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If you visit Kerala during the late monsoons, get ready to immerse yourself in a once-in-a-lifetime kind of cultural fete during Onam, Kerala’s official state festival.

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It is primarily a harvest festival observed in the month of Chingam that marks the beginning of the Malayalam calendar, Kollavarsham. On the Gregorian Calendar, it falls in the month of August-September.

According to the legend, this is when the powerful and benevolent King Mahabali came back from hell to the earth every year to meet his people since being sent to Patal (hell) by Vaman, a dwarf Brahmin avatar of Lord Vishnu. His revisit marks the 10-day long celebration of Onam since the Sangam period India.

Onam 2021 dates

In 2021, the Onam festival starts on August 12 and will end on August 23. The main celebrations are due to occur on August 21 on Thiruvonam Day or the Sacred Onam Day.

Onam celebration 2020

Source: Wikimedia Commons

August 12, 2021 – Atham

The grand procession Athachamayam from Vamanamoorthy Thirrikara Temple in Kochi marks the beginning of the Onam celebrations. In households and temple premises, designing of Pookalam commences, although subtly, with yellow flowers. In homes, people also install clay statues of Vamana and Mahabali in their dung-plastered courtyards.

August 13, 2021 – Chithira

Keralites clean and decorate their homes, and add two more circular layers to the Pookalam with creamy yellow and orange flowers. They also pay a visit to the temple.

August 14, 2021- Chodi

It is the day of onnakodi or onappudava. New clothes and jewelry are bought and gifted to friends and family members. Women don Kasavu sarees, men wear mundu, while young girls receive Pattu Pavada. A yet another layer gets added to the Pookalam, and it continues to grow bigger and more detailed.

August 15, 2021 – Vishakam

With harvest sales around, people would stock up vegetables and other ingredients for this day. Why? Because this is the day the preparations of the grand feast Onasadya begin.

August 16, 2021 – Anizham

Time to head out to the waters and row the boats. Anizham sees the snake boat face-off or Vallamkali on the Pamba River.

August 17, 2021 – Thriketa

Thriketa is the day for some more family time. Many would visit their ancestral homes and spend time with their loved ones.

August 18, 2021- Moolam

By this time, the state gets adorned with colors and lights all over. Many temples start offering Onasadya while households hold the feast on a smaller scale but no less vigor. You can also see numerous performers on the street for Pulikali and Kaikottukali dances.

August 19, 2021 – Pooradam

On this day, the devotees install statues of King Mahabali and Lord Vamana as a gesture to welcome Mahabali to all the houses. The clay pyramid-like structures fixed in the center of Pookalam is also termed as Onathappam.

August 20, 2021 – Uthradam or First Onam

The First Onam marks the first day of the arrival of King Mahabali in Kerala. Many Keralites go shopping for vegetables and fresh fruits and clean their houses on this auspicious.

August 21, 2021 – Thiruvonam Onam

All the celebrations of the past days reach culmination point on Thiruvonam, the main day of Onam. A traditional welcome gesture is putting flour batter at the entrance so that King Mahabali can visit every household and give his blessings on his entire kingdom. The Pookalam is finally complete with all its details and colors. Alms are distributed to the poor and needy, and everyone gathers for the grandest feast Onasadya.

August 22, 2021 – Avittom or Third Onam

Households and every other locality prepare for the return journey of Mahabali back to Patal. The Onathappan idol immersion takes place, marking the departure of King Mahabali and the final conclusion to Onam’s celebration. Post the immersion, the Pookalam also gets cleaned up.

August 23, 2021 – Chatayam or Fourth Onam

Kerala Tourism’s Onam Week program continues, with boat races and Pulikali dance performances taking place in several districts.

How is Onam usually celebrated?

The 10-day long festival sees Keralites indulging in numerous celebratory acts. Reflective of the state’s rich culture, it is indeed fun and enriching to be a part of the celebrations. Women dress up in the traditional white and golden saree called Kasavu saree, draw decorative rangolis on the floor, and engage in ritualistic dances (Thumbi Thullal). The men involve themselves in the tiger dances (Pulikali), boat races (Vallam Kali), martial arts (Onathallu), tug of wars, among others.

