When I think of Onam, yummy traditional food and fierce boat races come to mind. And that’s it I know it’s possible to just row the boats and eat lots of food for 10 days, but we all know there is so much more to this beautiful festival.
Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala, is celebrated with gaiety and fervour by Keralites all over the world. The festival is celebrated to honour the beloved King Mahabali, who is believed to return to Kerala during this festival. According to Vaishnava mythology, King Mahabali defeated the Gods and began ruling over all three worlds. King Mahabali was a demon king who belonged to the Asura tribe. The kind-hearted king was much-loved by the people. The Gods got insecure of King Mahabali’s popularity and Lord Vishnu to step in and help contain Mahabali. Lord Vishnu took on his fifth avatar, in the form of the Brahmin dwarf Vamana, and paid a visit to King Mahabali. King Mahabali asked Vamana what he wished for, to which Vamana responded, “three pieces of land”. When Vamana was granted his wish, he grew in size and in his first and second piece respectively, he covered the sky, and then the netherworld. When Lord Vishnu was about to take his third piece, King Mahabali offered his own head to the God. This act impressed Lord Vishnu so much that he granted Mahabali the right to visit his kingdom and people every year during Onam festivities.
During the ten-day festivities, devotees bathe, offer prayers, wear traditional clothes, participate in dance performances, draw flower rangolis called pookkalam and cook traditional feasts called sadya. Here are some of the rituals you’ll see during Onam:
There isn’t a more colorful start to the Onam festival than the Athachamayam festival, which kicks off celebrations. Athachamayam give a spectacular glimpse of the different folk art forms of the state.The festival features a street parade accompanied by decorated elephants and floats, musicians, and various traditional Kerala art forms such as Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Thiruvathirakali, Theyyam, Karakattam, Ammankudam, Attakavadi, Pulikali, Mayilattam etc. Tableaus themed on current affair issues too form part of Thripunithura Athachamayam.
This event held at the historical town of Thripunithura is a celebration of a legendary victory of the King of Kochi. It is believed that the king used to march from Tripunithura to Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara (also known as Thrikkakara Temple), which according to legend is where the Onam Festival originated. This modern day festival follows in his footsteps. During the Atham, the whole town wears a festive look and vendors line up to sell all kinds of wares that include conical clay, mounds representing Mahabali and Vishnu, called Thrikkakara Appan. This is placed at the centre and beautifully decorated coloured flowers on it
Onapottan is a guest who visits every household in North Kerala during the Thiruvonam day. Donning a headgear and wearing heavy, vibrant makeup, and colourful costumes, Onapottan represents King Mahabali. He walks around with a bell in one hand and a palm leaf umbrella (Olakkuda) in the other and showers his blessings on his ‘subjects’. The most interesting element of the art form is that the Theyyam doesn’t speak, and hence the name ‘Onapottan’ (colloquial version of speech impaired).
Onapottan is usually accompanied by two other artists who play the Chenda (drum) and Illathalam (cymbal), while singing the songs narrating the lore of Mahabali. While custom demands that Onapottan shouldn’t speak, the legend of King Mahabali is conveyed by Onapottan through his stellar performance. Onapottan is known across the North Malabar region in different names. While the people of Kannur call the folk character Onavedan, those in Kozhikode call him Oneshwaran or Onapottan. This rare art form is revered by the people of the land and is a very important ritual associated with the Onam festival.
Pulikali (puli means leopard and kali means play) is a common sight during Onam season. On the fourth day of Onam, you will see performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, who dance to the beats of instruments like Chenda and Thakil. It is performed in different parts of Kerala yet, the one that is performed in Thrissur district is quite old. From children to elderly people take part in Pulikali. It is like a carnival procession in Thrissur city where thousands of people gather to watch the Pulikkali groups that come from different parts of the state to perform. The Pulikkali dancers portray the scenes of tiger preying on its victim and the hunter hunting a tiger.
The origin of Pulikali dates back to over 200 years, when the Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran, the then Maharaja of Cochin, is said to have introduced the folk art, who wanted to celebrate Onam with a dance that reflected the wild and macho spirit of the force. Over the years, there has been changes in the adornment of Pulikkali dancers. In the early days, masks were not used and participants would have themselves painted all over, on their faces as well. But now, ready made masks, cosmetic teeth, tongues, beards and mustaches are used by the participants along with the paint on their bodies. The entire procedure lasts around 12 hours. Huge floats are driving in from villages around Thrissur, whereas participants are dancing or acting as storytellers. The different troupes compete with each other to make the best floats as well as the best dressed tigers.
And how do we get satisfied by just one dance. So here is Kummattikali – the famous colorful mask-dance of Kerala. Mostly held in South Malabar region, the Kummattikali performers move from one house to another collecting small gifts and entertaining people.
Their peculiar attire is the most interesting facet of Kummatti performers.They don a heavily painted colourful wooden mask depicting faces of Krishna, Narada, Kiratha, Darika or hunters. These masks are usually made out of saprophyte, jack fruit tree, Alstonia Scholaris, Hog Plum tree or the Coral tree.Dancers wear skirts woven out of plaited grass.They also hold and manipulate long sticks of residuary agricultural produce called ‘Kummattikali’, it is from this that the dance derives its name. If one wants to catch this performance, it is best to visit Thrissur during Onam, as the Kummattikali dances are rampant there during that time.
We cannot talk about Onam without talking about the famous boat race. Boat racing is not just a sport but a traditional festivity, unique to the religious being of Kerala India. Though more or less religious in origin, the Kerala boat races used to be held as part of competition or settlement between two rival communities in the bygone eras. An interface between sports and festivity, most of the boat races are held on Kerala backwaters.
During Onam season, the backwaters of Kerala come alive with decorated floats and active water sport. Locally known as Kalivallangal, the fleet on the languid backwaters would be headed by the most majestic boat of the lot, referred to as Chundan Vallam. The sight of the oarsmen rowing in unison, singing to the rhythm of the oars, is indeed worth watching.
Click here to read more about this tradition!
Have you read Neeraj Narayanan’s book – This Guys’s On His Own Trip yet? It’s right now #1 bestseller in the travel books category on Amazon. Click here to buy your copy!