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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.
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 in India.
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Onam 2023 dates
For the year 2023, the Onam festival will commence on 20 August and will continue till 31 August. The main celebrations are due to occur on 29 August on Thiruvonam Day or the Sacred Onam Day from 2:43 AM to 11:50 PM.
20 August 2023 – Atham
The grand procession Athachamayam from Vamanamoorthy Thirrikara Temple in Kochi marks the beginning of the Onam celebrations. In households and temple premises, the 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.
21 August 2023 – 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.
22 August 2023 – Chodi
It is the day of onnakodi or onappudava. New clothes and jewellery are bought and gifted to friends and family members. Women don Kasavu sarees, men wear mundu, and young girls receive Pattu Pavada. Yet another layer gets added to the Pookalam, and it continues to grow bigger and more detailed.
23 August 2023 – Vishakam
With harvest sales around, people would stock up on vegetables and other ingredients for this day. Why? Because this is the day the preparations for the grand feast of Onasadya begin.
24 August 2023 – 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.
25 August 2023 – Thriketa
Thriketa is the day for some more family time. Many would visit their ancestral homes and spend time with their loved ones.
26 August 2023 – Moolam
By this time, the state gets adorned with colours and lights all over. Many temples start offering Onasadya while households hold the feast on a smaller scale but with no less vigour. You can also see numerous performers on the street for Pulikali and Kaikottukali dances.
27 August 2023 – 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 centre of Pookalam is also termed Onathappam.
28 August 2023 – 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.
29 August 2023 – Thiruvonam Onam
All the celebrations of the past days reach the 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 to his entire kingdom. The Pookalam is finally complete with all its details and colours. Alms are distributed to the poor and needy, and everyone gathers for the grandest feast Onasadya.
30 August 2023 – 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.
31 August 2023 – 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), and tug of war, among others.
Locals also sing folk songs, stage traditional dance performances, and offer prayers to the deity of Vamana, Thrikkakara Appan, or Onatthappan. Moreover, there is the traditional grand feast Onasadya, serving an assortment of vegetarian dishes on banana leaves.
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 colourful 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, also known as Kaduvakali, is the highly energetic Leopard/Tiger dance. In this folk art, performers paint themselves as tigers and wear costumes in bright orange and yellow shades. POt belly accoutrements 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.
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.
Observed in splendour in the Thrissur district, this dance form sees people in soundly decorated masks. These colourful masks mostly depict Lord Krishna, Kiratha, Narada, and Darika.
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 literally translates to flowers (poov) and colour 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 (which 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
A one of a kind of canoe racing, Vallam Kali, or snake boat (also locally known as chundan vallam) race is indispensable to celebrating 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
“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 is during the celebration of Onam, a time when the entire state is adorned with festive colours 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.
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 the 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.
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.
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 turn 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 the 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.
Famous for its backwater cruises, Alleppey is THE place to be 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.
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 beat 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 2023
For the year 2023, as stated by Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Onam celebrations will be held from 27 August to 2 September with a number of events.
State-level programs will be held in Thiruvananthapuram, and as advised by the Chief Minister, concerned departments should organise programs in a way that attracts people from outside Kerala.
Moreover, the Chief Minister, at the meeting discussing Onam 2023 celebrations, has further directed the following suggestions:
- the Onam procession will be organised with the participation of various government departments, public sector institutions, cooperatives and local self-government bodies.
- the departments should prepare and present floats, and there should be Onam markets.
- separate vegetable markets should be started, with the Kudumbashree markets being organised.
- food products, including vegetables, shall be given at a minimum price.
- horticorp should procure vegetables from farmers in Vattavada, Kanthalloor, and Wayanad.
- vegetables which are not produced enough in Kerala should be procured and distributed directly from farms and farmer associations in neighbouring states with quality assurance. Inspection should be done to control hoarding, black market etc.
- prominent names in the art and cultural sectors should be featured in the Onam celebrations.
- illuminations would be arranged for a week, and the Tourism department should take the initiative to arrange adequate facilities and ensure the safety of tourists.
- the departments should conduct meetings to ensure that the Onam celebrations are grand and colourful.