Onam is the national festival of the ‘Gods Own Country’ celebrated during the Malayalam month of ‘Chingam’, which falls in the period of August - September. Legend has it that the mythological King Mahabali – a great ruler, whose reign witnessed the golden era of Kerala, visits his subjects from the nether world on the day of Onam. Onam is celebrated with much pomp and gaiety with colorful floral carpets (pookkalam) and the traditional ‘sadya’ – a Lucullan vegetarian banquet served on banana leaf. Onam is also a celebration that reaches across the boundaries of religion – celebrated by Hindus, Moslems, Christians and minority communities in the state with equal vigor.
The state of Kerala is transformed into a bee-hive of celebration and frolic with the onset of ‘Atham day’ which heralds the beginning of the ten day long Onam celebration. Its impeccable timing which coincides with the period of harvest season in the state adds further color and gaiety to the celebrations. There are a variety of celebrations held during this period all over the state. Athachamayam, a colorful carnival, held in Thrippunithura - the erstwhile capital of the Cochin royal family on the day of Atham is worth special mention. Kerala’s famous Snake boat races are held during the season of Onam. Colorful dance performances like Thiruvathira, Thumbi Thullal, Pulikali (Tiger Dance), Kummatti Kali et cetera are a specialty of the season.
Vishu, the Malayalam New Year, is one of the most important traditional Kerala festivals. The New Year’s Day falls on ‘Medam’ in the Malayalam calendar which would be during the March – April period. The state is transformed into a hub of revelry and merrymaking during the auspicious occasion of Vishu. The celebration begins at dawn of the New Year’s Day with elaborate rituals in the temples and exchange of greetings and gifts. Early before dawn the ‘kani’ (a symbol of good-luck) is prepared at homes. It is believed that if the first sight that greets a person on the day of Vishu is ‘kani’, good luck and prosperity will inevitably follow throughout the year.
People are seen clad in traditional attire thronging the temples early in the morning. Traditional singing and dancing are part of the Vishu celebrations. The traditional vegetarian ‘sadya’ is prepared in homes and hotels for lunch. Cultural celebrations are organized to make this day a truly delightful start for the year.
X-Mas is celebrated with much frivolity in Kerala. With the onset of December, stars start appearing in houses across Kerala, later comes X-Mas trees, Nativity cribs, Santa Claus effigies, cakes, gifts et cetera. Kerala has a strong mix of ethnic Christians in its populace, predominantly from the denominations of Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Protestant and a number of other denominations. Midnight masses are conducted across the numerous Basilicas, Cathedrals and churches of Kerala on the eve of X-Mas. Ecumenical carol fests are also conducted across towns. Don’t be surprised if you hear traditional carols like Adeste Fidelis and Dominus Dixit in Kerala.
Bakrid is celebrated with much pomp and splendor amongst the Muslim population of Kerala. Rich people sacrifice a goat or bullock and the same is distributed amongst relatives, friends and the poor. This feast of sacrifice is originally called Idul-Adha, but is pronounced in the Indian sub-continent as Idul-Azha. Bakrid is celebrated to commemorate the willingness of God’s obedient servant Abraham to sacrifice his only son. The famous Haj is performed soon after celebrating Idul-Azha.
Ramdan, originally known as Id-Ul-Fitr, falls in the seventh month of the lunar year (January-February). The main ritual of the festival is distribution of food to the poor and needy. Throughout the seventh month, Muslims observe a day-long fast, the main purpose of which is the purification of the body and soul. The festival is marked with the appearance of the crescent moon on the western horizon.
Muharram, also known as the sacred month, symbolizes the beginning of the Muslim year - Hijra. The month is a mourning period for the Shias who commemorate the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson Husain, who died for the sake of righteousness. It was on the tenth day of Muharram that Husain was cruelly murdered by the troops of Ummayyad Caliph Yazid. From the seventh to the tenth of Muharram, various processions are held to commemorate the martyrdom of Hasan’s son, Qasim, along with Husain. A white horse goes along with the procession to represent the horse on which Husain rode. Verses in honor of Husain are recited on the evening of the twelfth day. Food is distributed to the poor on the thirteenth day and with this the celebrations of Muharram end.
