Famous festivals in Kerala
Kerala, known as God’s own country is a tourist’s paradise. This place not only offers a lot of tourist destinations to visit, but is also known for its culture and cuisine. The diverse culture of Kerala is mainly influenced by Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. There are several festivals in Kerala and each festival has its own distinct fragrance and music. These festivals give you a glimpse of rich heritage of the state. Kerala also hosts a number of Temple festivals, which are celebrated for a number of days. Here’s a list of famous festivals in Kerala.
When: Between August and September
Where: All over Kerala
Onam is the most important and popular festival in Kerala. Celebrated with much pomp and fervor, Onam is a harvest festival. Onam is also called Thiruonam and it is celebrated at the beginning of the month Chingam of Malayalam calendar. In Kerala, Onam is way bigger than Diwali, which is the most important festival celebrated across India. Onam is celebrated by everybody in the state irrespective of their community, caste, creed and class. It is also the festival that marks the return of King Mahabali, who sacrificed his life for his people.
Legend: The story behind Onam festival is interesting. According to legends, the asura king, Mahabali, who ruled Kerala, became very powerful. He was a noble and just king and he was expanding his kingdom. He conquered the earth and the netherworld, which made the gods in heaven restless. They were threatened by the growing power of Mahabali. To seek help, the gods went to Vishnu, who agreed to help them. Vishnu, disguised as a dwarf Brahmin,Vamana, went to meet Mahabali, who was in the middle of a yagna (fire sacrifice). Mahabali had declared that if anyone sought anything from him during the yagna, he would grant their wish. Hence, the dwarf Brahmin asked Mahabali to give him land equivalent to his three paces. As soon as Mahabali agreed to give him the land, Vamana grew in stature. With the first step he covered the sky and with the second step, he covered the earth. As one more step was remaining, Mahabali asked him to place the third step on him head. With the final step, Vamana sent the Mahabali to netherworld but he granted Mahabli’s one wish to visit the earth and meet his people once a year. Onam is celebrated on the day Mahabali returns to earth to meet his subject.
Festival: There are four main days of Onam and the most important is Thiru Onam. However, the celebration starts ten days prior to Thiru Onam and each day has its own significance. Houses, offices and shops are decorated with intricate flower arrangement called Pookalam. People buy new clothes, exchange gifts and visit temples. The ten days of celebration includes cultural activities like Atthachamayam, Pulikali, boat race, Kummati kali and tug of war.
The most important part of the celebration is the Sadya, the lunch on Thiru Onam. Around 26 dishes are prepared and served on a plantain leaf. Attending Onam Sadya is a great way to experience the culture of the state through its food. Many hotels in Kerala and outside the state host Onam feast.
Where: Vadakkunnathan Temple in Thrissur
Thrissur Pooram is one of the biggest temple festivals in Kerala. Pooram means annual festival celebrated on the day when the moon is seen with a star called Pooram. And Thrissur Pooram is the mother of all poorams of Kerala. It is held at Vadakkunathan temple located in Thrissur in the Malayalam month of Medam.
Thrissur Pooram has been celebrated for over 200 years in honor of Shiva. This vibrant festival showcases the rich musical heritage of the state. The celebration includes traditional puja that lasts for almost 36 hours.
History: Like most of the festivals of India, Thrissur Pooram also has an interesting story behind it. In Kerala, Arattapuzha pooram was the most importantfestival till 1798. Many temples from across the state took part in the procession held in Arattapuzha, which is located about 10 km from Thrissur. But, few temples were unable reach on time for the procession due to the incessant rains. They were not allowed to participate in the procession and were denied entry into Arattapuzha temple as they were late. Those who were not allowed to take part in the procession went to the Raja Rama Varma, the Maharaja of Cochin. A new pooram was started by the Maharaja at the Vadakkunnathan temple at Thrissur by unifying 10 villages. This pooram at Thrissur rose to prominence and became the most important temple festival of Kerala
Festival: The celebration starts with ceremonial flag hoisting, which is known as kodiyettam, seven days before the main pooram.Ten temples from in and around Thrissur visit theVadakkunnathan temple during the festival to pay their obeisance. The main two main participants of the procession are Paramekkavu Bagavathi Temple and Thiruvambadi Sri Krishna Temple.
The main attraction of the pooram is the sight of over 50 caparisoned elephants passing through the streets accompanied by drums. On the day of pooram, 15 elephants march from Paramekkavu Bagavathi Temple and 15 elephants from Thiruvambadi Sri Krishna temple towardstheVadakkunnathan temple. These beautifully clad elephants stand in two rows facing each other at the venue. Thousands of people flock to this venue to see the enthralling sight of the bedecked elephants and the sound of around 80 drums playing competitively along with Nadaswaram.
