Kerala will go into yet another frenzy of feasting, games, dance, festivities and shopping to celebrate Onam, its most important festival. Celebrated by all Malayalis, the harvest festival commemorates the homecoming of legendary demon King Mahabali.
The festival falls during the Malayalam month of Chingam (August–September) and is celebrated for 10 days. Major celebrations are held on Thiruvonam day though festivities continue even after the main festival.
According to the legend, Mahabali’s fame and popularity grew leaps and bounds and Indra, the god of kings, sent Lord Vishnu to stop him. Vishnu took the form of a dwarf and asked for land three footsteps long. After he offered heaven and earth, Mahabali offered the ground he was standing and was pushed to the underworld. However, Mahabali was granted the wish to visit his subjects each year and Onam is celebrated to mark his sojourn on earth.
During Onam each year, Malayalis try to relive the happy times during Mahabali’s reign. They dress in new clothes, decorate their houses, draw elaborate pookalams (floral carpets) in front of their houses and organize feasts. Outdoors, it is a totally different scene. Vigorous, frenetic activities leave the Malayalis enthralled.
Travel.india.com brings you four events you didn’t associate with Onam.
Aranmula Boat Race
Unlike snake boat races like the Nehru trophy or the President’s trophy, the boat race is more of a ritual in Aranmula. On Thiruvonam (the 10th day of the festival), the rituals at the Aranmula temple are overseen by Kattoor Mana Bhattathiri, the patriarch of a renowned Brahmin family.
Legend has it that Lord Parthasarathy (Krishna is venerated in Aranmula as Arjuna’s charioteer) appeared before the Bhattathiri and authorized him to conduct the rituals at the temple on Onam day. Since that day eons ago, Kattoor Bhattathiri arrives on Thiruvona Thoni (Onam boat) with men and material which also marks the beginning of Onam celebrations at Aranmula.
One year, when the pious Brahmin was on his way to Aranmula, he was waylaid by attacked by dacoits. Learning about the Brahmin’s plight, locals rushed on snake boats and escorted the Thiruvona Thoni to safety. The practice later evolved in the form of snake boat race and is now known as Aranmula Boat Race. The annual snake boat race is held on Utthiritadhi, the fourth day after Thiruvonam.
Diametrically opposite to the image of benign festivities, rhythmic dances, lilting songs and elaborate meals, is the sport of Onathallu held during Onam. Onathallu is a highly competitive freestyle fight held in various parts of Kerala.
There are no stringent rules to follow in the bare-handed fight except that combatants are not supposed to hit on head, face, punch or kick opponents. If you think it is a cakewalk, then you couldn’t be further from the truth. It tests stamina, skill and the physical prowess of participants ranging from teenagers to old.
Considered an extended version of Kalari and kabaddi, Onathallu was conceived to inculcate the martial spirit of soldiers.
Best place to watch: Thrissur
It is a colorful, recreational folk art practiced in Thrissur district. Performers painted like tigers move in a procession, dancing, pouncing and shaking their bellies to the beat of drums. Close on their heels are the hunters armed with rifles.
Pulikali literally means the play of the tiger; hence the performance revolves around the theme of tiger hunting. It is held on the fourth day of Onam.
Painted all over on their faces as well torsos in bright yellow, red and black, the performers dance to the beats of drums. Thousands converge to watch the Pulikali troupes display their skills.
Dating back over 200 years, Pulikali was conceptualised by Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran, the then Kochi Maharaja. The Maharaja was led by his desire to celebrate Onam with a dance form which was wild and oozed with machismo.
Best place to watch: Swaraj Round, Thrissur.
What is Onam without feasting and what better place to partake of Onasadya (Onam feast) than at Thrikkakkara Temples. It is the ground zero of Onam celebrations. The Thrikkakkara temple stands at the place where Vamana pushed Mahabali to the underworld. Thrikkakkara evolved from Thrikkal Kara meaning the place of the holy foot. The temple is among the few temples where Lord Vishnu is worshipped as Vamana.
The temple festival begins on the first day of Onam and lasts for 10-days of the festival. On the ninth day, a grand procession called the Pakalpooram is held. The idol of Vamana is taken out in a ceremonial procession. It is also a good place to see the cultural art forms of Kerala like Chakyar Koothu, Ottamthullal, Kathakali, Panchavadyam and Thayambaka.
However, what is Onam without the feast. The grand feast or Sadya is held on the last two days of the festival. About 10000 people attended the feast last year. No effort is spared as the feast is as authentic as it gets. Partaking in the feast is considered a form of worship and devotees throng in large numbers to find their place. The feast begins at around 10 am and continues till 5 pm.
Best place to watch: Thrikkakkara temple is about 10 km north east of Ernakulam on the Ernakulam-Thrissur highway.
Photo credits: Popular Arts & Sports Centre, Kunnamkulam, Wikimedia Commons