Onathallu – When we beat them up

First of all a Happy Onam to all the Malayali readers. For those who are not Malayalis, today is the day our old king Mahabali who led Kerala to much prosperity comes back to Kerala from his banishment, if only for a day, to observe the progress of his subjects (at 3AM or so) and so we all deck our houses up, lay a welcome mat of flowers and wear traditional clothes, and make merry (some with a bottle or more), as we eat a very traditional Onam lunch or dinner (as in the case of an NR non resident family). There were and are so many other festivities accompanying the lunch, and the story of Mahabali itself is an interesting one. But the most curious of all is the Onathallu or Kayyankali which is practiced in some places and I decided to do a little research on it, in a hurry, following my brother’s suggestion that it may be a good story to remind readers that such events also existed.

A quick recap on the story of Mahabali - According to the myth, the Asura King Mahabali (Wonder which Sura got the brainwave – for now that meant the Malayalis were ausras!!) made the utopian kingdom of Kerala a reality. His fame spread all over the earth and pathala and the heavens. Indra, the king of Devas and the ruler of heaven, felt threatened by the growing popularity of Mahabali (how insecure – it was actually envy!). Aditi, the mother of Indra, observed a penance called 'payovrata' to help her son and pleased with her devotion, Lord Vishnu decided on a rebirth as Vamana, a dwarf, to Aditi (Strange indeed is this story – Why would Indra’s mother observe a fast and how come the overlord Vishnu never took any direct action! Bad management principles to involve your deputy’s mother or was Indra the clever one, depending on chivalry?).

Anyway the smart boy, Vamana with a tuft and all approached Mahabali who was conducting some poojas (ironically to satisfy the suras I presume). MahaBali asked Vamana to choose anything that he wanted from his kingdom when the Brahmin boy requested alms (you do not say no to a Brahmin – Parasurama’s dictum). Vamana asked for just three steps of land. The king agreed readily. The dwarf sized Vamana grew into the skies and with one step covered earth and with another step – the heavens. With no place to keep the third step, Mahabali offered his head, using this opportunity; Mahabali was pushed by Vamana into the demons abode or pathalam. Strange, but this story found a huge amount of acceptance and for that matter even forgiveness by occupants of Kerala!

But before sending Mahabali to dungeons of earth, Lord Vishnu gave Mahabali the boon that he could visit his subjects once a year. The day Mahabali visits his subjects is celebrated as Onam by the grateful people of Kerala. It is the period when liquor sales sky rocket and the happy people living or vacationing there spend a huge amount of money that comes in from the ‘gelf’ and other countries frequented by NR Malayalis, at the same time grumbling about the copious monsoons. Many pictures are taken, TV crews work overtime and politicians and film stars speak and as we saw this year, some famous people get married again in the traditional Malayali fashion. It was also the time when some people beat up the others as part of ceremony. And that is Onathallu.

Onathallu - This is difficult to write phonetically in English, Ona Thallu means a beating up competition during Onam, or something in that sense. Well, you have all heard of Shiah people flogging themselves during Moharram, but the tradition of Onathallu has been going on for ages. Here the groups beat each other up, so to say, on the onam day. It is now seen only in certain places and Pallassena in Palghat is one such place. Basically a ‘free for all’ friendly thrashing with bare hands is what one can witness if you choose to go through the dusty roads with paddy fields for miles and finally land up in Pallasena.

There are different versions looking at its origins in history. While some say that it was just a competition between kalari’s in North Malabar, set up for the amusement of the village and town folk, other say it was far more symbolic as in Palghat. The Thallu competition is usually preceded by a traditional coir ball or (not soccer) Talappantu competition in villages and followed by an Attakalam. After this or during this, the ladies all partake in a Kaikotti kali which of course most of us know quite better and like to watch. I prefer watching the latter and not the former. There are so many other amusements too on Onam day like Pulikkali, Vattukali, villukottu, Tumbi tullal, Vanji kali, Tiruvathira kali and so on…but they have been covered very well by many people in many forms of media.

So as they say, in south Malabar wrestling combats, popularly known as 'Onathallu', were in vogue during Onam celebrations. After a heavy meal the boys usually repair to the now vacant and leveled fields for manly pursuits like 'Onathallu', a variation of wrestling or beating up. First of all, Onathallu is a mock fight, not fought in earnest. However over time, it was discontinued as it started to become dishonorable and difficult to control with people using the opportunity to bash another up with full license.

