Festival Trips: Onam

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Image courtesy: Creative Commons/Ashcoounter

If there’s one festival when Kerala’s swaying green palms and blue waters turn into a riot of colours, it’s Onam. Celebrations include grand fireworks and colourful spectacles across Kerala, including the capital Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode.

This harvest festival is based on the myth of the homecoming of King Mahabali in the month of Chingam (Malayalam calendar) and the celebrations are spread across 10 days. The actual day of the festival is on Thiru Onam, named after the star associated with god Vishnu.

People celebrate with ritual baths, prayers to the deities at home, elaborate Pookalam outside the homes, temple visits and heavy feasting or the Onasadya at home. Shimmering brass lamps are lit, colourful floral patterns dot the landscape and dance, music and revelry mark the occasion.

Onam festival attractions include:

Athachamayam: This marks the beginning of Onam festivities across the state. It starts off with a colourful procession of folk artists and performances at Thrippunithura, near Kochi.

Temple visits: While all temples across the state observe special prayers during Onam, the day of Thiru Onam is celebrated as the birthday of the deities of Vamana at Thrikakara Temple, near Ernakulam-Kochi and the Sree Padmanabhaswamy at Thiruvananthapuram.

Colourful pookalam.
Image courtesy: sxc.hu/Jithin K U

Pookalam: Floral decorations are the unique mark of this festival. Traditionally the pookalam or floral patterns or designs resembling floral rangoli, follow certain colours and patterns through the ten days of festivities. On Thiru Onam women draw elaborate and large, mostly round patterns outside their homes, or roads. Walking through many streets of Kerala may seem like a walk on floral carpets.

Aranmula Snake Boat Race.
Image courtesy: Creative Commons/ Arun Sinha

Vallamkali: Onam festivities take a sporty turn with water sports or Vallamkali. The famous snake boat race during this time is a highpoint. The well-known races include the Aranmula Boat race and Nehru Trophy Boat race when over 100 boatsmen slice the waters of the backwaters in long canoes. Stop by at Punnamada, Allapuzha for a sporty splash.

An enchanting kathakali dancer.
Image courtesy: Daksh Sharma

Folk dances: The rural landscape of Kerala bursts forth in music and dance during Onam. The kathakali dances at Valluvanad (South Malabar) and Cheruthuruthy near Thrissur recreate the myths and legends associated with Onam during colourful performances. Caparisoned elephant processions, pulikali or folk dances by artists with body paint as tigers dance through the roads during cultural processions.

Onam sadya: There’s no festival without a feast. The traditional Onam sadya (banquet) is served on plantain leaves. This vegetarian repast often has over 15 dishes including kootan, thoran, olan, kalan, rasam, aviyal, papadam, pickles, puliinchi and served with rice. The special dessert that kids love is the prathaman, a typical sweet pudding of Kerala made or rice, jaggery and fruits like jackfruit.