» Sabarimala festival
The Sabarimala festival is the festival of prime importance for the devotees of Lord Ayyapa. The centre of importance in this regard is the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district. A sight worth seeing is the temple dome which is covered in beautiful gold. The months between November to January is the main pilgrimage season. Devotees making their way to the temple bare footed, wearing black dhotis, and carrying traditional offerings on their head are a common sight during this season. These devotees from places all over India undergo painstaking penance and undergo a sober type of living before starting on their pilgrimage to Sabarimala.
The devotees take a holy dip in the river Pampa on their way uphill. This ritual bath is supposed to absolve them from all their past sins. The pilgrims also pay due obeisance at the shrine of the Muslim deity - Vavar, who was a close ally of Lord Ayyappa. This site is important for the communal harmony it portrays. No woman in the fertility age group is allowed entry into the premises of the temple.
» Cochin carnival
A joyous merry making feast is what the Cochin carnival is all about. It is celebrated amidst fun, frolic, sounds and lights during the last week of every year in Fort Kochi, Kerala. The party-like atmosphere offers a lot for the youth to enjoy. During the carnival the fort bears a festive look with competitions, games and illumination. The whole event is highlighted by a massive procession on New Year Day which is marked by caparisoned elephants, drums, music, floats, folk art forms, north Indian dances, et cetera. The colorful rally featuring indigenous art forms, traditional music and spectacular floats offers a real treat to the senses. The celebrations culminate with the burning of a huge Santa Claus effigy on the eve of New Year at the Fort Cochin beach.
» Jewish festival
The Jewish festival is the only one of its kind and is celebrated in Mattanchery, Kochi, during the month of April-May. Mattanchery is the hub of the last of the remaining Jews in Kerala. This Jewish festival is significant as it is similar to the Passover festival that commemorates the liberation of the Jews from Pharaohs slavery. Following the Passover is the Pentecost Festival and the Feast of the Tabernacle.
» The Flavor Food festival
The concept behind the food festival in Kerala is to make tourists and other visitors to have an opportunity to taste the range of Kerala delicacies. The food festival is held annually in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram from 5th to 11th of April. The week-long international food festival has participation from renowned hotels from all over Kerala.
» Malabar Mahotsav
Malabar Mahotsavam is the name given to the cultural burlesque that serves as a platform to showcase the age old rich cultural heritage of Kerala. The highlights of the festival are performances of the characteristic Kerala classical dances like Kathakali, Mohiniyattom and Ottanthullal along with ritual art forms like the Koothu, Theyyam, Thira, et cetera. Musical concerts add rhythm to the entire function. The display of fireworks at the festival is implausible and the native cuisines offer a lot to savor. The centre of activity is the Mananchira Maidan situated at the heart of Kozhikode town. The festival is conducted from 13th to 16th January every year.
» Thrissur Pooram
The mammoth Pooram Festival is one of the main reasons behind Thrissur being called the cultural capital of Kerala. It is the most extravagant, spectacular and colorful temple festival of Kerala. The myth behind these “Poorams” is that it is the day of celebration for the dynastic goddesses and gods of the neighboring province when they meet each other. The most mind-blowing and awe-inspiring sight of the festival is the converging of the divine processions on flamboyantly decorated tuskers. There is a spectacular display of fireworks at dusk and the dawn of the next day. It is on the Malayalam month of Medam (April-May) that Thrissur Pooram is held. Thrissur Pooram attracts hoards of people from all over Kerala and even from outside. To add more grandeur to the Pooram, the two traditional groups representing Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi, the two main geographic divisions of Thrissur, rival each other in the display of luxuriantly caparisoned elephants. The main attraction of Thrissur Pooram is the “kudamattom” competition. This competition involves the swift exchange of sequined parasols in rhythm with “Pandimelam”, the traditional orchestra.
