by Dr. Venugopal Menon


Kerala state on the southwestern Malabar Coast of India was formed in 1956, by combining Malayalam-speaking regions of the erstwhile regions of Cochin, Malabar, South Canara, and Travancore. The region had been a prominent spice exporter since 3000 BCE. At the time of the independence movement, there were two major princely states in Kerala, Travancore State and the Kingdom of Cochin. Kerala has the highest literacy rate, lowest population growth rate, the highest Human Development Index, and the highest life expectancy of any state in India. The state has also the highest media exposure in India with newspapers published, mainly in English and Malayalam. The state is perhaps the first in the world, where a democratically elected Communist government took charge and has been in power after many elections. Kerala is one of the prominent tourist destinations of India, with coconut-lined sandy beaches, backwaters with the air-conditioned, houseboats, hill stations, Ayurvedic tourism, and tropical greenery as its major attractions.




Onam is the most popular annual festival celebrated in the state of Kerala. It is a harvest festival celebrated by Malayalis, during the dates based on the Panchangam (Almanac) and falls on the star Thiruvonam in the month Chingam of Malayalam calendar, which in the Gregorian calendar overlaps with August–September. According to legends, the Onam is celebrated to commemorate the visit of Mahabali, the demon King who was sent out to the ‘netherworld’ by the fifth incarnation of Vishnu, Vamana, but who was allowed to come and see his citizens once a year. Onam is a major annual event for Malayali people in and outside of Kerala. It is a harvest festival, one of three major Hindu celebrations in Kerala, along with Vishu and Thiruvathira. Onam celebrations include Vallam Kali (boat races), Pulikali (tiger dances), Pookkalam (flower Rangoli), Onam Kali, and several other celebrations. It is New Year's day for Malayalis.

There is also sumptuous feasting, (Onam Sadya) and family gatherings, as people of Kerala recreate the utopian life that was enjoyed during Mahabali’s rule.

Onam is the official state festival of Kerala with public holidays and is also celebrated by the Malayali diaspora around the world. Though its origins are often attributed to aspects in Hindu mythology, Onam is celebrated as a cultural festival across all communities in Kerala, and nowadays, is participated by all with great enthusiasm.

Any mention of Onam would not be complete without mentioning its 8 century-old, traditional boat festival, the world-famous ‘Vallam Kali’. This extremely competitive canoe race, in which any ‘Chundan Vallams’ participate, each 100-120 feet long with 64-128 paddlers, is a major tourist attraction. The Nehru Trophy race near Alapuzha, Kerala, and Arnamula Boat races are the most popular races.




On the first day of Medam, coinciding with mid-April, the event symbolizes the auspicious ‘Vishukkani’, ‘first viewing’ of Lord Vishnu’s decorated image, with lighted lamps, along with gold, silver, a mirror, and harvest materials, making it a sumptuous viewing representing the whole of the coming year. The golden yellow flower, Kani Konna, Indian laburnum, adorns the setting, as the family members experience the togetherness, the eldest member offering coins to the younger members (Vishu Kaineettam), fireworks are displayed, all wearing new clothes, visiting temples and enjoying a sumptuous feast afterwards.



(December/January) Thiruvathira Festival falls on star Thiruvathira in the Malayalam month of Dhanu (December-January) that has been celebrated on this day for more than 1500 years. In Kerala, Thiruvathira is an important traditional festival celebrated by the Namboothiri, Kshatriya, and Nair communities of Kerala. It is largely a festival for women, who fast and pray to have good husbands and for their well-being. The first Thiruvathira of a newly-wed woman is her poothiruvathira.

The typical meal avoids rice but includes cooked broken wheat, Thiruvathira puzhukku, a delightful mix of tuber vegetables cooked with a thick paste of freshly ground coconut. The dessert is koova payasam, a sweet dish made of arrowroot powder, jaggery, and coconut milk. The women in groups dance to the tune of typical Thiruvathira songs and dance (Thiruvathira Kali or Kaikottikkali) all night, taking bath early in the morning as they sing certain songs mostly relating to the God of Love, accompanied by the rhythmic sound produced by splashing water with their palms. Oonjalattom, swinging on an oonjal (swing) is an item of amusement on this occasion. The event spreads the message of joy and also illustrates the emotions of a married woman towards her beloved and the unmarried woman longing for one.

From prehistoric times, Malayalee women enjoyed an enviable position in the society, and she was practically the mistress of her house (Matrilineal system). The elevated position she occupied at home and in the society had distinguished her from her neighbors and influenced her status to a considerable extent in the social structure, customs, and religious practices of the people, a parallel of which can hardly be found in any section of the Indian Society, or for that matter, anywhere else in the world.