steady transformations. However, customs can change or become out of vogue through another process too. An alien culture, which, if, is capable of influencing immature and impressionable minds of the youth of a local community, can too make the customs obsolete. When the foreign influence is strong, not alone the customs, but it transmutes the ritualistic practices including that of the language of the land and such ensigns that express the originality of a way of life.

 The reason behind elaborating this aspect here is that, the Keraleeyatha or the Kerala cultural heritage is undergoing the strain of a transmutation sans any association of a natural process for the last few decades. This state of affairs is not desirable.

 Many festivals, customs and rites which had stood the test of time for ages as the concrete expressions of the Kerala heritage, have been fading into the waysides and oblivion. Many of us look at our traditions with disdain and dislike. Probably we are one of the very rare communities having many individuals with an innate aversion towards their own cultural expressions.  

During the period of 1970-80, when the first post independence generation reached their prime, many had cultivated an outlook– “whatever noteworthy can only come from west, there is nothing interesting in India”. Fortunately, the subsequent progress that the country had experienced could make this jaundiced mind-set die away in many parts of the nation. However, this attitudinal correction does seem to have sidestepped Kerala claimed to be God’s very own country. This continuing scorn to the ‘things attached to our past’ has nearly severed the contacts to our many traditional institutions without replacing with any thing appropriate and ‘our own’. Whatever may be their relevance or lack of it, to our ‘rationalists’ and the ‘intellectuals’, many pointers to our roots have become unknown today to the young as well as the over the prime generations. This short article is an effort to briefly bring up a couple of these pointers.

Onam & Vishu – Beginning of a mix-up due to ignorance

We may agree to the view that Onam is a festival that marks the successful culmination of an agricultural season, whereas, Vishu is a sombre, but hope-filled festival launching that season. Kerala was once an agrarian society, not that, now it has changed radically. At that time, the calendar itself was used to be opened with Vishu. While preparing the paddy fields by ploughing was done on the day of Vishu, the sowing was carried out on the ‘pathamudayam’ meaning the tenth day of Vishu. Even now, in many parts of Kerala, on ‘pathamudayam’, people perform ‘Adithya Pooja’ (sun worship) and ‘Noorum Paalum’ (an offering consisting of rice floor, turmeric powder and milk) to please Serpent gods. Can we call the worship of the Sun, the giver of all the energies and the Serpents the natural adversaries of rats, as irrational? Definitely not! But there is irrationality some where else. Let us come to that.

 As we have mentioned earlier, Vishu represents symbolically the onset and Onam the finale of the major harvest season of the agriculture dependent Kerala society. In the way they have been celebrated over the centuries too, we observe this fine demarcation. Vishu is the ‘hope’ about the ‘anticipated abundance’ of the morrow and Onam is the overwhelming realisation of that collective dream. The success of harvest (at least as the concept behind the festival) in its totality is written all over the Onam festivities including the feast. On the day of Vishu, what we see is the cautious first step of the journey towards that success. On that day, the granaries of paddy are not overflowing. The strategy containing in the message Vishu is to deploy the available resources intelligently and efficiently so that the success of the ensuing harvest is built in from the beginning itself. Therefore Vishu celebrations are bereft of any kind of flamboyance. There is no grandiose feast on that day, but a simple and traditional food of a typical cultivator – ‘Kanji’ and ‘thoran’ (rice cooked without the water drained off and a conventional vegetable dish popular in Kerala). Onam declares “enjoy, be happy today”, and Vishu counsels, “work towards a prosperous tomorrow”.

But is there much dissimilarity between these two festivities to-day? We may not be able to pinpoint much difference in the way we celebrate our favourite festivals. Heavy shopping and late night parties in expensive hotels are common factors in any of our celebrations. This is where the irrationality comes out strongly.

We know that among the non-resident Malayalees, the Onam celebration is normally not on the day of Thiruvonam but on a ‘convenient day’, sometimes after 2-3 months. We must think about its desirability in the long run, especially the kind of message that we convey to our children. In this context, it may be worthwhile to have a look at the way Bengalis celebrate Navarathri.  We should remember that Bengal is a known fortress of Marxists who are supposed to be atheists and anti-traditionalists. That may be so. But when it comes to Kali Pooja which is part of their Heritage, no Bengali   worth his name, would compromise, whatever may be his political dogma or belief. This is the kind of prioritisation of issues that we Malayalees should learn and practice.