At some locations, it is open handed slapping, at other locations it is free style wrestling and at still other places, it is a kind of free for all boxing. In certain other places in Onathallu one had to defeat the rival by the actual process of violent beating. Village youths in the past exhibited their physical prowess and skill in these games. The successful ones received presents. The festival is an exhibition of village life at its best, and a reminder of the good old days. 'Onathallu' is started on the 'Atham' day in certain places and the festivities continued for 10 days. The wrestling combats were arranged and presided over but at the end, people limped off with split lips, broken noses and teeth and a grin on their faces or a dark scowl depending on if he were the winner or loser. Many a time, it was sponsored by nobility and took the form of a serious competition

One sport, patronized in the past by chieftains, is 'Onathallu'. The participants face each other in groups. A trained fighter from one side advances into the middle of the arena and shouts his challenge. One from the other side comes and takes up the challenge. Some say that it was fought after a few drinks and mainly by lower classes while the others watched with glee. But the version at Pallassena is also called Avittathallau as it is started on the Avittom day. This is seen as a sacred activity by the men involved and is a highly revered and attended festival during the Avittam star of Onam.

Avittathallu is thus the festival celebrated by the Nairs of Pallassena Desam in the Chittur Thaluk in Palakkad. Some say that this is a tradition followed by the Nair’s of the Pallassena Desam in commemoration of the numerous wars they led and fought as part of the army of the Kolathiris. The name Pallassena is derived from the attribute that they were the Pallava Sena or the Pallava Army which eventually morphed into Pallasena as it is known today.

The tradition involves an enactment or warlike performances by men of the Nair community at the mannam constructed near Vettakorumakan temple premises at Puthenkavu (the temple was under the Kolathiri protection). Historically the Pathiyathil Pathiyar and the Nanchattu mannadiyar took up the supervision of the fight.The key part of the performance had men paring up and under the guidance and supervision of elders in the community, enacting physical combat, war cries and battle like behavior.

But then other books state that in the past, this was actually performed by 10 year old youths at the Kalipandal or mannam and they slapped each other on the cheeks with intent to make them fit for the next step, enrollment in kalari and more serious physical activities.

In North Malabar, Onathallu or Onappeda lacks niceties of form and a deep combat philosophy. The rule is simple: get the opponent to the mat by any means and you can take home the trophy. Some times, audiences took sides and a free-for-all ensues. Net result: a reduction in tension & stress, a kind of letting off steam, in those days.

KN Sadasivan in his Social History however mentions that this is a surviving sport reminding one of the martial traditions of Ezhavas. According to him, Kayyankali is an Ezhava discipline and that the Thallukar (combatants or contestants) are selected from neighboring villages. The umpire is called a chaivukar and has the power to conduct the contest in a fair fashion. They are allowed to punch above the waist and never allowed to use tooth or nails or cause a bleeding injury. It is usually a three hour event after which a winner is declared and according to him now survives only in Palghat.

Natesa Shastri however provides a differing perspective. He also terms it Padakkali where influential Malayalis provide patronage to the teams a month or so before Onam. Well known acrobats & wrestlers are contracted for a month and fed up and trained for the event. The men assemble and divide themselves into two cheris. 10 boys from either side are sent for the contest. The umpire calls out names and asks two contestants if theya re willing to fought each other. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes, wisely not. The umpire also makes snide remarks and jokes to enliven the occasion. Conditions are stated and agreed upon, for example if the blows are struck on the back (odaram) on the sides (kadakam) on the neck (pedali) or the cheek (Chekudattu). The fights start, two boys at a time continuing between 1PM and 6PM and continue for 3 days. Finally the padakkali is won by one of the boys and he is richly rewarded by the local chieftain.

I decided to peruse an old book Malabar and its folk by T. K. Gopal Panikkar so as to figure out what was performed in those times. I must state here that the version quoted is as found in N Malabar, where Panikkar is from, and is quite different from the Palakkad version, but provides a nice backdrop.

