India has to be one of the most diverse countries on earth. Some of the most vibrant festivals and iconic religious rituals are practiced in South India, a part of the country that’s also known for its natural beauty and bountiful resources.
From Ayurvedic traditions to the cuisine, dance, martial arts, and the elaborate costumes used for religious ceremonies, South Indian culture is a celebration of life and the eternal universe.
As guest author Athul explains, the best gateway to experiencing local culture in the state of Kerala is through its food and festivals.
This is a guest post by Athul from Our Backpack Tales, a blog about travelling light on a budget.
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Kerala, better known as ‘God’s Own Country’, is both a treasure trove of culture and a place to witness nature at its best.
Visitors come from across the globe seeking soulful experiences.
9 unforgettable Kerala cultural experiences for visitors
Known as a place where culture and traditions are of utmost importance to modern life, Kerala is one the best places in India to indulge in festivals and experiences that will change your way of looking at things.
Make sure you seek out a couple of these meaningful cultural experiences to make the most of your trip to Kerala.
1. Join the Thrissur Pooram festival
One of the most colourful festivals in Kerala, Thrissur Pooram is also one of the oldest. It takes place annually in the months of April or May (depending on the astrological charts) at the Thekkinkadu ground in front of the Vadakkumnathan Temple in the city of Thrissur.
Founded by Raja Rama Varma, Maharaja of Cochin, more than 200 years ago, this festival is indeed one of the most famous in Kerala. It’s well-known for its procession of elephants, but the festival also involves performances of panchavadyam, chembada melam and Ilanjithara melam – different forms of traditional orchestra – kudamattam, which is a rhythmic interchanging of sequinned parasols, and fireworks.
Tourists are welcome to witness the Pooram festivities and there are no restrictions on photography or videography.
2. Witness Theyyam ritual worship
Popular in the Northern districts of Kerala including in Kannur and Kasargode, Theyyam is a vibrant dance ritual that narrates the legends and mythological stories of Kerala.
This unique art form is mostly performed by men and involves dance, music and mime. Theyyam has been practiced for more than a thousand years and it’s believed that there are more than 400 types, all with their own style of music and choreography designed to honour local heroes and ancestors.
The performers adopt heavy costumes and ornaments along with colourful face paint to bring their act to life. Music, which is an important part of the Theyyam, is played using traditional instruments like the chenda drum.
The best place to witness this mind-boggling performance is at the Parassinikadavu Muthappan temple, which is a popular tourist spot in Kannur. Known as the ‘Muthappan Theyyam’, it is performed in honour of the local deity, Parassinikadavu Muthappan. Interestingly, the offerings made to the deity here include fish and toddy!
Tourists are allowed to witness the Theyyam performance, but photography and videography is not allowed within the temple.
3. Eat traditional cuisine on Alleppey houseboat
Alleppey is famous for its network of canals, beautiful backwaters, and of course its traditional timber houseboats.
In the old days, boats were used to transport people and goods (including spices) between Kerala’s cities and villages via the network of canals. Today, the houseboats are still an important part of Kerala culture but mainly reserved for use by tourists.
What’s even better than floating through the backwaters on a houseboat is the traditional food you get to eat along the way. Most of them catch fresh fish and cook it up for you. The local ‘Pearl spot’ (karimeen) cooked with spices and wrapped in plantain leaves is the most popular dish among tourists. Other dishes include squid, shrimp, crab and lobsters. Vegetarian options are always available.
You can book a stay on a houseboat through any travel agency. It’s an experience you shouldn’t miss while in Kerala.
4. Celebrate Onam
Onam, Kerala’s beloved harvest festival, takes place in the months of August and September. It is celebrated by everyone regardless of caste or religion. The festival is believed to commemorate King Mahabali whose spirit visits Kerala every year during this time.
Boat races, pulikali (tiger dance), making flower rangolis/patterns called the pookalam, and tug-of-war are some of the main elements of the Onam festivities. Stretching over a period of 10 days, the streets of Kerala are illuminated with beautiful fairy lights and several fairs are organised in various cities as part of the celebration.
Another main aspect of Onam is the onasadhya, a traditional Kerala-style feast. Served on fresh plantain leaves, the onasadya includes boiled rice, between 15 and 20 side dishes, plus 3 payasams (desserts).
Tourists are always welcome to be part of the festivities. Many restaurants provide elaborate onasadyas, so that anyone can enjoy the feast.
5. Watch the Aranmula boat race
Taking place in the months of August and September during Onam, the Aranmula boat race is one of the oldest boat race tournaments in Kerala. Traditional snake boats are used to compete on the Pampa river near the famous Sree Parthasarathy Temple in Pattanamthitta district.
Participating in the race is considered to be an offering to Lord Krishna and is of great significance to the locals. A big celebration with music called the Vanchippattu accompanies the annual event.
Tourists are welcome to witness the Aranmula boat race, but it is always extremely crowded and often difficult to find seats! Tickets are available from 3000 INR upwards, but most people choose to stand in any available open space to watch the event.
6. See a Kalaripayattu match
Kalaripayattu is one of the oldest forms of Indian martial art and it originates from Kerala. Though it is seen less nowadays, it used to be a prominent part of popular culture a few decades ago.
There are many people who still practice Kalaripayatt, and you can find centres dedicated to teaching the ancient martial art in most cities in Kerala. There is said to be two kinds of Kalaripayattu originating from the northern and southern parts of the state, but the modern teachings incorporate elements of both.
Witnessing Kalaripayattu can enrich your cultural experience in Kerala. Some of the institutes also provide short courses for tourists as well.
7. Visit Kerala’s fishermen
Chinese nets or cheena vala are a common site in the waters around Cochin and Kollam. These are a type of traditional fishing equipment that’s been used in Kerala since ancient times.
Huge structures built from nets, stones and wood, cheena vala can be lifted and lowered into the water. Unique to this part of India, they’re an important symbol of Kerala culture.
More recently, the nets have become an iconic attraction for anyone visiting Kerala. The fishermen will demonstrate how to use them and are more than happy to let you have a go yourself!
8. Catch a Koodiyattam performance
Koodiyattam is a traditional Sanskrit theatrical art that originated in the state of Kerala. Recognised as a form of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, Koodiyattam is said to be derived from the ancient koothu and was later recreated in local language by the Chera rulers. It’s a sacred form of theatre that has been enacted for more than 2,000 years and is closely tied to Hindu religion.
During the performance, music is played on a traditional instrument called the mizhavu, a large copper drum. Special temple auditoriums called koothambalams can be found across Kerala, includingat the Guruvayoor and Vadakkumnathan temples in Thrissur.
Various institutions across Kerala are now trying to revive this art form which is fading away due to a lack of performers.
9. Watch Mudiyettu folk dance
Dedicated to narrating the tale of the Goddess Kali and her battle against a demon called Darika, Mudiyettu is a traditional folk dance performed in the Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Idukki districts of Kerala.
Like Koodiyattam, Mudiyettu is also recognised as a heritage art form by UNESCO. It is said to be performed only by the Marar and Kuruppu communities and it is passed down to future generations by the senior performers. There are no institutions dedicated to teaching this art form as it is community based.
The best place to witness Mudiyettu is at the grounds of temples worshiping Goddess Kali. Being a religious art form, one should show respect while observing the ceremony.