The celebration proceeds with display of colorful sequined umbrella. After this event, the elephants and the idols of Krishna and the goddess are taken back to the temple. The celebration ends with amazing display of fireworks that lasts around three hours.
Photograph Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Where: All over Kerala
Vishu marks the beginning of the New Year for people of Kerala. It is one of the most important festivals of the state. The festival is celebrated in the month of Medam of the Malayalam calendar with much pomp and vigor. The most important part of the festival is the Vishukani. Apart from Kerala, the festival is celebrated in the neighboring region like Mangalore, Tulunadu and Udupi. Vishu is also called as the festival of fireworks and light as the celebration includes bursting of fire crackers. It is said that Krishna killed the demon Narakasur on the day of Vishu.
Festival: The celebration starts with Vishukani, which is the first thing people see in the morning. Vishukani is an arrangement of auspicious items including gold, yellow cucumber, white cloth, coconut, mirror, a lamp and an image or idol of Krishna. Gold coins and the color gold are central to this arrangement. Kanikonna, a yellow flower is also included in Vishukani. It is believed that Vishukani brings luck and prosperity for the coming year. In villages, children carry this Vishukani arrangement from house to house.
Another interesting ritual of the festival is the Vishu kaineetam, which includes giving money to others. Usually, elders of the family give money to children. It is believed that this ritual brings prosperity for children of the family. After Vishukani and kaineetam, the entire family gathers to enjoy the sadya or feast. For Vishu, special dishes are prepared using vegetables like pumpkin, jackfruit and mangoes. And the feast is a mix of sour, sweet, bitter and salty items. Vishu kata, Mampazhappulissery and Vishu Kanji are some of the popular dishes prepared on Vishu. The celebration ends with a spectacular display of fireworks in the evening.
Kerala Boat Festivals
When: Nehru Boat Race- second Saturday of August, other boat races- between July and September
Where: Nehru Boat Raceheld on the Punnamda Lake, near Alappuzha
The backwaters of Kerala is not only a major tourist attraction, it is also the venue for thrilling boat races. The magnificent boat race is held between July and September, when the backwaters are swelled by the rains. Kerala hosts several boat races but the most popular races are the Nehru Trophy Boat Race and Champakulam Moolam Boat Race.
This is the most important and fascinating part of the race is the snake boat, which is called Chundan Vallams. These magnificent boats are 100 t0 120-foot long canoes made of wood, which is locally called ‘Aanjili thadi’. The boat can carry about 100 rowers and when it moves through the dark backwaters, it looks like a snake. Chundan vallam is also said to be the ‘the biggest water vessel used for sports purpose’. Chundan vallams were originally war boats and the first Chundan Vallam was constructed in the 14 th century by King Devanarayana of Chembakassery.
Another important part of the race is the boat song, which is called Vanchipattu. Vanchipattu is a form of poetry in Malayalam language and it is recited during the boat race.
History: The most popular boat race,Nehru Trophy Boat Race, is associated with the visit of Jawaharlal Nehru, the former Prime Minister of India. He visited Alapphuzha in 1952. Nehru travelled to Alappuzha from Kottayam in a special boat. People of Alappuzha welcomed Nehru with a roaring cheer. The first boat race was conducted in honor of Nehru and it was an impromptu race. The race was thrilling and in the excitement Nehru jumped into the winning boat, Nadubhagam Chundan, which carried him to the boat jetty. After returning to Delhi, Nehru donated a Silver trophy for the winner of the boat race. The trophy was a replica of the snake boat on a wooden abacus with the following inscription: “To the winner of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore-Cochin.” In the fond memory of the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the race is conducted every year.
The next famous boat race is the Champakulam Boat Race, which has an interesting history behind it. A temple was built by the King of Chempakasseri, Devanarayanan, at Ambalappuzha but later, he learnt that the idol of Krishna he was about to install was not auspicious. The king asked his ministers to bring the idol of Krishna from Karinkulam temple located in Kurichi. The ministers got the idol and on their way back stayed at Champakulam. The idol was kept in the home of a Christian family. The villagers organized a huge procession and lined up chundan vallam for the king and the idol. After reaching the destination, the idol was installed in Ambalappuzha temple. To commemorate the event, boat race is held every year.
Festival: Vallam Kali, which literally means boat game or boat race, is held during the monsoon season when the backwaters are full. The race is not just a test to the speed but also about skill and endurance. The participants practice for days to take part in the race. These boat races are a major crowd puller. The beautiful boats competing with each other are a marvelous sight.
The most important boat race is the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which is conducted in the Punnamada Lake located close to Alappuzha. Nehru Trophy Boat Race is held every year on the second Saturday of August. Nehru Trophy Boat Race is conducted in the memory of the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Champakulam Boat Race is one of the oldest snake boat races in the world. During this boat festival, the village of Champakulam located in the district of Alappuzha comes alive with the arrival of different types of boats like kuthi, churulan, veppu and the majestic chundan. People flock to the banks of Pampa River to see these marvelous boats competing. The date for the Champakulam Boat Race is decided according to the Malayalam calendar. It usually falls between June and July.
