India: A Year in Festivals
Featured destinations: India
Published 04 January 2017
India’s year is filled with vibrant festivals, ranging from local village gatherings to countrywide celebrations. Timing your visit to coincide with one of them is a great way to gain a greater insight into the country’s culture and traditions, not to mention witness some pretty spectacular parties. And with a majority Hindu population, plus a large number of Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Buddhist believers, there’s a huge variety of events to choose from. Here’s our guide to India’s year of festivals:
Kolam for Pongal Harvest Festival
India’s year kicks off with lively New Year’s celebrations just about everywhere. For the classic city fireworks display, Mumbai takes some beating, while ringing in the New Year on a Goa beach is a more sedate option, but only just. In mid-January, Pongal Harvest Festival sees residents of Tamil Nadu celebrate the boiling of the first rice of the season by decorating their houses in intricate Kolam designs made from rice, coloured powder and flower petals. Republic Day on the 26th is a national holiday, featuring an armed forces parade in Delhi, accompanied by lively music and singing.
Losar, or Tibetan New Year, is celebrated for 15 days in February, with traditions including the dance of the deer and the brewing of a beer-like drink called changkol. The best place to see this festival in action is in Ladakh on the country’s northern border with Tibet. Later in the month comes Maha Shivaratri, a Hindu festival involving prayers, fasting and yoga sessions in honour of Shiva. If you’re down in Goa at the start of Lent, fasten your seatbelt for a joyful parade of multicoloured floats, costumes and organised balls in the fun-filled Goa Carnival, a three-day wild and hedonistic party.Holi
March is all about Holi, one of India’s most famous and most photographed festivals. Across the country, revellers sing around their bonfires, throw colourful paints and powders and ‘shoot’ at each other with balloons filled with dyed water. Celebrating the triumph of good over evil, Holi is observed just about everywhere. Also occurring in March (and sometimes April) is Rama Navami, Rama’s birthday, a 10-day Hindu festival involving Kalyanam, a ceremonial wedding of divine couples, and panakam, a sweet drink made with pepper.
Sometime in March or April, the god Mahavira’s birthday is marked with Mahavir Jayanti, where his statue is carried on a chariot and given a bath. Jain people pray and give to charity as Jain temples see believers flocking to hear lectures by nuns and monks. In Assam, the harvest festival is celebrated in Bihu, a month-long event of traditional clothes and dancing in the fields, accompanied by an extravagant feast including coconut laddu (a ball of minced and sweetened dough) and fish pitika (mashed, boneless fish).
Buddha Jayanthi flickr id: 26773413973
May sees Buddha’s birthday, known as Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima, marked by India’s estimated 8.5 million Buddhists. Dressed in white, followers attend viharas (monasteries) and eat kheer, like rice pudding, while avoiding meat. It’s a public holiday particularly celebrated in North Bengal, where the majority of Buddhists live, but you can also enjoy it in Rajasthan, where Mount Abu puts on its Summer Festival, featuring processions, a tug of war and a horse race, to coincide with the celebrations.
Cham dance, Hemis Monastery
Ratha Yatra, Odisha’s Festival of Chariots, is an impressive spectacle involving deities being transported on huge, colourful chariots, honouring Lord Jagannath. Sometimes falling in July, the best place to witness this is in Puri, where the festival originated. At Ladakh’s Hemis Monastery, the two-day Hemis Festival, dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava, involves participants wearing elaborate costumes and brightly painted masks while dancing to traditional Tibetan music in what is known as the cham dance.
Champakulam Boat Race
For something quirky try Kerala in July, when the Champakulam Moolam Boat Race takes place. Imaginatively designed crafts are raced on the River Pamba, in a tradition that goes back 500 years. In Delhi, join the locals and celebrate all things mango at the International Mango Festival. Various varieties of juicy mangoes are up for tasting, and there are cookery classes and mango-themed competitions too. In Arunachal Pradesh, the Dree Festival seeks blessing for the rice harvest through dances and songs performed by the Apatani tribe.
Kumbh Mela festival, Allahabad
It’s festivals galore in August, with Parsi New Year, Krishna’s Birthday and Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates the platonic bond between men and women by tying threads around their wrists. Kumbh Mela is one of the largest gatherings of people in the world, as an estimated 120 million Hindus embark on a pilgrimage to bathe in a river to cleanse themselves of their sins. The exact location varies from year to year, but it includes the Ganges at Haridwar and Saraswati at Allahabad. The Snake Festival or Nag Panchami, sometimes held in August, worships the serpent and features snake charmers, while 15th August sees Independence Day’s flag-hoisting ceremonies, best witnessed at Delhi’s Red Fort.
Sometimes falling in July or August, Teej celebrates the union of Lord Shiva with the Goddess Parvati, and welcomes the monsoon rains. Particularly loved by women, the festival involves singing, dancing and fasting, as well as beautiful henna tattoos. Ganesh’s birthday is marked by Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai, whereby statues of Ganesh are erected across the city before being carried into the sea. Durga Puja, celebrating the Hindu goddess Durga, kicks off with a radio programme of hymns, before moving on to drumming dances known as aarati and the submersion of Durga’s statue into a river.
Jaipur decorated for Diwali
October 2nd is Gandhi’s birthday, and it’s a national holiday. Prayers are said, tributes are made and songs are sung to remember the Father of the Nation. Vijayadashami, commemorating the victory of Durga over the demon Mahishasura, involves planting earthen pots with barley, which is later harvested and placed behind the ears. But by far the most famous of October’s festivals is Diwali, the Festival of Lights, celebrated by Hindus the world over. Symbolising the victory of light over darkness, lights and candles are lit and fireworks illuminate the night sky.
Pushkar Camel Fair
For something a little different, get down to Pushkar Fair, the largest camel fair in the world. Attended by 300,000 people and 30,000 camels, this fun-filled event includes camel races, fairground rides and a longest moustache competition. Held any time between August and December, Muharram is Islamic New Year, when Muslims enter a period of self-reflection. Prayers and fasting are followed by mass gatherings, which sometimes involve self-flagellation – not one for the faint-hearted. More family friendly is Guru Nanak’s birthday, a celebration of singing, music and martial arts by India’s Sikh communities.
Theyyam dance performer
In Kerala, join in the Theyyam Festival, a celebration of ritual art with over 400 dance forms on display, involving bright costumes. Of course, Christmas falls in December, but with a relatively small Christian population, India doesn’t celebrate in quite the way we do here in the UK. In Mumbai, where there is a large Christian community, churches are decorated with poinsettias and candles, and the banana and mango trees are decorated with baubles and lights. In Ladakh, Galdan Namchot sees monasteries lit up and flaming torches thrown in honour of the Tibetan saint Tsongkhapa.
For further information and to book your holiday to India, take a look at our India holidays page