Discover Kerala: Culture & Traditions (III/III)

Oct/27/2019 / by Sharvan Kumar

Any trip to Kerala would be incomplete without an ayurvedic massage and treatment. In part 3 of our Kerala series, we focus on the unique cultural aspects of Kerala, its focus on holistic health and its temples, traditions, and festivals. Ayurveda, an alternative, natural approach to health and healing, is thought to have originated in Kerala. One of the oldest massage techniques in the world, Ayurvedic massage focuses on internal healing using natural herb extracts coupled with skillful massage therapy. There are many different types of ayurvedic massage but two popular ones are Abhyanga and Shirodhara. Abhyanga massage is an oil massage therapy for healing and detoxifying the body, mind and spirit and is performed with tapping, kneading, and squeezing movements. Shirodhara is a form of ayurvedic therapy that involves the continuous flow of warm oil on the center of the forehead from a specific height for about thirty minutes and is accompanied by a scalp treatment as well and is recommended to relieve stress, anxiety, fatigue, hypertension and depression. If you want to experience this unique rejuvenative massage therapy, try one of the excellent wellness centers in Alappuzha (“Venice of the East” -see Part 1) or in Thekkady, located in the highlands on the eastern side of Kerala, near the Kerala-Tami Nadu border and home to the famous Periyar National Park.

Pic: Experiencing Shirodhara in Kerala (Image source:

And after a rejuvenating massage, enjoy a cup of milk tea in the shade of a coconut palm and eavesdrop on some local gossip. And watch the way the milk tea is mixed—with precision yard-long pours from one cup to another, using gravity to assist the mixing process. Don’t try it at home unless you are prepared to mop your floor!

Pic courtesy: Sharvan Kumar. Deft mixing sans spills of milk tea in a Kerala tea-stall.

Kerala’s temples and traditions are unique and have a story of their own. And to experience them, travel fifty miles north east of Kochi, inland and stop at the city of Thrissur (formerly Trichur). Here you will find a hub of temples, traditions and festivals, including the Vadakkumnathan temple, one of the oldest temples. Its four towers, each facing North, South, East and West, features Kerala style architecture. But perhaps the most famous and popular temple in Kerala is the Guruvayur temple. Thought to be about 5000 years old, the Guruvayur temple is a popular pilgrimage spot for many in the South of India who make a wish to Lord Krishna (also known as Guruvayurappan) and visit the temple when their wishes come true.

Guruvayur is also known for its 10-day festival, beginning with an elephant race, interspersed with various performance arts, including the traditional Kathakali dancing. Tourists from all over India flock to see the festival which ends with the idol of Lord Krishna being dipped in water, with devotees then taking a dip in the holy water to wash their sins away.

Pic: Pulikali. (Image source: Pulikkali during Onam festival in Kerala, India, 9 September 2017, Midhun Subhash – Own work — CC0,

One of the biggest festivals in Kerala is Onam, an annual celebration that typically falls in the first week of September. A harvest festival, Onam brings out the joy and creativity in the people of Kerala. Boat races are common, and so is Pulikali, which means “play of the tigers,” a folk-art festival. Dancers, dressed up and painted to look like tigers and leopards, perform high energy dances, accompanied by drums and other musical instruments and themed around tiger hunting.

Another beautiful and unique aspect of the Onam festival are the Pookalams, where women decorate the floor in front of their houses or in their living rooms with decorative arrangements and colorful kaleidoscopic patterns made out of flowers. Making a Pookalam every day for ten days is a tradition and women take pride in this art. The arrangements are dramatic works of art and a feast for the eyes.

Drama also characterizes Kerala’s Pooram festival, which takes place in the April-May timeframe. Dozens of elephants are adorned in a lot of gold ornaments and are paraded around town and in the vicinity of the temple, accompanied by music and fireworks and a large audience filling the streets. It is an incredible sight to behold.

Pic: Adorned elephants during Poornam (image source:, “Kerala’s biggest temple festival Thrissur Pooram commences, May 13, 2019).

“God’s Own Country” has so much to offer!  It is a rich tapestry of nature, history, culture, architecture and religion woven together over centuries, uplifting and rejuvenating to the body and soul.


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