If we continue to treat the issues concerning our heritage, with indifference bordering to hostility, then it is only a matter of time before the distinctive as well as exclusive Onam and Vishu festivals of all Malayalees wherever they live, may join the pages of history like Thiruvathira and a multitude of smaller festivals did after the Independence. Of course, now we have Xmas, Milady Sheriff, Valentine’s Day, and New Year to celebrate apart from a host of ‘this and that days’ that make the Greeting-cards makers laugh all the way to their banks!

Another important area that calls for our attention is, the way we have thrown out the Malayalam digits into the dust bins of history. I am quite sure that many of us have even forgotten about them. We have even decided that such ‘reactionary’ knowledge should not be passed on to our next generations too. In most other states (including, Karnataka, Maharashtra and the whole of Hindi region) they use digits written in their mother tongue, in out-door advertisements, shop names, bus numbers etc. without any inhibition. But for us, Malayalees, who feel proud that we are equal to Americans in literacy percentage, do not have any qualms in rejecting a part of our Mother tongue or her legacy.

This hostile-to-our-root mentality probably is the result of our overdrive in the world of consumerism, which makes us interested and focussing on only the ‘present’. Unfortunately, it has manifested in many fashions in our life style leading to many depressing outcomes. One example is the plight of our uncared parents as their contribution to the present is nil. 

The Culture Busters

What can we do to remedy this sad state of affairs? Frankly, I do not know. The situation is not simple or one-dimensional that one can think of resolving in a jiffy. The cultural heritage area has been facing stresses from various spheres (which are not mutually exclusive either), during the post independent era. Let us delineate a few of the more predominant and briefly run through their negative effect on the cultural legacy by citing some known cases in point. However, it may not be feasible to do an in-depth analysis of the overall linkage of the external sources to the cultural realm, in this short article.

 Government –

Government initiated Onam celebrations have resulted in the following situations:

1.      The cultural activity is partially displaced by political bustles.

2.      Onam celebration (government’s part) has become a platform for political speeches of irrelevant and divisive forms.

3.      Due to the influence   of the misguided secularism, some components of the celebration have to take back seats or get reshaped to suit the whims of minority-dictated govt. policies. E.g. Attha Chamayam

4.      Some areas of the festival are ignored such as traditional games that form an important part of Onam.

5.      The government initiated Onam celebrations do not have any well-thought out holistic plan. Its approach is adhoc and piece-meal type.

6.      Commercialisation of Onam symbols has devalued their cultural import and they are open to misuse.

 Government’s decision to exploit Ayurveda, the oldest medical science in the world, to promote state tourism is bringing bad repute to this field.


The unprecedented spurt of religious conversions based on materialistic motive and not the spiritual and cult figure-followers have increased the chasm between and within the religions which in turn make people look at everything with a sectarian mindset. Even the festivals and ritualism that was uniting Malayalees with a strong cultural bond are under threat.

Secularism practised by Indian politicians and leftist intelligentsia

Minority oriented definition and implementation of secularism has created many a fault line within the community. The first victim of this divisive concept is our cultural heritage.


The unchecked entry of commercial interests into the cultural area has brought in its wake irreverence to and misuse of religio-cultural symbols and trivialising the cultural traditions.

Alien influences on Youth-

Our young and the ‘young in mind seemed to be overawed with the materialistic advances and the affluence of the west. They copy many qualities from there. Unfortunately the unsuitable outweighs the suitable.   


When rationalism is practiced by people with limited understanding of science, prejudiced thinking and closed minded approach, their social critique tend to be irrational and misleading. Their large scale presence in Kerala does not augur well.

Media & Intelligentsia-

Less said is better about their well known prejudices, vested interests and favouritism.

The Last Word 

But remember, by not passing on the legacy that came to us from our ancestry, to our future generations we are making them cultural orphans. Moreover, we are committing a crime to our forefathers, to our children and to ourselves; whatever may be our reasoning in justifying our omissions and commissions, or our way of rationalising the situation. As I had mentioned in the beginning the reason does not alter the consequences.


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