It’s an important time in Kerala…Onam – the biggest (and fun-nest!) festival in the Malayalam calendar!
With religious and cultural significance, Onam is observed by Keralites around the world.
Celebrations begin late August and continue for 10 days, peaking on Thiruvonam (which is today, in this year’s calendar).
At any point of time, you can’t go wrong with a visit to God’s Own Country; there’s everything from hills and valleys to rocky shores and peaceful backwaters to please the desires of every traveler.
But if you’ve been in the state for the last few days, you’ve probably seen (and been part of) a lot of festive excitement. And though the entire state participates in the festivities, there are specific places to visit to make the most of Onam time!
Onam – Not just a Harvest Festival
Besides being celebrated as the state’s harvest festival and the start of the new year, Onam also marks the annual return of legendary King Mahabali.
According to myth, Mahabali was a benevolent demon king, beloved by his people and envied by the “Devas” (gods). When the Devas appealed to him to do curb Mahabali, Lord Vishnu assumed his dwarf avatar, Vamana, and went to Mahabali, asking the king to grant him three footsteps worth of land in his territory.
Impressed by the dwarf’s intelligence and wit, Mahabali promised him ownership of all the land he covered in his three footsteps. But Vamana became a giant and covered the entire sky with one step, and all the land with the second. Recognising him as Vishnu and refusing to break his word, Mahabali offered his own head for the third step. Vamana accepted and pushed him into the underworld.
However, Vishnu offered Mahabali a boon…that he could return to visit his people once a year and bless them with happiness.
Visiting Kerala, Onam-Style!
Visiting anywhere in Kerala during Onam is to see the people partaking joyously in Onam games and special pujas, and decorating their doorways with colourful pookalams (floral rangolis) to welcome Mahabali.
And you can’t forget the grand celebration and oh-so-famous Onasadhya feast, with 21 scrumptious dishes and sweet payasam to round out a very filling meal, that takes place on Thiruvonam!
Onam is also characterised by cultural programs like the boat races (Vallam Kalli) and the tiger dance (Pulikali), among others. These cultural events are best witnessed at certain locations.
Athachamayam festival at Thripunithura
Onam festivities kick off with the tres-colourful Athachamayam festival, which is a grand procession from Thripunithura to Thrikkakara temple (dedicated to Vishnu’s Vamana avatar). The procession – comprising floats, decorated elephants, musicians, floats, and representations of Kerala art forms – follows the historic path that the King of Kochi would take from his palace to the temple, greeting his people en route.
Onam Week at Thiruvananthapuram (the erstwhile Trivandrum)
The state capital hosts an entire week of festivities at various locations, organised by Kerala Tourism. The celebrations include dances, stage shows, dramas and fold art, handicraft fairs, and of course, traditional cuisine. The celebratory week ends with a customary elephant- and float-filled parade.
Pulikali in Thrissur
A highlight of Onam festivities is the tiger play, where processions of men painted and dressed as tigers dance and play to percussive beats. An art form in and of itself, Pulikali is a must-see part of the Onam experience. See if you can pick out the winner for the best tiger (the best ones win prizes!).
Aranmula Boat Race in Pathanamthitta
This is the oldest and most well-known boat race in the state. Despite the 50 snake boats that participate, this event doesn’t technically qualify as a race as there is no competitive element. Once the religious rituals are complete, the Vallam Kali begins and, race or not, the excitement is electrifying. If there’s only one event you can be part of for Onam, let it be this one.
Choosing Where to Go
These are a few of the highlights of Onam in various parts of the state, but every place does celebrate in its own way. So, you’re not going to miss out on too much if you don’t catch every one of these on the same trip.
And even if many of these events have been cancelled this year because of Covid, remember that this is long-standing tradition.
Onam will come around again next year and you’ll know exactly where to go. And like we said before, Kerala has so many great places to visit, even if it’s not during festival time.
As always, here’s a good place to start planning your next trip to Kerala! Just remember to change the dates and preferences to suit the kind of holiday you’re looking for.
In the meantime, as you’re celebrating at home this year, tell us about past celebrations you’ve witnessed. We’d love to know your thoughts on the boat races, Vallam Kali and Sadhya! Leave your comments below.