Customs of Onam

The ten day long Onam carnival includes a wide variety of interesting activities. Traditional people sometime spend extravagantly to perform the exhaustive customs of the Onam festival. Apart from the diverse rituals and customs that need to be completed, there are several activities organized at committee and society level all across Kerala.

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This is a grand procession that is carried out to mark the beginning of the Onam carnival. On the first day of Onam, Athachamyam is celebrated with a lot of pomp and fanfare at Piravam and Thirpunithura. This procession is in fact a representation of a royal tradition. The Maharajas of Kochi state traveled to fort Thirpunithura with their entire entourage as a custom. The custom retains its royal charm even today in the absence of the King. The procession includes performances by artists, dance shows, caparisoned elephants and musical performances.

Snake Boat Race / Vallamkali

The Vallamkali boat race is one of the most popular and fascinating customs of Onam. The race is held on the fifth day of Onam. Vallamkali racing events take place all across Kerala but the most significant is the one organized at Alappuzha. Elegantly decorated Chundan Vallam boats oared by hundreds of oarsmen in traditional dresses participate in this race. The most captivating thing about this custom is the rhythmic rowing of these boats to the tunes and beats of boat songs. This is a very challenging and high energy race as a mistake by a single oarsman might overturn the boat and the race would be lost.

Aranmula Uthrittathi

Another magnificent even organized during Onam is the Aranmula Uthrittathi. This event is held annually at Aranmula on the Uthrittathi Asterism day. This event recalls the mythological story of Lord Krishna who is supposed to have crossed the river on this particular day. The spirit of Lord Krishna is believed to be present on all boats and the race cannot be considered as any competition. People gather in numbers to watch this event.

Procession of Decked Elephants

In Kerala’s cultural capital, Trichul, a procession of decorated elephants is carried out to mark the festival of Onam. This is a special event in Trichul. The elephants are adorned with jewels and bright sheets and it is an elegant sight to watch them walk out majestically on the streets. Song and dance is an integral part of this procession.

Celebrations at Cheruthuruthy

Cheruthuruthy houses the renowned Kathakali Training Center, Kerala Kalamandalm. A small village in the north of Trissur district, Cheruthuruthy is famous for its Kathakali performances. The best dancers and artists perform Kathakali during Onam and a large number or people come specially to watch these danced depicting the folk tales and scenes.

Pulikali / Kaduvakali

In this performance, artists dress and paint themselves as tigers with bright, yellow, red and black colors. The performances and dances depict goat hunting by tigers and tiger hunting by humans. These performances are played to the beats of Udukku and Thakil. It is also one of the most entertaining customs of Onam.

Kummattikali Performance

This is a folk dance performance from South Malabar. In this dance, artists dress themselves in skirts made from plaited grass and don a wooden mask. The wooden mask is painted in bright shades of green, red, black and white. Rhythmic dances to the beats of Onavillu are performed and folk themes and mythological tales are enacted by the artists.

Pookalam Competitions

Athapoovu or Pookalam competitions are organized across the state of Kerala during Onam. Pookalam is considered as an art and had gained immense popularity. These famed competitions witness large participants and huge onlookers. Innovative, intricate and creative Pookalam designs are the hallmark of these competitions.

Kaikotti Kali/Thiruvathirakali

This is a clap dance performed by women in praise of king Mahabali. It is generally performed around the Pookalam. At the center of Pookalam is a traditional bronze lamp called Nilavilakku. Women dressed in traditional sarees and jewelry look very elegant while performing this dance. The traditional attire is usually a gold bordered, off-white saree with fragrant gajra (flowers) in hair.

Thumbi Thullal

Thumbi Thullal is also performed by women and is another custom of Onam. Woman sit in a circular formation and perform this folk dance. The song is initiated by the lead performer who sits in the center of the circle. The other women slowly join the lead performer. These women also perform clap dance and are decked in ethnic jewelry and traditional clothes.


The collective name for all the sports played during Onam is called Onakalikal. The traditional games of Onam are rigorous and challenging and include sports such as alappanthukali and Kutukutu and combats such as Kayyankali and Attakalam and archery. Senior members usually play indoor games. Various committees and cultural societies organize sporting events all over the state during Onam.