Onam, Kerala’s harvest festival, is a traditional South Indian holiday that celebrates the coming winter with feasts, songs, dances, and boat racing.
Local traditions say Onam has been celebrated since time immemorial in Kerala to honor the return of Mahabali from the underworld. Mahabali is a mythical king said to have reined over southern India during a golden age of prosperity before being banished by the gods for his arrogance. Though dethroned and banished, Kerala’s traditions say Mahabali is allowed to visit his former kingdom on earth once a year during the Onam festival and rejoice in the happiness of his people.
For 10 straight days, the entire state of Kerala in South India comes to life in a dazzling display of elephant parades, firework displays, songs and dances. Traditional sporting events, like snake boat races, are both popular and common throughout the festival. Snake boat races (Vallamkali) involve dozens of oarsmen per watercraft rowing in time to the furious beat of drums.
The Onam festival is celebrated throughout Kerala, but the largest festivities are concentrated in larger cities like Thiruvananthapuram. As many of the festival’s most important events involve water sports, it’s best to dress in clothing you don’t mind getting wet.
Preparations for the Nehru Trophy Boat Race begin several weeks in advance. Floats giving glimpses of Kerala’s rich cultural heritage follow the race boats, with artists performing “kathakali” “theyyam” “panchavadyam” and “padayani”. Visitors will also have a chance to see elaborately caparisoned elephants during this festival.