Festivals play a major role in sustaining social harmony and achieving social cohesion in this state. There are two types of festivals in Kerala: socio-religious and socio-cultural.
The temple festivals are the socio-religious festivals and the major Indian festivals are the religio-cultural ones.
Major Temple Festivals
Temple festivals are celebrated with pomp and splendour across the length and breadth of the state. They are major social events and tourist attractions.
They pay obeisance to various deities and consist of a host of religious and cultural practices. Some examples are given below.
The Arattu of Lord Padmanabha at Thiruvananthapuram
This is a festival of Lord Padmanabha and is celebrated at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram during the Painkuni festival .
The “arattu” means a holy dip in the water and the idols are taken in a ceremonial procession to Shanghumugham beach.
Usually the King of Travancore also accompanies the procession as the devotee of Lord Padmanabha and he performs and oversees the major rituals of this festival.
The Arattu of Lord Krishna at Ambalapuzha
Ambalapuzha Arattu is a temple festival celebrating Ambalappuzha Unnikannan or the infancy of Lord Krishna at the Sri Krishna Swamy Temple at Ambalapuzha.
The celebrations continue for ten days and on the last day which is called Thiruvonam Nakshatram, the holy bath is given to the idol and the festivals concluded with chanting and incantation of hymns..
The Aranmula Uthrattathi of Lord Parthasarathy
The Aranmula Uthrittathi is a festival of sailing in decorated and elaborate boats with offerings to be made to Lord Parthasarathy. It is celebrated by the famous ritual snake boat race during the festival of Onam.
It is a legendary story that when the Aranmula temple was attacked by enemies, people from the hinterlands of the area sent their snake boats to protect it.
This has now resulted in the cultural practice of a snake boat race with the winner presenting his offerings to Lord Parthasarathy.
The Attukal Pongala of Women
Attukal Pongala is the practice of female devotion to the Sabrimala deity. This festival is also known as the Sabrimala of Women.
It is regarded to be the biggest congregation of women in the world at the Attukal temple. Women cook food and offer it to the deity at the Attukal temple.
An important part of the meal offered to the deity is a sweet sticky semi-liquid dish called ‘Payasam’ prepared with rice, jaggery and banana. It is also an important delicacy of the Kerala cuisine.
The Adoor Gajamela
This festival is an annual event at the culmination of the ten day-long celebration held at the Parthasarathy Temple in Adoor.
The Gajamela is a procession of nine elephants who are bedecked in their ceremonial attire are paraded in a religious ritualistic procession before hundreds of devotees who congregate at the temple gates to worship them and behold the pageantry.
The Bharani Utsavam near Kayamkulam
In the Malayalam month of Kumbham which according to the English calendar is in February-March, the Bharani Utsavam is celebrated near Kayamkulam at the Chettikulangara Temple.
The salient features of this temple festival are Kuthiyottam and Kettukazhcha.
As part of the Kuthiyottam ceremony, young boys are made to fast and thereafter paraded under ornamental and beautiful parasols in a ceremonial procession to the temple.
There is festivity in the air as musical instruments are played and drums are beaten. For Kettukazhcha, local residents take part in a ceremonial procession to worship sculpted effigies of chariots, horses and different deities.
The Chittoor Konganpada of Goddess Bhagavathy
This festival is a festival of victory which was enabled by the divine assistance of the Goddess Bhagavathy who ensured the victory of the Nairs of Chittoor over the army of Konganadu (Coimbatore).
Konganpada is celebrated with triumphal chants, spectacles, and beating of drums as part o the rituals in the Bhagavathy temple at Chittoor in the months of February and March which comprise the Malyalam month of Kumbhom.
The Chottanikkara Makam of Goddess Bhagavathy
This is a ritual devotion where the idol of Goddess Bhagavathy is given a sacred bath at Chottanikkara Bhagavathy Temple.
The festival of Chottanikkara Makam is an auspicious day observed in which the Godess Bhagavathy after being given her holy bath is paraded along with Lord Shastha and eleven elephants in an open ground until noon.
The deity is bedecked in splendour and finery and also wears ornaments of pure gold and precious jewels. It is believed that all wishes made before her on this day will be granted fulfilment.
The Ettumanoor Festival of Lord Siva
This is a festival of the holy immersion of the idols of the deity in an ancient Siva temple north-east of Kottayam. The Ettumanoor festival is celebrated in great splendour by multitudes of devotees.
They assemble in the temple especially on the eighth and tenth days of the festival when seven and a half elephants made of gold are displayed before the people.
The Kodungallur Bharani Utsavam of the Mother Goddess
The Bharani festival is a festival of display of allegiance, obeisance and communion with the Mother Goddess. It is famous for a ritual called kaavu theendal.
For this ritual, oracles from various parts of the state congregate at the Kodungalloor Bhagavathy temple.
The men and women circle the temple in a trance, striking their crowns with swords and declaring their obeisance and their union with the Mother Goddess.
The devotees strike the temple ceilings with sticks and throw their offerings over the roof in to the inner sanctum of the temple.
Kumaranalloor Thrikarthika Uthsavam
It is a well-known and accepted legend has that the gods of the two temples Udayanapuram and Vadakkunnatha in Thrissur were smitten with the beauty of Devi as she returned from her bath.
They scaled the compound walls to look at her, and encountered the temple priests.
Thus a special religious ritual is performed over the walls of these temples Thrikkarthika is celebrated in the Malyalam month of Vrischikam which falls in November and December of the English calendar.
On this day, devotees visit the temples and present their offerings.
Throngs of people gather to wintess the spectacular display of lights in the evening, called Karthika Vilakku, which is the most beautiful part of the celebrations.
