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Thodikulam Shiva Temple in Kannur is a gallery of ancient mural paintings
Thodikulam Shiva Temple in Kannur is a gallery of ancient mural paintings | © Vijayakumarblathur / WikiCommons

10 Things You Should Know About Malayali Culture

Picture of Charishma Thankappan
Updated: 13 March 2018

A prosperous and erudite state, the people of Kerala are proud of their culture and are attached to their traditions. Thus, it is not just the land but also the culture and heritage of Kerala that justify the state’s sobriquet of ‘God’s Own Country’. Here are the most remarkable aspects of Malayali culture that you need to know.

Onam festival

The biggest festival celebrated by Malayalis is Onam. It is celebrated in honour of the mythical King Mahabali, who ruled over the land of the Malayalis. It spans over ten days, and celebrations are marked by decorative floral patterns at the entrance of the home.


Fresh flowers are plucked each morning and arrayed in appealing patterns | © Manojk / WikiCommons

Kathakali and Mohiniattam dance

Kerala is known for its wonderful art forms. Kathakali has been recognised by UNESCO on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is a sublime dance drama that depicts episodes from Indian epics. Mohiniattam is another classical art form that evokes the highest form of femininity through its graceful movements.


The face-art in Kathakali is by itself a very distinct art-form | © soumyajit pramanick / Flickr

Love of bananas, beef, coconut, and fish

Food is an intrinsic part of Malayali culture and there are some staple favourites of Malayalis wherever they are in the world. Coconut and fish are available in abundance, so are widely consumed. Coconut is used in almost every dish in Kerala’s cuisine, including snacks, main courses, and desserts. Beef is another favourite of the meat eating Malayali, combined with porotta for a perfect combination. Ubiquitous bananas are also an intrinsic part of snacks, main dishes, and desserts.


Huge bunches of bananas hanging in roadside shops for sale is a common sight all around Kerala | © Joe Zachs / Flickr

Obsession with gold

The yellow metal is cherished by Malayalis not just for ornamentation purposes, but as a mark of honour during marriages and as a financial investment. Keralite brides are famous for being decked in gold.

Boat races

The traditional boat race of Kerala, known as vallam kali, is a race of canoes, or snake boats. The method of creating these boats dates back 650 years, when they were first created for the harvest festival. Among the several boat races throughout the state, the Jawaharlal Nehru Trophy is the biggest.


Just before the action began for the famous Nehru Trophy snake boat race in Alappuzha | © Amitra Kar / Flickr

Adoration of elephants

Elephants are beloved to all Malayalis. Their importance in every aspect of the culture is reflected in the fact that the elephant is the state animal. It’s on important emblems such as the masthead of the Government of Kerala, the logo of the government transport buses and on some newspapers. These gentle giants are also an important part of temple festivities.


Caparisoned elephants during a temple festival in Kerala | © Suresh Babu / WikiCommons

Penchant for quality cinema

Malayalam cinema ranks among the best in the world in terms of story-driven plots and cinematography, and are regular winners at international film festivals. The realistic portrayal of the intricacies of human life are a hallmark of Malayali films. World class filmmakers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ramu Kariat, and Sreenivasan are Malayalis, as are actors Mohan Lal, Mammootty, Shobana, and Manju Warrier.


Fahad Faasil in a popular Malayalam film Maheshinte Prathikaram | © OPM Dream Mill Cinemas

Kerala’s martial art form, Kalaripayattu

One of the oldest surviving martial art forms in the world, the current form of Kalaripayattu dates back to the sixth century. Vedic sage Agastya is considered as the founding father of the combat form, which includes a combination of steps and postures, known as chuvattu and vadivu. The main aim is the coordination of body and mind.

8. Kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu is intrinsically connected with healing and medicine | © Rajib.hyderabad / WikiCommons

Steamed foods

A characteristic of Kerala’s cuisine is the steamed foods. Using rice as the primary ingredient, a number of dishes such as vellayappam, idiyappam, and idly are produced by steaming. Made with coconut milk, they form an excellent healthy breakfast or snack. They can be eaten with chutney and gravy, and are very popular.

9. Kozhukatta

Kozhukatta is a sweet dumpling made from rice flour, with a filling of grated coconut and jaggery | © Devika Varier / WikiCommons

Palatial homes

It is said that the ultimate achievement of a Malayali’s life is determined by the size of his house. While this notion may be changing, stately homes with full amenities are a ubiquitous sight throughout the state. A distinctive feature is the grand boundary wall and opulent gate.


A typical house in Kerala | © Rameshng / WikiCommons