» Maramom Festival
Celebrated in the Thiruvalla town of Kerala, this festival was launched by the Marthoma Church of Kerala in 1894 A.D. The centre of activity is the banks of the Pamba River close to Thiruvalla town. The festival is basically a Christian Convention aimed at the revival of spirituality in the churches of Kerala. The festival has many Scholars of Christianity from all over India and abroad coming to deliver their sermons. The Convention consists of religious discourses, faith healing sessions, and singing of hymns. The large number of devotees rushing into Thiruvalla to participate in this festival has made it the largest Christian gathering in Asia.
» Aattukal Pongala
Conducted at the Aattukal Bhagavathi temple in Thiruvananthapuram city, Aattukal Pongala is an exclusive festival for women. The festival falls in the months of February and March and is a ten-day-long event. Pongala refers to the ritualistic offering of a porridge which is a mixture of rice, sweet brown molasses, nuts, raisins and coconut gratings. This porridge is then offered as a customary offering to Goddess Attukalamma. Thousands of women devotees assemble on either side of the roads that lead to the shrine and make offerings for the Goddess by cooking pongala in the temple vicinity. To add to the festivities, there is a colorful procession and musical ensembles by noteworthy artists.
» Maha Shivarathri
Maha Sivarathri in the essence of the word means ‘the great night of Siva’ and unlike the other festivals of Kerala, Maha Sivarathri is essentially a religious festival. The festival is held in memory of the day on which the whole world was protected from total annihilation by the courageous Lord Siva. Day-long fasts are observed on this day. Pooja’s are offered in honor of Shiva during the whole night. In addition to this, street plays, shows and dances keep the people awake all night long. The main purpose of all these rituals is to obtain bliss in the other world. It is celebrated with great grandeur especially in Aluva where the lingam of Siva rises out of the sand on the banks of the River Periyar.
» Kalpathi Raholsavam
The Kalpathi Ratholsavam is held annually at the Sree Viswanatha Swamy temple and is dedicated to Lord Siva. This temple is assumed to be over 700 years old and is situated at Kalpathy, near Palakkad. Also known as the chariot festival, the Ratholsavam is one of the most remarkable festivals of Kerala. The festival gets its name from the ceremonial procession which consists of thousands of devotees who gather to draw the temple chariots.
» Snake Boat Race
The Snake Boat race is yet another unique attraction of the state of Kerala. The races are conducted in the scenic emerald backwaters of the state. The usually tranquil and serene backwaters of Kerala is transformed into an epicenter of high-energy, action-packed excitement during the boat race. These indigenous boats come in different shapes and sizes from the size of a canoe to a mega yacht. The snake boats are massive and long, oared by a crew of 100-125 men, along with at least 25 singers and 4 helmsmen. It is the race conducted between these colossal boats that attract hordes of spectators from across the globe.
There is an array of exciting boat races conducted usually from the period of Onam till the New Year. Some of the popular ones are:
1. Champakulam Moolam Boat Race – Conducted in the Pampa River at Champakulam in Aleppey. The race features a range of boats including the snake boats. The race is held in the August – September period.
2. Nehru Trophy Boat Race - This scintillating boat race is conducted in Aleppey during the month of August. This is the most celebrated of all the boat races in Kerala. There is an exciting array of categories featuring both men and women at the oars.
3. Aranmula Boat Race – This famous race is conducted in the Aranmula River in Pathanamthitta during the month of September.
4. Indira Gandhi Boat Race – This boat race is conducted in the Cochin backwaters during the last week of December.
5. Payippad Jalotsavam – This boat race is conducted in the Payippad Lake during the month of August – September.
Apart from these mega-scale boat races there are a number of other boat races conducted in the Kerala lakes and backwaters.