Its Onam time in Kerala again!

Onam festivities - Kerala Travel Centre

Kerala is gearing up for the mother of all festivals - Onam. Of all the colourful and tradition filled festivals that are celebrated around the year in Kerala, Onam is the most popular - and not without reason (or should we say reasons). Kerala Travel Centre tells you what makes Onam such a special festival.

Being celebrated on the 29th of August this year, this cultural extravaganza abounding in colourful traditions and festivities  will last for ten days. Essentially a harvest festival, Onam also celebrates the return of the mythological King Mahabali who is said to visit his subjects each year on this marvel of an occasion. As interesting as the festival itself is the legend behind it.

The story of Onam:

Myth has it that long ago a great and mighty King called Mahabali ruled Kerala. His subjects worshipped him ardently and he ruled with such courage and righteousness that he came to be called Mahabali Chakravarthy (King of Kings). Under Mahabali the land prospered and everything was available in abundance. According to Hindu mythology, the heavens were ruled by Lord Indira, the King of the Gods. Such was Mahabali’s glory that he went to war with the great Indira and vanquished him in battle. Shamed and distressed by his defeat, Indira’s mother Aditi prayed to Lord Vishnu, the supreme of all Gods, asking for help to regain Indira’s lost glory. Vishnu answered her prayers and was born to Aditi in the form of a dwarf called ‘Vamana’.

Meanwhile Mahabali was performing a great ritual so that he could extend his kingdom to the heavens and to be proclaimed as the greatest King. During the ritual, Vamana the dwarf appeared before Mahabali and spoke great words of wisdom. It was customary for Kings to reward the wise and impressed by the dwarf’s wisdom, Mahabali granted Vamana any wish he wanted. The dwarf smiled at the King and said “I want some land. Only as much as can be measured by me in three paces.” The great King couldn’t help but smile at Vamana’s modest request and granted him his wish.

And then something strange happened. As soon as the wish was granted, Vamana the dwarf started growing in size and transformed into a colossal figure as everyone stared in disbelief. With one mighty step Vamana covered the earth, with his second he covered the heavens. There was no place left for the third step and he asked Mahabali what he should do. Not one to break a promise, the great King asked Vamana to place the third step on his head. Vamana obliged placing his third step on Mahabalis head ready to push him into the nether worlds. However before he did, Mahabali asked Vamana to grant him a wish that he be allowed every year to visit his subjects. With Vamana feeing victorious in taking back the heavens and earth from Mahabali, he granted him this wish.

A man dressed as Mahabali during Onam festivities- Kerala Travel Centre

Every year Onam is celebrated as the homecoming of the great King around the harvest season when everything is in abundance…much as it was during Mahabli’s rule. Preparations for the festival begin well in advance as girls in every family make flower decorations called ‘pookallams’ to welcome the King on his return. Many pookallam competitions are held during this time giving the traveller the chance to witness some beautiful floral decorations.

Onam flower decorations- Kerala Travel Centre

Much like Christmas time in the UK, the festive mood across Kerala becomes very apparent from the decorations and fanfare displayed on the streets as families set off on shopping trips. If you also happen to be out walking the streets of Kerala during the festivities, don’t be surprised if you bump into people dressed as Mahabali.

The Ona Sadya:

One of the highlights of the occasion is the Ona ‘Sadya’ (for meal) which is the grand traditional lunch that the whole family partakes in on the main Onam day called Thiru Onam. The Ona sadya comprises of a sumptuous nine course meal consisting of some 11 to 13 dishes and is served on banana leaves. Families, adorned in their best traditional clothes, come together to partake in the meal.

Traditional Onam meal spread on a banana leaf

One of the most unique aspects of the festival is that it is celebrated by every household in Kerala, irrespective of religion or social stature - making this a great time to be in Kerala.

Please be advised however that unlike other Indians like Diwali in India which are marked by fireworks and colours, Onam is a more family oriented festival and to enjoy it in its entirety its best to participate in the celebrations with a local family.

Onam is also marked by various other events that take place during this time. Please refer to dates and venues below, if you wish to attend any of them.

Puli Kali- The Tiger Dance:

Tiger dance or Puli kali- Kerala
A very popular folk dance, the Pulikalli literally means the dance of the tigers. (Puli –Tiger, Kali meaning Dance). Performers paint their bodies like tigers, don tiger masks and dance to the accompaniment of percussions and drums. The theme of the play is tiger hunting and one performer takes on the role of the hunter and the others prowl around him leaping and growling like tigers. Event date: 1st September 2012.

Boat Races:
Boat races are also an integral part of the festival. Whilst the Nehru trophy boat race is the biggest of its kind in Kerala, other smaller boat races are organised during the Onam festival.
Event date: 31st august 2011 - Boat Race , Venue: Payippad lake near Payippad, Alappuzha

Kerala boat race

A 10 day long celebration is also held in Trivandrum after Thiru Onam which is marked by dance performances.

Onam falls on the 29th of August this year. If you are someone who loves culture and are travelling to Kerala during this time, make sure to speak with one of Kerala Travel Centre ‘s experts who would be very happy to design an itinerary that gives you an insight into this cultural extravaganza.