Onam is the biggest and most important festival of the year in Kerala. It's a harvest festival that also marks the start of the new year on the Malayalam calendar. A huge range of activities take place across the state for over two weeks. Here are six of the best Kerala Onam festival attractions for you to enjoy.
In addition, keep an eye out for stunning Onam pookalams (floral carpets) laid out for the occasion.
Do note that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kerala government has prohibited public celebrations of Onam this year. Shops and restaurants are allowed to open but social distancing norms must be followed.
There isn't a more colorful start to the Onam festival than the Athachamayam festival, which kicks off celebrations. The festival features a street parade accompanied by decorated elephants and floats, musicians, and various traditional Kerala art forms. It has interesting beginnings, which can be traced back to the Maharaja of Kochi. He 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. The whole town gets festive with decorations, street stalls, and floral arrangements. Teams also compete in a floral rangoli (pookalam) competition.
- Where: Tripunithura, near Ernakulam in greater Kochi.
- When: Atham, 10 days before Thiru Onam. August 22, 2020. (Canceled). Various other cultural events will continue at Layam Ground in the 10 days leading up to Onam.
Celebrations at Thrikkakara Temple
Thrikkakara Temple is particularly associated with the Onam Festival. Celebrations commence there on Atham with a special flag hoisting ceremony and continue for the 10 days with cultural, music, and dance performances. A highlight is the grand procession, pakalpooram, on the day before Thiru Onam. The main deity, Vamana, is carried around the temple grounds on an elephant, followed by a group of caparisoned elephants.
- Where: Thrikkakara village, around 15 kilometers northeast of Ernakulam near Kochi, off Thrissur-Ernakulam highway (NH 47).
- When: The day before Thiru Onam. August 30, 2020. (Canceled).
Kerala Tourism's Onam Celebrations
Kerala Tourism puts on a huge week-long Onam celebration at a multitude of venues in the state's capital, Trivandrum. The festivities include stage shows (drama and classical dance), folk art, food stalls, and handicraft fairs. It all culminates in a grand parade on the last day, complete with floats and decorated elephants. The theme for the parade this year will be Kerala's revival after the floods. The East Fort-Vellayambalam stretch in Trivandrum will also be beautifully illuminated.
- Where: Various venues in and around Kanakakkunnu Palace, Trivandrum.
- When: Canceled.
Food, glorious food! It wouldn't be Onam without a festival feast. Traditionally, it's referred to as Onasadya, and it consists of a number of specialties (often more than 20 different curries) dished up on a banana leaf. You won't need to look far to find a restaurant in Kerala that serves this tasty treat. Kerala Tourism's Responsible Tourism Mission also operates an Experience Ethnic Cuisine program whereby tourists can dine on traditional Onam feasts in selected local homes, most of which are in and around Kochi, throughout September. It's possible to say in homes as well.
- Where: Across Kerala.
- When: Thiru Onam (the main Onam day). August 31, 2020.
Hundreds of grown men dressed up as tigers and dancing to the beat of traditional percussion instruments are an unexpected feature of Onam celebrations. Although this display of the art of Pulikkali may be one of the quirkiest festivals in India, it's actually very serious business! You may be surprised to discover that it takes around four hours to completely decorate one person. As part of the process, all body hair needs to be removed to enable the skin to be painted in intricate detail. After the festival is over, performers wash themselves with kerosene to get the paint off. There are prizes for the best dressed tiger, and best dance. Grrrr.
- Where: Swaraj Round in Thrissur.
- When: September 3, 2020. (Canceled).
Snake boat races are another highlight of the Kerala Onam festival. The Aranmula Boat Race is not only the most famous one, but it's also among the oldest snake boat races in Kerala. Unlike the others, the focus is more on tradition than competition. The event has religious significance as it commemorates the installation of the idol of Lord Krishna at the nearby Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple. Almost 50 boats take part in the race, which starts in the afternoon after religious rituals are completed.
- Where: The banks of the Pamba River near the Parthasarthy temple in Aranmula. It’s half an hour by road from Changannur railway station.
- When: September 4, 2020. (Canceled).