Hotels in India » Fairs and Festivals in India » Onam Harvest Festival

Onam Harvest Festival

When the monsoon has washed the land clean, when the harvest has been gathered, Onam blooms in Kerala. With one-third of the area low lying and covered with canals, lakes and backwaters, the people take to their boats and country crafts to celebrate.

After three months of heavy rains, the sky becomes a clear blue and the forests a deep green. The brooks and streams come alive, spitting forth a gentle white foam. The lakes and rivers overflow and lotuses and lilies are in full bloom. It is time to reap the harvest, to celebrate and rejoice.

The harvest festival of Onam corresponds with the Malayalam New Year, Chingam. Depending on the position of the stars and the moon, the festival is held at the end of August or beginning of September.

At Aranmulla, where there is a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna, thousands of people gather on the banks of the River Pamba to witness the exciting Snake Boat races. Nearly 30 chundan vallams or snake boats participate in the festival. Owned by villages bordering the river from the hills to the low lying plains – a stretch of about 40 kilometres – these boats are steered by oarsmen dressed in white dhotis (sarong-like lower garment) and turbans. Singing traditional boat songs the oarsmen splash their oars into the water in rhythm. The golden lace at the head of the boat, the flag and the ornamental umbrella at the centre make it a spectacular show. Though a competitive event, the festival is more of a visual extravaganza.

There are stories woven around this festival which is over 5000 years old. Once, many years ago a boat floated down the river laden with food. All of a sudden, at a turning in the river, it stopped. The Nambudiri (landlord and spiritual leader), thinking it was a bad omen, climbed up the river bank. He saw a hut where a dim light was glowing. When he walked towards it he saw a poor widow weeping and a few children sleeping on the floor. She told him there was no food and her children were hungry. The Nambudiri brought out food from the boat and offered to her. This practise of feeding the poor has continued over the years. Since then it has become a tradition among the Nambudiris to feed one poor person before the festival.

Once, about 10 kilometres up the River Pamba from Aranmulla, the Headman of Katoormana offered prayers and waited to feed a poor man. It was a long and disappointing wait. He began to pray to Lord Krishna. When he opened his eyes there stood before him a boy almost naked. The Namudiri took him to the river, gave him a bath, a set of new clothes and a splendid meal. Soon after the meal the boy suddenly disappeared. The search for the boy lead the Namudiri to the Aranmulla temple. After a brief encounter the boy again disappeared. Thereafter the Nambudiri brought food every year during Onam to the Aranmulla temple.

To protect the food form river pirates, the snake boats used to accompany the entourage. As the ritual developed into an annual celebration, the number of snake boats increased. The boats float down from Katoormana to the accompaniment of blowing conch shells, music and drum beats and torches are lit.

The colourful boat festival is held on the fifth day after Thiru Onam. Each snake boat belongs to a village along the banks of the river Pamba and is worshipped like a deity. Only men are allowed on board or to even touch a boat and that too barefooted. Every year the boat is oiled with fish oil, coconut shell and carbon mixed with eggs. The black mixture keeps the wood strong and the boat slippery in the water. Annual repairs are carried out lovingly by village carpenters and the people take pride in their boat which represents their village and is named after them. Tradition demands that the Nambudiri be at the main rudder oar which is about 12 feet long. There are four main oarsmen who control the movement of the boat. In minutes the boat can turn by just the twist of the hand by the chief oarsman. Everyone – the carpenter, the barber, the goldsmith, the blacksmith as well as agricultural labourers – have a place on the boat. In close harmony and magnificent synchronization they pull at the oars.

I remember my childhood days when I used to go to the riverside to watch my village boat compete with the others. When I was considered of age, I was invited to join the oarsmen on board the boat. Bursting with pride at the great honour, I dressed in my dhoti, ate a heavy meal and reached the riverside by noon. I was ushered to my seat and then an elderly man began to sing and we al pulled t our oars in rhythm. We sang a prayer to Lord Padmanabha and then moved on to other songs in praise of Lord Krishna. Among the repertoire were also love songs in Malayalam sung especially during Onam and the boat races.

It was thrilling to be on the boat but after one hour my body began to ache and I began to feel hungry and thirsty. But it was a easy to overlook the discomforts in the feverish struggle to win the race.

Onam is celebrated throughout Kerala. Singing and merrymaking is its hallmark. Onam depicts the story of Mahabali, the king who ruled the country during a period of great prosperity. The women dress up and decorate the entrance to their homes to welcome Mahabali who, it is said, still visits Kerala annually to bless the people. The State comes alive with festivity and activity. It is the time for prayers and ceremonies, celebration and rejoicing, fun and sports…. Time for the snake boat festival.

 Email this page