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 five of the best Kerala Onam festival attractions for you to enjoy. Also keep an eye out for stunning Onam pookalams (floral carpets) laid out for the occasion.
1. Thripunithura Athachamayam
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 the Vamanamoorthy Temple in Thrikkakara (also known as Thrikkakara Temple). This modern day festival follows in his footsteps. The whole town gets festive with decorations, street stalls, and floral arrangements.
- Where: Tripunithura, near Ernakulam in greater Kochi.
- When: Atham, 10 days before Thiru Onam (also known as Second Onam, the main day of Onam). This year, Thripunithura Athachamayam will take place on August 21, 2012. Various other cultural events will continue until August 27 at Layam Ground.
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.
- Where: Restaurants in cities across Kerala.
- When: The main Onam day (Thiru Onam).
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 1, 2012.
4. Aranmula Snake Boat Race
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 amongst 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 Pampa River near the Parthasarthy temple in Aranmula. It’s half an hour by road from Changannur railway station.
- When: Towards the end of Onam. (Check the listing of events in September to confirm the date).
Kerala Tourism puts on a huge week-long Onam celebration at around 20 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.
- Where: Trivandrum and around. Events are also held at Vellar Tourist Village (also known as the Kovalam Tourist Village), on the outskirts of Trivandrum near the Kovalam junction.
- When: First Onam (the day before the main Onam day) and continuing throughout the following week.