A look at how the people of Kerala go crazy over the state festival of Onam, with ten days of feasting, boat races, song, dance and merriment.
Late August or early September marks some high-spirited celebrations down
south. People in the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala go crazy over the
state festival of Onam, with ten days of feasting, boat races, song, dance and
This year Onam begins on 25th August and ends on 6th September.
The Origin of Onam
Onam or Thiruonam originated as a joyous annual reminiscence of the golden rule
of King Mahabali, a mythical king, who ruled Kerala a very long time ago. It
recalls the sacrifice of the great king, his true devotion to God, his human
pride and his ultimate redemption. Onam welcomes the spirit of a great king, and
assures him that his people are happy and wish him well.
Facts and fables blend as Kerala celebrates this royal return, year after year
with the festivities of Onam. Legend has it that the gods plotted against
Mahabali to end his reign. For this they sent Lord Vishnu to earth in the form
of a dwarf Brahmin. But before being trampled down to the netherworld, Vishnu
granted the king’s sole wish: To visit his land and people once every year.
A flower carpet called ‘Pookalam’ is laid in front of every house to welcome the
advent of the vanquished king, and earthen mounds representing Mahabali and
Vishnu are placed in the dung-plastered courtyards. Traditional rituals are
performed followed by a lavish feast called ‘Sadhya’. Onam also means new
clothes for the whole family, sumptuous home-cooked delicacies on plantain leaf
and the lingering aroma of the sweet Payasam.
Spectacular parades of caparisoned elephants, fireworks and the famous Kathakali dance are traditionally associated with Onam. It’s also the season
of many cultural and sport events and carnivals. All this makes Onam-time a
perfect period to visit this coastal state, touted as “Gods Own Country”. No
wonder the Government of Kerala has declared this time every year as Tourism Week.
The Grand Boat Race
One of the main attractions of Onam, is the ‘Vallamkali’ or boat races of
Karuvatta, Payippad, Aranmula and Kottayam. Hundreds of oarsmen row traditional
boats to the rhythm of drums and cymbals. These long graceful Snake Boats called
‘Chundans’ are named after their exceedingly long hulls and high sterns that
resemble the raised hood of a cobra.
Then there are ‘Odis’, the small and swift raiding crafts adorned with gold
tasseled silk umbrellas, the ‘Churulans’ with their elaborately curled prows and
sterns, and the ‘Veppus’, a kind of cook-boat. This traditional village rivalry
on watercrafts reminds one of ancient naval warfare.
Thousands throng the banks to cheer and watch the breathtaking show of muscle
power, rowing skills and rapid rhythm. These boats – all pitted against their
own kind – rip through the backwaters of Kerala in a tussle of speed.
Onam is For All
Although this festival has its origin in Hindu mythology, Onam is for all people
of all class and creed. Hindus, Muslims and Christians, the wealthy and the
downtrodden, all celebrate Onam with equal fervor. The secular character of Onam
is peculiar to this land where unity had always coexisted with diversity,
especially during festivals, when people come together to celebrate life’s