Onam is one of the most significant harvest festivals of Kerala and is an attraction for thousands of people outside and within the State. All the activities during this season are centered on worship, music, dance, sports, boat races and good food. This festival is celebrated in the Malayalam month Chingam (ending of August and beginning of September).
Onam is a harvest festival and celebrates the reward of nature after a year of hard work. The merry-making of the festival includes an elaborate procession of Trichur and amusing boat races on River Pampa. Women dress up in heavy jewellery, new saris and make complex and detailed designs of “rangolis” and “pookkalam”(with flowers) in front of their homes.
Onam is celebrated in the memory of King Mahabali. It was said that King Mahabali ruled Kerala a long time ago and looked after the welfare of the people. Thus Onam shows the blissful rule of the King and the freedom, which the people enjoyed under his rule. The people also believe that during Onam, the King returns to Kerala to pay a visit to his people.
The people in Kerala arrange for this festival by cleaning up their houses and decorating them. On the occasion of Onam, everybody in the family wears new clothes. Delicious sweets and dishes are prepared and served on the banana leaves.
‘Pookalam’ a flower mat is visible outside every house. This mat is a symbol of welcoming King Mahabali. On the eve of Onam, traditional rituals are performed and the people celebrate the occasion with a grand feast.
‘Payasam’, a sweet and tempting porridge is one of the favourite desserts served on the eve of Onam. ‘Vallamkali’ or a great boat race is an attractive feature of this festival. In this game hundreds of men row the boats to the beat of drums and cymbals.
An interesting thing to note is that above each boat there is a scarlet silk umbrella and gold coins are hung from the umbrella. This event is extremely popular with various boats competing with each other in order to win the race.
Not only Hindus but Christians and Muslims also celebrate Onam. It is one such festival that unites all the people regardless of race and religion. The colourful festival of Onam is an attraction for thousands of people within Kerala and outside the State. The State Government itself has taken the initiative to celebrate Onam season as tourist festival with the motive of attracting tourists. Various cultural forms, old and new, are presented in all-important towns in the state during the festival.
In Trichur, a vibrant procession with resplendently caparisoned elephants is taken out. There is magnificent display of fireworks. The temple at Trikkakkara (where the legend of Mahabali is beautifully depicted) is one of the major attractions of the Kerala’s festivities.
The Vallamkali (boat race) is one of the main attractions of Onam. Some of the sites famous for these races are Aranmula on the Pamba River in the Kuttanad region, Papiyad near Quilon, and Thayathangadi near Kottayam.
At Shoranur, Kathakali dancers in gorgeous costumes enact the legends. Kovalam hosts a Kathakali and native arts festival and a village fair, with handicrafts and cuisine predominating. A Cheruthuruthy, people gather to watch Kathakali performers enact scenes from epics and folk tales.
Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season, performers paint their bodies in bright yellow, red and black spots and lines to resemble tigers, and dance to the loud beats of percussion instruments like udukku and thakil.