Locals also sing folk songs, stage traditional dance performances, and offer prayers to the deity of Vamana, Thrikkakara Appan, or Onatthappan. And of course, there is the traditional grand feast Onasadya, serving an assortment of vegetarian dishes on banana leaves.

Athachamayam

Onam Athachamayam Procession

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The grandeur of the procession of Tripunithura Athachamayam is awe-inspiring to any onlooker. It heralds the festival’s start with folk art demonstrations, people clad in bright and colorful dresses and wearing masks, marching elephants, music and drum beats, and carnival floats. The inauguration ceremony is also in reminiscence of the Maharaja of Kochi’s ceremonial march to Thrikkakara temple from his Raj Mahal (palace).

As a symbol of harmonious living and celebrations, the floats performed in the parade cite tales of various epics, including the ones from Mahabharat, Ramayana, and the Bible.

Pulikali – The Tiger Dance

Pulikali Tiger Dance in Kerala during Onam

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali, is the highly energetic Leopard/Tiger dance. In this folk art, performers paint themselves as tigers and wear costumes in the bright orange and yellow shades. POt belly accouterments are also worn. And then, to the thumping of the traditional percussion instruments such as Chenda, Thakil, and Udukku, the performers dance in procession, mimicking tiger movements.

Thiruvathirakali

Thiruvathirakali - Traditional dance in kErala performed during Onam

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Women clad in the traditional Kasavu saree, and fragrant gajras perform this traditional dance. They dance in a circle surrounding Nilavilaku, a standing lamp, in grace and merriment. Thiruvathira Paattu (folk songs dedicated to Devi Parvati and Lord Shiva) accompanies them as they dance around.

Kummattikal

Kummattikal - Kerala folk dance during Onam happing on the streets

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Observed in splendor on Thrissur district, this dance form sees people in soundly decorated masks. These colorful masks mostly depict Lord Krishna, Kiratha, Narada, and Darika.

Kathakali

Kathakali - Traditional classical dance

Source: Flickr

Valluvanad, the place linked to the origin and development of the traditional dance form Kathakali, along with Cheruthuruthy town, sees a spur of cultural events during these ten days of Onam celebration. For the uninitiated, the classical dance form Kathakali revolves around acts from various mythological stories.

Other dance forms staged include Kaikottikali (glorifying King Mahabali’s sacrifice), Thumbi Thullal (women sit in circles), Ottam Thullal (comedic and poetic dance performance), etc.

Pookalam – An elaborate floral map

Pookalam - Flower rangoli during Onam

Source: Flickr

Pookalam literally translates to flowers (poov) and color sketches (kalam). It is the beautiful and intricately decorated floral carpet, the laying of which is often seen as auspicious during Onam. It is similar to the Rangoli in North India, only being replaced by pinches of flower petals in various hues.

Women in households team up to decorate the floral map and put their artistic touch to beautify their homes and temple premises. When finished, they lit up lamps and place them in the middle or around the edges in a synchronized manner. Festoons and a miniature pandal (looks like an umbrella) also make their way to the flower carpet.

Traditionally, this ritual starts on the Atham day (the day of Atham Nakshatra) of the festival with Athapoo. On this first day, the design is small and simple, with only one circular layer using only yellow flowers. They become more circuitous and ornate with each passing day. Kerala’s  indigenous flowers and the Dashapushpam or the ten flowers are a must-include in the varieties used. In places across the state, Malayalis also take part in the Pookalam competitions.

Vallamkali – Row, row, row your boat

Vllamkali - Boat Race in Kerala during Onam

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A one of a kind of canoe racing, Vallam Kali, or snake boat (also locally known as chundan vallam) races is indispensable to celebrationing the harvest festival. Oarsmen row the boats singing the boat songs Vachipaatu as the crowds on the banks cheer them on. A thrilling sight to witness indeed!

