The main Hindu festivities in Kerala surround the biggest and grandest harvest festival of Onam followed by the temple festivals and feasts. Known and celebrated mostly by the Hindu community in Kerala, the festival of Onam has gained such popularity that many people of other communities and religions take active part in the celebrations. Right from the preparation of the famous Onam sadhya, decoration of houses and street corners and snake boat races to colorful dances and plays depicting the origin of the festival, all require the participation of the town folk to make the celebration a success.
And therefore, if you find yourself in Kerala in the middle of Onam celebrations, there are several things that you could involve yourself in. Tourists who stay in the home-stays or in hotels where these celebrations become a way of showcasing the culture and tradition of Kerala, surely stand to benefit as they too are welcomed into the preparation and festivities. Some of the things you could take part in are in the practices of the traditional dance of Kaikottikali or in the decoration and design of the floral art or ‘pookalam.’ You may learn to tie the traditional mundu set sari the women wear, which consists of a white cloth wrapped around the bottom half to resemble a sari and another white cloth with gold trimmings draped over the blouse.
The preparations start almost ten days before the actual and final day of Thiruvonam. In smaller towns, every neighborhood street or road would have a temporary wooden shelter put up to showcase the beautiful ‘pookalam’ which means ‘floral art.’ This beautiful art can be seen in larger towns and cities made on the porch or at the entrance of the house and sometimes within the homes, where space is a constraint. The florists in Kerala profit much during the festival as the demand of different varieties and colors of flowers increase. In fact, during the initial ten days, one or two new varieties of specific flowers are introduced to the existing pookalam as the days progress. Flowers are sold in the market whole or shredded carefully so as not to damage the petals and bought in kilos. Several schools, colleges, and workspaces join in the festivities by having ‘pookala matsaram’ which is basically a floral art competition in which groups or teams participate to win. The colors, designs and sizes of these pookalams are simply breathtaking and the human talent to create beauty can truly be appreciated.
The design of the Pookalams generally revolves around the theme of Onam. The skeletal design is made with rice powder or chalk. The freshness of harvest is depicted by not using any other artificial color, accessories or materials. A traditional brass lamp called Nilavilakku or an Indian style brass measuring cup called Nirapara may be used around or in the centre of the pookalam.
Another part of the festivities of this grand harvest season where the granaries are full and the people wait in hope of the legendary King Mahabali to ascend onto earth on this day of Onam, are the dances. The ‘kaikottikali’ is a traditional dance performed by the women of Kerala who dress up in their traditional attire of a two piece white mundu set with gold borders that resembles a sari once worn. They adorn themselves with gold jewelry and jasmine flowers decorate their hair which is tied into buns. Kaikottikali is also known as ‘thiruvathirakali’ when performed during the festival of Thiruvathirai in January, and is traditionally performed usually by 8-10 dancers who dance around the pookalam with the traditional brass lamp ‘nilavilakku,’ centrally placed. Women of all ages participate.
The dance depicts unity and coordination and the dancers gracefully move around the pookalam clapping their hands and moving in a clockwise or anticlockwise manner. The rhythm of the steps and movements are in sync with the songs they sing in praise of the great King Mahabali. Kaikottikali is derived from the basic dance forms of Kerala like Bhairavi, Kathakali and Kamboji. There are places where the song and dance pick up momentum and then slow down. The dance adds to the fervor and spirit of the festival of Onam.