When: Between April and December
Where: North Malabar, mainly in the Kolathunadu region
Theyyam is one of the popular festivals in North Malabar of Kerala, mainly in the area of Kolathunadu, which includes present day Koyilandy Vadakara Taluka in Kozhikode, Kannur district, Kasargod and Mananthavady Taluk in Wayanad. The festival is also celebrated in Tulunadu and Kodagu in Karnataka.
Festival: This 800-year old festival is celebrated between December and April. It is a form of worship and it showcases art and fold dance. There are over 400 different types of Theyyam dances. Wayanad Kulaven, Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Raktha Chamundi and Kari Chamundi are some of the best Theyyam performances. Performers of Theyyam, who belong to the lower caste, dress as deities for the dance or invocation. Usually the venue for the ritualistic dance is the village shrine. Theyyam is also performed as ancestor worship in the houses.
There are three stages of learning for the performer of Theyyam. The first stage involves adorning themselves using flowers and colors. They also wear a mask. In the second stage, the performer undergoes self-torture. The third stage involves dancing.
Theyyam dance is performed in front of a shrine and doesn’t involve any curtain or stage. The spectators usually stand close to the performers. Mythological stories are enacted during the performance, which is also called the “dance of gods”. The performance could last for 12 to 24 hours with breaks. The performer dresses as the deity of the temple and dancer who propitiates the shrine’s main deity has to observe fast after sun set. The makeup of this particular dancer is done by specialists.
The first segment of the performance is called Thottam or Vellattam. Decorative costumes or elaborate make up is not done for this part of the performance. The performer wears just a red headdress. The dance is performed to a special ritual song, which is recited by the drummers and the dancer. The songs are usually describes the legends and myths associated with the main deity of the shrine. Folk musical instruments are used for Theyyam.
After the initial dance performance, the dancers take a short break. He goes to the green room and comes back with proper costume and full makeup. The face painting has different patterns and some of them are called prakkezhuthu, kozhipuspam, kattaram and vairadelam. For face painting, mainly primary and secondary colors are used. The performer puts on the headdress after few rituals. Once he starts dancing in from of the shrine again, he ‘metamorphoses’ into the shrine’s deity. The dancer takes sword and shield in his hand and circumambulates the temple. The dancer starts running in the courtyard. The dancing ends with the distribution of Prasad, which is turmeric powder. Turmeric powder is given as token of blessing.
Kodungallur Bharani Utsavam
When: Between March and April
Kodungallur Bharani Utsavam or just Kodungallur Bharani is one of the most exotic festivals in Kerala. The festival usually falls during the Malayalam month of Meenam or the period between the month of March and April. It is hosted at the Kodungallur Bhagawati, which is one of the grandest temples in the state, in Thrissur. The main deity of Kodungallur Bhagawati is goddess Bhadrakali and this centuries-old festival is celebrated to mark Bhadrakali’s victory over a demon called Daarika.
During the celebration of the festival, devotees sing song and dance in group. The rituals of the celebration include blood and are bit extreme as compared to other temples of Kerala. The rituals followed at this temple are believed to be the temple’s tradition. The celebration continues for three days and people from different communities take part in the traditional rituals of the temple.
About the temple: Surrounded by trees, the Kodungallur Bhagawati temple has a seven ft high idol of Bhadrakali. The idol is made of wood from jackfruit tree. The most important feature about the idol is that it has eight arms carrying symbols and weapons. There is no kodi maram or flag post in this temple. On the left side of the temple has an enclosure which has an ancient deity, Samadhi of Vysoori, for mumps, small pox and chicken pox. Turmeric powder is offered to the deity nbyt he devotees. There is also a sacred pond on the left side of the temple. According to a legend, the goddess created the pond by striking the ground using her sword.
Legend: It is believed that Daarika, the demon, was defeated by goddess Kali but even after defeating the demon she was angry. To make her feel better, her soldiers began singing songs. Since then, the devotees of the goddess visit the temple and sing songs. They also take part in this ritual also to seek redemption.
Festival: The festival begins with the arrival of thelocal king, who is considered to be the temple’s keeper.After the king arrives at the temple, he raises the sacred, red silk umbrella as a sign to start the festival. With this sign, thousands of oracles, both women and men, and other spiritualists called velichappads, run to the temple in a state of trance wielding swords and sticks. The devotees are usually dressed in red and they sing songs and also shout abuse in bawdy language. These devotees are also called the Komarams and the ritual is known as kaavu theendal. During this ritual, the devotees smite their forehead with the sabre. Devotees also use their sticks to strike the rafters of the temple and the offerings are hurled over the roof. After this ritual, the devotees seek blessing from the king.
