Festivals are integral to the character of Kerala, and Onam the annual harvest festival (Aug/Sep) is the biggest one. It marks the homecoming of the legendary King Mahabali and is stretched over ten days of which the first and tenth days are most important. Onam is a time for rituals, new clothes, feasts, dance, music and festivities.
The first day, Atham is considered auspicious and prayers are offered at the local temples after a bath. Women start making the Pookkallam or flower carpets on this day, and more flowers are added on the following days.
On the ninth day, ‘Onakazhcha’, (presenting gifts to the eldest member of the family, Karanavar), takes place. The Karanavar in return, offers a sumptuous feast to the family members.
The tenth and grandest day Thiru Onam, is an extravaganza, showcasing cultural performances like Pulikali, Kaikottikali, Kummattikali, Kathakali, Thumbi, Thullal, and a range of other folk art.
Red clay cones called ‘Trikkakara Appan’ are made and placed at important places in the houses including the front courtyard. Rice flour and molasses are then offered at Nivedyam (offerings to God). Adorning new clothes, everyone is now ready to indulge in the Onasadya, or the grand meal. The central dining place is occupied by the eldest member of the family. Food is served in banana leaves, on a mat laid in the most prominent place of the house. The elaborate meal consists of 11 -13 strictly vegetarian dishes.
One of the best-known water carnivals associated with Onam is the Snake Boat Race at Aranmula, a little village near Kottayam, held on the river Pamba. About 30 chundan vallams, or snake boats participate in this regatta conducted on a stretch of 40 kms. Each boat is manned by about 125 oarsmen rowing in unison to traditional songs or Vanchipattu, and the cheers of thousands of onlookers. Hundreds of thousands of spectators come from all over the world for this spectacular Boat Race.
The evening ends with a fantastic display of fireworks leaving one with enduring memories and eager anticipation for the next Onam.