Kerala’s ten-day Onam celebrations showcase the best of India’s cultural festivities, as tradition, religion and art come together to foster unrestrained vibrancy.
Indian festivals are spectacles that are visually captivating, intuitively explanatory, and boast of a long list of followers, with celebrations that cite sources from ancient times. Onam, too, is a festival dating back to our mythologies. It is a part of India’s southernmost state Kerala’s identity, going on to symbolise the state’s thriving tourism. At the same time, it has assimilated itself into the state’s traditional outlook, amalgamating its various climatic and geographical adventures in its celebration.
The Sherp looks at all the aspects that makes Onam such a culturally enthralling experience, and a good enough excuse to pay Kerala a visit.
Onam is a Hindu festival celebrated to commemorate the exemplary rule of King Mahabali. In Hindu mythology, there exists two corners of righteousness – the Devas and the Asuras. While King Mahabali, or Bali, was a descendant of the Asuras, many believe him to be the most honourable ruler Kerala had ever had. It is believed that during his reign, the state prospered to new heights, with poverty and caste systems firmly abolished. But due to his growing power, he was feared by the Devas, who instead wished for his end. But he was granted one blessing by the Gods, that every year, he would get to visit his state from the nether regions.
Onam is celebrated by the people of Kerala, or Malayalees every year during the month of August – September, which coincides with the beginning of the Malayalam calendar, firmly believing this episode, where children dress up in schools as King Bali, and many fathers do the same for their families. The King is now represented a pot-bellied happy man, with a large mustache in all his royal refinery, an image made immortal by the state’s various tourism hoardings.
The celebrations of the festival usually go on for 10 days culminating into the final day of Onam. During those ten days, every aspect of the state of Kerala, from the boat races, to the decadent food, the dancing and the beauty are all fervently applauded by keen celebrators from around the state.
The festival is celebrated during the first month of the Malayalam calendar, with celebrations not only centred around King Bali’s visit but also to commemorate the rice harvesting season. During the months of August and September, usually when Onam falls, the weather in Kerala is warm, with some light post-monsoon showers, perfect for harvesting rice, thus rendering a jubilant atmosphere everywhere.
The Festival is celebrated in a variety of manners
Large intricate flower decorations adorn the doorstep of almost every house during Onam. Women assemble together in their finest garments and spend hours trying to come up with the most labyrinthine designs, using some of the most well-bloomed flowers.
On the last day of Onam called Thiruonam, people prepare elaborate workings of food, a nine-course purely vegetarian meal called the Onasadya. The composite idea behind the preparation is to convey to the visiting King Bali that the state enjoys the same level of posterity as it did during his rule.
The Snake Boat Races
Boat races have gone on to signify Kerala’s backwater culture. They are known to have been added to Onam celebrations around 1972, and since then have been an important event marking the festival. Snake boat races known as The Vallamkalli are held where men compete in teams to row to the finish. The most popular race held in the state is The Aranmula Boat Race which is the oldest river boat race held in the state, organised near the Hindu temple Aranmula, about 128 kms from the capital city of Trivandrum. On the days of the race, people flock to banks to witness the fiesta making it a certified state sport event.
It is during Onam that Kerala witnesses its most outrageous cultural celebration. Along with the boat races, the various dances of Kerala are performed by people in large numbers. Some of them are –
An extremely popular folk dance, the dance of Kaikottikali is performed by the women of Kerala, all dressed in the state’s popular garb of white or cream sarees with golden borders. The dance is performed in groups, usually in many large, concentric circles.
Pullikali is the world-renowned mask dance of Kerala, where dancers wear loud masks usually resembling that of a lion’s face. The dancers can also be found colouring their entire bodies to resemble a lion’s marking, and their dances can be categorised by aggressive, animalistic moves. During Onam, the dancers go to various doorsteps, entertaining people and collecting gifts in return.
A dance form that has been celebrated the world over, Kathakali is a form of storytelling that employs the use of dance movements, billowing, elaborate costumes, make up and crowns. The dancers usually stage dances representing certain stories from Hindu mythology and folklore, where the use of expressions is sacrosanct when representing an emotion.
The natural beauty that Kerala is gifted with makes attending Onam festivities that much a better option. The celebrations are held in a grand manner in the capital city of Trivandrum, that is easily accessible by rail, road and air. At the same time, festivities can be found organised with grandiose in the popular districts of Palakkad and Thirunakkara. The festival is a wonderful example of religious significance meeting cultural elements, and proves a visually arresting experience.