The festival also includes a ritual known as ‘Kozhikkallu moodal’. In this ritual, cocks are sacrificed and their blood is offered to the goddess. After all the rituals are completed, the temple is closed for purification and cleaning. The Bharani festival is celebrated to thank Bhadrakali for saving the people from the demon.
When: Between February and March
Where: Attukal in Thiruvananthapuram
Attukal Pongala is the one of the most important festivals of Kerala. The festival is celebrated in the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple, which is located in Attukal, Thiruvananthapuram. Women from across the state visit the temple and take part in Attukal Pongala festival. This festival brings together women from all religion and caste. The festival holds the Guinness Record for hosting the largest congregation of female annually. With every year, the number of women attending the Pongala festival rises dramatically. Only women are permitted to take part in the Pongala ritual.
The festival is celebrated for ten days and the most important day is the ninth day, when thousands of women from across the state visit the temple to pay their respect to the presiding deity. The Attukal Bhagavathy Temple is dedicated to goddess Kannaki, a manifestation of goddess Parvathi.
Legend: According to a legend, Kannaki (goddess Parvathi) got married to the son of a merchant, Kovalan. Howeever, soon after the wedding he got besotted with a dancer called Madhavi. Kovalan completely forgot about his wife Kannaki and spent all his money of Madhavi. Later he realized his mistake and came back to Kannaki.They decided to sell a pair of anklet that belonged to Kannaki and was the only thing left to sell. They went to Madurai to sell the anklet. During that same time, the anklet of Madurai’s queen was stolen and her anklet was similar to Kannaki’s anklet. The King’s soldiers arrested Kovalan and beheaded him.
On hearing the news, Kannaki got infuriated and rushed to the palace to show the king the second pair of anklet. She broke her anklet, which contained rubies in it, where as the queen’s anklet had pearls. Kannaki cursed the Madurai and it came true.
Later, Kannaki was travelling to Kodungallur and she passed Attukal. She transformed herself to a little girl and asked an old man sitting near the banks of a river to help her cross the stream. He was surprised to find the small girl travelling alone, so he took her home. However, the little girl disappeared. She appeared in the man’s dream and asked him to construct a temple in his grove on the place where he will find three golden lines. It is believed that this is the location where the Attokal temple is standing today.
Festival: The celebration of Attukal Pongala festival starts with a musical rendition. Members of specific families perform the musical rendition. These families have been performing and narrating the story of goddess kannaki. The main feature of this performance is the when the singers sing about the annihilation of the King. The musical performance is held for nine days prior to the Pongala. Bhajans, classical music concerts and ballets are other highlights of the festival.
On the ninth day, women folks from across the state visit the temple to pay their respect to the goddess and participate in the Pongala festival. Dressed in their best, they cook the sweet dish, Pongala, using rice, jiggery, ghee, coconut and banana that they bring to the temple. The pongala is then offered to the deity of the temple. The festival is not just popular among the Hindus of the state but is attended by foreign women.
When: December 25
Where: All over Kerala
With Christians accounting for more than a quarter of the total population of Kerala, Christmas is one of the most popular festivals in Kerala. The celebration is a fusion of local, Western and Syrian tradition. Christmas is celebrated with great pomp in Kerala. People shop, prepare delicious dishes and decorate their homes. Christmas is celebrated to mark the birth of Jesus Christ.
History: Christianity reached India when St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, landed in Muziris, which is in the area of present day Kodungallur, in AD 52. It is said that few of the locals were converted to Christianity by him. Gradually, Christianity began to spread.
Festival: The celebration of Christams starts with making a crib for baby Jesus and decorating Christmas tree at home. The whole house is decorated with lights. Gifts are exchanged and traditional dishes are prepared. People also buy new clothes for Christmas. One of the important events of the day is attending Christmas mass. On this day, the church displays scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. Melodious Christmas carols and hymns add to the festive mood.
Children usually give hand-made cards to the elders of the family members, neighbors and friends. People attend midnight mass and greet everyone. After the midnight mass, eat plum cake with homemade wine.
Another fun part of the festival is Santa Claus. The carol groups that visit each home are accompanied by Santa. Santa Claus sings and dances with children and then distributes gifts.
Christmas in Kerala is incomplete without the plum cake. Every Christian family has their own version of plum cake and it is something you must not miss. To make plum cake, the fruits are soaked in wine for around 41 days! Apart from the cake people also make wine at home. Traditional dishes include Mutton or Chicken stews & Appams, Kappa biryani, Kappa stew, Neyyappam, Unniappam and Acchapam cookies. Recently, the people in Kerala have started making turkey for Christmas.