By midday the principal meal is over and then each one goes his own way to participate in the out-door merry-making. Field games such as foot-ball matches, personal combats, games of chess, dice and cards, and dancing by females and music parties constitute the leading enjoyment from morning till evening. Foot-ball matches are different in detail to the corresponding European ones. A small stick is planted at a fixed spot and people especially young lusty men resolve themselves into two rival camps and open the match. One party stands at the post, while the other stands a little away from it. The ball which is usually made of coir rope is propelled with the palm of the hand towards the rival party who furiously scramble for it vying with each other to catch it and stop its onward career. This done, one of the members takes it in hand and aiming at the post throws the ball in its direction. If the ball hits the post or if any one member of the hostile rank catches the ball in its progress up through the air, but not when it has once touched the ground, then that particular player's turn is over. Then another man takes up the play and continues it; and when all the members of the one party have had each his turn then the rival section begins the play exactly in the same manner and under the same rules as the previous section. The process is continued time after time and then the whole lot of them together declares the issue of the match.

Combats are of two kinds, viz., those that are undertaken singly and those held in batches. In the first the people of one locality divide themselves into two batches. When the match is opened the leader of one group sends forth one trained pugilist who paces along the intervening stretch of ground between the two groups shaking hands and challenging to meet in fair combat any one from the opposite camp. A little while after some one from the other party takes up the gauntlet and then after a few preliminary manoeuvres the combat is begun. Every privilege and facility of a fair nature is afforded to the two combatants. The issue of the fight is watched with eager concern by all interested spectators and the successful man is then deluged with presents of money and clothes by the rich and generous amongst the members. This process is then continued for sometime till the close of the day.

So now you have some knowledge of a dying folk fight, a sham fight, fought or played as one may term it, during Onam. When you are in Kerala and see this some time, you can now understand better what it is all about. Be it to remember an old battle, or to mould children into brave fighters or to have friendly competition, it adds flavor to the festivity. This is a time, when we should all be in Kerala, but ah! Sadly, I am here, working instead.

Check youtube, you can even see videos of the actual thallu. Or check this out

Notes –

Asura, from Sanskrit meaning a "power-seeking" and "power-hungry" being, is similar to a Titan, often, but somewhat misleading, described as a "demon"; or anaya (non-Aryan) people of ancient India. The term's derivation is uncertain. Some scholars derive it from Ashur, the Assyrian god, or from the breath (asu) of Prajapati, or from the root as (to be). According to a Hindu myth, a-sura is the negation of sura, an Indo-Aryan liquor, and refers to non-Aryan abstainers. In Hindu mythology sura came to mean a minor godin contrast to a-sura, "not-god" or "demon," but this is believed to be a false etymology.

Anyway we in Kerala take the liquor part at least very seriously, Aryan, non Aryan and foreign liquor is consumed with great mirth on Onam and other days…Kerala's State-owned liquor supplier, K Beverages Corporation (BevCo), is all set to soak the annual Onam festival in booze. In the 10 days preceding and succeeding the Onam day on Monday, BevCo hopes to net Rs 225 crore through liquor sales at its 337 outlets State-wide. In 2009-10, BevCo made a profit of Rs150 crore from liquor sales.


Hindu feasts, fasts and ceremonies - By Natesa-Sastri
Malabar & its folk – Gopala Panikkar

Pic - liquor sales - outlook India - thanks


Happy Kitten said…
Happy Onam to you and all your readers Maddy.

Actually while listening to a program on Onam I did wonder how the "Onamthalle" came about.. thanks for the detailed article.

that picture must have tempted/disturbed/distressed a lot of NRI's in "Gelf" !
Very happy Onam. I just rang up my younger brother's wife to learn more about Onathallu. She is from Pallasena.
harimohan said…
sgood facts on onathullu
Kerala is first in at least something
beverage sales !
December chills said…
Happy Onam to you and your Family Maddy,
Thanks for your post about Onathallu...
I have heard and studied in school about Onathallu ,pulikkali and other celebrations but most of these i have seen only in Tv.May be main reason for this , celebrations in north malabar is very different from other parts of kerala.
Dear Maddy,
Your photographs are too small. Can't you make them enlarge by clicking over them. Incidentally I discovered that Onathallu is still practiced in different forms in very many places across Kerala, most of them are symbolic.
Maddy said…
Thnaks HK, PNS, December chills..and hari
Maddy said…

regretfully the original photo is small. however you can see the whole clip if you click on the hyperlink just above the notes heading