Fun 'n' frolic
After the Sadya and the siesta that follows is the time for games. Games like Onappanthu, Thalappanthu - both ball games, Ambaiyyal or bow and arrow, Cheettukali or card games, Aattakkalam kuthuka, Kambithayam, Kilikali or bird game, are traditionally for the men, Kannanamunnikkali, and so on for women and Onamkali and so on for children.
Oonjaal means swing. Oonjaalaattom - playing on swings by the women and children - is an integral part of Onam.
In Kilithattu, a game popular in the villages of Kerala, the den protects a stone – the ‘egg’ – placed in the middle of a square, from four men. The men trying to steal the ‘egg’ stand in four squares drawn inside the big one. The den, who is allowed to run along the inner lines of the small squares tries to touch the men with his hands and feet. If the den succeeds in touching one of them, that player is out of the game. The game ends either when the ‘egg’ has been stolen or when the den manages to make physical contact with all four men.
In Kazhakayattam, a game for youngsters, the competitors attempt to climb a long, oil-slicked pole to get to the prize tied on the top. The prize usually would be in the form of sweetmeats or money.
Manikkyachembazhukka is a game for women. Here, the players sit in a circle and pass a ripe areca nut, keeping their hands behind and singing a special song. The blindfolded ‘den’ who stands in the middle has to try and grab the nut being passed. If and when she succeeds, the person in whose hand the nut was intercepted becomes the next den.
Naadanpanthukali, a game that may be described as a combination between football and cricket played in the country style, is popular in the villages of Kerala.
Olenjaali, also the name of a common bird in Kerala, is an Onam sport for women. Here, the den tries to touch the ‘Olenjaali’, one of the women, with a branch. The Olenjaali stands in the middle of a chain formed by the rest of the women to protect her. While the game is on, the den and the rest of the players engage in a loud dialogue that entertains spectators and adds to the excitement of the game.
The Keralite who enjoys the outdoors of his beautiful land loves to fly kites during Onam. This fascinating sport, loved by people all over the world since ancient times, streaks the skies with psychedelic hues adding to the charm and the beauty of Onam.
In Uriyadi, a player tries to catch a swinging earthen pot. Two people who hold long ropes tied to the pot control the movements of the pot swinging it towards and away from the player. When the player finally succeeds in catching the pot, he breaks open the bottom and drinks the delicious curd inside.
Vadamvali or tug-of-war, an Indian favourite for occasions of celebration, is played with great enthusiasm all across the State during Onam.
The most spectacular and most competitive Onam sport is the vallomkali - the boat race. The thrilling races on the beautiful coconut-tree fringed backwaters and rivers are a sight to behold.
Teams compete in a variety of boats, both big and small but the one that really brings the crowds in is the Chundan vallom or the snake boat.
The awesome water snakes
These spectacular, gargantuan 'water snakes' are manned by over a hundred oarsmen who row to the beat of songs, accompanied by drums and cymbals. Hundreds on either bank cheer them on. It's an incomparable sight and that is why every year, people from all over the world come to Kerala to watch the chundans during Onam.
The most spectacular of water regattas are held at Aranmula, Champakkulam, Alappuzha and Payippad. Except Aranmula, rest of the venues like Champakkulam, Payippad and Alappuzha are popular for the boat races that involves sheer spirit and ecstasy of the participants and the onlookers, as the majestic race crafts called the ‘Chundans’ rip through the placid waters to the uproarious cheers of the crowd. These venues except Aranmula are located in a region called ‘Kuttanad’ in the District of Alappuzha, which is also known as the rice bowl of Kerala. These boat races are conducted immediately after the harvest season, and serves as an occasion for the farmers to regale following a good harvest.
The one at Aranmula is distinct for its traditional gaiety, where the crafts known as ‘Palliyodams,’ which are very much similar to that of Chundans are taken out in procession through the River Pamba. This annual event has its significance attached to the Parthasarathy Temple in Aranmula, dedicated to Lord Krishna - the preserver and restorer of life, and his charioteer Arjuna. About 30 festooned chundans participate in the water regatta. Here, the majestic chundans move in a ritualistic procession and does not exhibit its racing prowess.
The glittering, sequined, silk umbrellas on the boats, which are fringed with tassels, reflect the affluence of the family that owns the boat.
Tradition demands that a Namboodiri - member of the highest caste - control the main rudder oar, which is over 12 feet long. Four oarsmen at the bow control the movement of the boat. Earlier, men were seated in the order of their castes. Though that is now out of vogue, a certain order is still followed.
Each boat belongs to a village along the banks of the Pamba, the aquamarine venue. The boat, named after the village, is treated almost like a deity. Every year, the boat is smeared with a mixture of fish oil, powdered coconut shell, carbon and eggs to keep the wood strong and the boat slippery in the water. The best carpenter of the village takes care of the repair work.
Beating 'n' betting
Another popular Onam sport is the Onathallu. Thallu means beating. Here, contestants from two teams beat each other with open palms while advancing into enemy territory and warding off beatings. The Onathallu, conducted in wide, open spaces like maidans, has a huge fan following in the villages of Kerala and inspires huge bets.
Beating round the clock
With expert fighters, who wheel, jump high in the air and engage in all sorts of acrobatics during fights, the sparring may go on for days without either party getting 'beaten'. In such cases, every day, the fight is called off at sundown and resumed the next day.
The ecstasy and the agony!
On Thiruvonam day, the best fighters from both teams, chosen after the fights of the preceding nine days starting from Atham, face each other. Earlier, this used to be followed by the even more exciting Avittamthallu. In course of time, the Thallu began to be conducted only for two or three days after Onam. Both teams spared no efforts in fighting, as sweet victory was not the only motivating factor. Losing meant a whole year's torture in public as the winners were allowed to taunt, boo at and tease the losers till the next Thallu!