The Mannarsala Utsavam of Lord Nagaraja
Mannarsala, situated near Haripad, is the site of the famous temple of Nagaraja (God of Serpents). The temple is built in a grove and is contains nearly 30,000 idols of snake gods.
On the day of Ayilliam in the months of September and October all the serpent deities in the grove and temple are taken in a procession and are offered a meal of various delicacies Nurum Palum (rice flour and milk), Kuruthi (a red liquid made of turmeric and lime) and cooked rice.
This is believed to appease the snake gods and usher in fertility.
The Vaikathashtami Festival of Lord Mahadeva
The Vaikathashtami Festival is celebrated during November or December at the Vaikom Mahadeva Temple. It is a twelve day long worship of Lord Shiva and is performed in the dark lunar fortnight in the Malayalam month of Vrischikam.
The Ashtami falls on the last day, and at dusk, deities from nearby temples are paraded in a ceremonial procession around the temple.
All the deities are worshipped and offered homage after which a ritual bat or Arattu is performed in a pond near the temple. The festival showcases myriad classical dances and cultural festivities.
Major Religious Festivals
Kerala is home to people of myriad castes, communities and ethnicities. Therefore it celebrates all the major festivals of every religion in the world. Some of the examples are given below.
Onam is a harvest festival celebrated annually as the state festival of Kerala.
It is also known as Thiruvonam and all the inhabitants of the state irrespective of their religion celebrate it with zest and fanfare.
It is usually celebrated during the Malayalam month of Chingom which falls in August and September of the English calendar.
Among the myriad cultural activities are featured an elaborate decorative flower arrangement called Pookalam, an elaborate meal of staple Kerala cuisine including sweetmeats made of rice and jaggery served on plantain leaves, boat races in the backwaters, sporting events and a tiger dance called Pulikkali.
People visit each other with sweets and savouries, rejoice in the festival and exchange gifts and ndew clothes as a token of happiness.
Vishu is an auspicious festival celebrated to usher in the Malayalam New Year.
It is celebrated on the first day of the Malayalam month of Medam which falls in April and May of the English calendar.
The morning of Vishu is very important and especially what a person sees at first in the morning.
This ritual is the Kani Kanal (meaning ‘first sight’. It is believed that his first sighted object will determine his fortunes for the rest of the year.
Thus any people spend their night in the temples in order to see the face of the deity first in the morning. The day of Vishu is a day of family gathering for the “Sadya” or mid-day feast.
The day ends with celebration and fireworks. The younger members of the family are given monetary tokens of love and blessings by their elders in a ritual called the Vishu Kaineettam.
Christmas in Kerala is unique. There is a large population of Christians in Kerala, nearly accounting for 23% of the state’s population.
So they celebrate this festival indigenously, by adapting the Christmas celebrations and adding to it the cultural ethos of the state.
The birth of Jesus Christ is observed with traditional church services and elaborate nativity arrangements.
The festival is one of spectacle and pageantry as church processions continue well into the night and the entire state revels in the birth of the Saviour.
Milad-i-Sheriff is celebrated by the Muslims as the birthday of Prophet Mohammed(PBUH) who was the Messenger of Allah and the propagator of Islam. In Kerala, this festival begins by reciting the Moulood, a short account of the prophet written in Arabic.
For the first twelve days, lectures are arranged where Muslim theological scholars or Ulemas deliver religious sermons the life of Prophet Muhammad.
The celebrations also include donation of food to needy people and other charitable activities such as distribution of clothes and other necessities as well as giving alms to needy and donations to institutions addressing the needy.
Ramadan, Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha
Ramadan is celebrated by Muslims to commemorate the day in 615 AD when the Holy Quran bestowed by Allah on humanity.
Ramadan is a month long religious ritual observed by abstinence from worldly practices and luxuries, fasting and prayers.
This period of fasting ends when the crescent moon becomes visible and Eid-ul-Fitr (the feast of breaking the fast) is celebrated.
Eid-uz-Zoha or Eid-ul-Adha is a festival of sacrifice celebrated forty days after Eid-ul-Fitr in which animal sacrifice is made to appease Allah and ensure the safety of human life on earth.
Muharram is observed by Muslims over a period of forty days to honour the martyrdom of Imam Hussain , the grandson of Prophet Mohammed(PBUH).
He was martyred in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD after which Islam was established as a religion.
Huge processions are organised on this day and ornate taziyas are built to denote the tomb of the slain martyr people.
A sect of the Muslims called Shias wear black and can be seen beating their chests in a ritual chanting to mourn the death of Imam Hussain.
In Kerala, Sivarathri is celebrated in the Malyalam month of Kumbham which falls in the calendar months of February and March.
The legend goes that it was on this day that Lord Shiva performed the Tandava Nritya or the terrifying dance of primeval creation, preservation and destruction.
At the Siva Temple at Aluva situated on on the banks of the Periyar river. an idol of Siva called the Lingom comes out of the sand on the river bank.
To watch this spectacle and to worship it several thousand pilgrims congregate here to chant hymns invoking Lord Shiva.
In Kerala, Deepavali or the festival of lights is celebrated on the day before the new moon rises in the Malayalam month of Thulam which falls in the English months of October and November.
Deepavali commemorates of Lord Krishna’s slaying of the demon Narakasura.
The Tamil communities in Kerala start the morning rituals with an oil bath before daybreak Then they eat a preparation of jaggery and dry ginger.
The celebrations include bursting firecrackers, making patterns with colour on the floors of houses, lighting up the houses with lamps and wearing new clothes
Festivals enrich Indian life. In Kerala the myriad festivals add to the harmony of different communities and knit the state closer culturally and socially.
The legends and rituals associated with these festivals add colour and flavour to the daily life of people. The spirit of joy and brotherhood unites the diversity of the population.