Ona Sadya – The lavish nine-course meal
Ona Sadya Meal Feast during Onam

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam” means even if you have to sell away everything, you cannot skip the Onam meal. Yes, the Onasadya is that huge a deal. You either make one or have one or preferably, both. This indispensable grand feast comprises of a nine-course menu of nearly 26 dishes (can even go up to 30). Served on plantain leaves, this vegetarian meal must be eaten with hands.

Must visit places in Kerala during Onam

One of the best times to experience Kerala’s is during the celebration of Onam, a time when the entire state is adorned with festive colors and joyful jamboree. So, here’s a list for you so that you don’t count out the must-visit places in Kerala during Onam and overpass enjoying all the must-have experiences.

Trikkakara Temple

This previous abode of King Mahabali near Kochi is closely linked to the origin of the Onam festival. Legend has it that it was at this precise spot where Lord Vishnu’s fifth Avatar Lord Vamana, to whom the temple is dedicated, had sent the king to Patal or hell. Therefore, undoubtedly, a visit to this historic temple becomes of prime importance during Onam.

Lord Vamana’s deity is taken out in procession during the flamboyant Pakalpooram procession. On the last day of the festival, the deity bathing ceremony, also known as the Arattu ceremony, ticks off the 10-day carnival to an end.

Apart from the processions, dance, and musical performances, one of the festival highlights here is the Onasadya grand banquet. People from various religious sects join in the ceremonial spirit and enjoy a sumptuous meal, ending it with the mandatory payasam.

Trivandrum

Down in the South, Thiruvananthapuram, or erstwhile Trivandrum, had been a prominent cultural hub for ages. No festival, including Onam, goes without a boisterous celebration in this city of diverse ethnicity. For the ten days of Onam, Pookalam competitions, theatrical performances, arts, handicrafts fairs, folk dance competitions, etc. pepper the whole city at over 20 locations.

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Aranmula

The carnival takes a different turn from the road marching in Aranmula. The waters of the holy River Pamba and the racing boats along its length steal the show during Onam in this picturesque heritage village. Thousands of locals and tourists flock to the banks to witness this snake boat pageantry as rowers tun against each other in the rhythm of the drums and zealous boat songs.

Pay a visit to the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple, which was the heart of Pamba Valley civilization. While in the village, don’t leave without the Aranmula Kannady, a unique and spectacular metal mirror showcasing the local craftsmen’s mastery for centuries.

Alleppey

Famous for its backwater cruises, Alleppey is THE place to be at if you want to relish Onam celebrations in nature’s lap. It is a nonpareil experience to take part in Pookalam making on a houseboat and gorging on the delectable Onasadya while being afloat amidst the forested lands surrounding the rustic backwaters.

Arrive earlier in August and head out to the Punnamada Lake area to watch one of Kerala’s premier Vallam Kali, the Nehru Trophy Boat Tri Race.

Thrissur

Pulikali, the Tiger Dance, is one electrifying experience in Thrissur. Get a glimpse of the vibrant gathering near Swaraj Round. As locals don tiger attires and mimic tiger movement, the intoxicating performances and reverberating percussion beats infuse the atmosphere with festal vibes. A fun-to-watch event, you can join the revelry of the Tiger Play with scores of locals and tourists on the fourth day.

Onam festival celebration in 2021

Much of the state’s exuberant Onam celebrations may take a setback in 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 surge in Kerala.

In all likelihood, Onam celebrations in Kerala might be restricted like last year, where people had to restrict their celebrations to their homes and localities. The government has also banned all events that require public gatherings as of now. Hence, events such as Athachamayam, Pulikali, Pookalam contests, Onasadya, etc. may be suspended this year also.

Kerala Chief Minister Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has announced that the Kerala government will distribute special food kits during Onam festival season to 90 lakh ration card holders. The decision to distribute free kits is regarded as a ‘welfare measure’ to aid people as the state went under lockdown several times because of rising cases of COVID-19.

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