A Culture Guide to Top Festivals in India

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Avid travelers know that INDIA is known for sensory-busting, rambunctious, non-stop festivals. At any time of the year, all over the country, festivals celebrating religion, the phases of the moon, culture, the seasons, India’s epic stories (the Ramayana and the Mahabharat) and who knows what else pop up with astonishing frequency.

They may all celebrate different things, but they have one thing in common: they’re a spectacle to behold. Here are five festivals well worth visiting India to experience.

  • Diwali
  • Holi
  • Durga Puja
  • Ganesh Chaturthi
  • Pushkar Camel Fair

Here you will find everything you need to know to start planning your trip.

Photograph by Andrew Adams of Katha Images

 Photograph by Andrew Adams of Katha Images 

 Diwali, Festival of Light

Diwali is the biggest festival in India, a celebration of the triumph of light over dark, good over evil. The word Diwali means “rows of lighted lamps” and it is also called the Festival of Light. Everyone lights small diyas (lamps) and fireworks to help guide Lord Rama home from exile. Diwali is basically the equivalent of Christmas — a big, festive celebration that brings families together and is the highlight of the holiday season. There are five days of festivities, each marked with different pujas (prayers) and rituals.

Diwali, festival, India

Photo courtesy anshu_si via Compfight

What you need to know:

Like most festivals in India, Diwali’s date changes from year to year as it’s based on the lunar cycle and not a fixed date. This year (2015) it’s November 11. So check the date in advance, and plan accordingly. Diwali ties up traffic like nobody’s business and makes travel challenging.

Top tip: Find a place to celebrate and stay put for the five days of Diwali.

How to celebrate:

Diwali is largely a family celebration, much like Christmas. Stay with Indian friends or book into a homestay or small, family-run guesthouse so you can experience Diwali with a family.

Where to celebrate:

Diwali (also known as Deepavali) is celebrated throughout India, though there are regional differences. Cities like Delhi, Varanasi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, and Mumbai go all out on Diwali, and the effect is dazzling … to the point of ear-splitting. I’ve been in Delhi twice for Diwali and found the noise and the pollution caused from all the fireworks to be overwhelming. Next time, I’m going to try a smaller city!

Holi, festival, India

Photo courtesy Dave Bouskill, ThePlanetD.com

Holi, Festival of Colour

Holi is probably the most well-known and beloved festival in India among foreigners and many want to participate in the festivities — which involves throwing coloured powder and water at each other. It’s a celebration of spring and usually takes place in March.

I’ve celebrated Holi successfully three times in India. I say successfully because nothing untoward happened. Twice I was at a private club in South Delhi and once I was at an ashram in Rishikesh. In both cases, the crowd was controlled and I was never in danger of being molested by bhang-drinking male youths.

What you need to know:

Like Diwali, and many other festivals, Holi is based on the lunar calendar. It’s celebrated on the full moon in either February or March, so check the date in advance. In 2016, the date is March 23.

Holi can be very uncomfortable for women. Please read my blog What you need to know about Holi for tips on how to celebrate safely. The key is to stay off the streets, find a controlled group of people to celebrate with and go easy on the bhang lassi (also known as thandai).

How to celebrate:

Finding the right group of people to celebrate Holi with is key. My other tips include covering your skin and hair with oil (such as almond oil) to prevent the colour from staining your skin for a week. And try to use natural, plant-derived and non-synthetic colours if you can find them.

Where to celebrate:

The best place to celebrate Holi is probably Mathura / Vrindavan in North India, the birthplace and childhood home of Krishna. The celebrations here are legendary. There are also many private celebrations such as the Holy Cow festival in Delhi.

Photo of Kumartuli in Kolkata by Andrew Adams

Photo of Kumartuli in Kolkata by Andrew Adams

Durga Puja

Durga Puja is truly one of the great festivals of India, and though not as well known as Diwali and Holi, has a lot to offer visitors. Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal is THE place to celebrate Durga Puja. The festival honours the goddess Durga, who represents the divine feminine energy, or shakti — the force, power and warrior aspect of the divine mother. Taking place over five days, Durga Puja’s date is tied to the phases of the moon. This year (2015) it’s October 19 to 23.

A year in the planning, Kolkata’s many talented artisans go to great lengths to create pandals — decorated stages that exhibit statues of the goddess Durga. Each night of the festival, crowds of people move from pandal to pandal admiring the art work and enjoying live music. On the last day, the statues are taken by procession for immersion into the Ganga (Ganges) River, known in Kolkata as the Hooghly.

What you need to know:

Durga Puja is as much an arts festival as it is a religious celebration. The festival essentially turns Kolkata into the world’s biggest open-air art gallery. Bengali culture is known for nurturing some of India’s greatest artists, writers and filmmakers (such as the great Satyajit Ray), so the creative nature of the Durga Puja festival should come as no surprise.

How to celebrate:

The best way to celebrate is to go along with the crowds visiting the pandals each evening.

Where to celebrate:

There are other places that celebrate Durga Puja — last year I joined the festivities in South Delhi — but nobody does it better than Kolkata. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that should not be missed.

Ganesh

Photo courtesy TheFirstPost.co.uk

Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesh is the beloved elephant-headed god, a favourite throughout India, and Ganesh Chaturthi is the festival that honours him. It runs for 11 days in late August or September, depending on the cycle of the moon. This year (2015) it starts on September 17.

Similar to Durga Puja, images of Ganesh are made throughout the year and displayed during the 10-day festival. On the 11th day, called Anant Chaturdasi, the images are paraded through the streets, accompanied by singing and dancing, and finally immersed in the sea.

What you need to know:

Ganesh is the god of luck, auspicious beginnings and safe travels, among other things. I launched Breathedreamgo on Ganesh Chaturthi in 2009. The date that year was August 23. Please note, this year (2015), Ganesh Chaturthi begins on September 17, and culminates on September 27.

The festival fills the streets with rowdy crowds and caution is in order.

How to celebrate:

During the festival, Ganesh statues are displayed all over the city, with communities competing with each other. The displays feature music, dancing and feasting.

Where to celebrate:

While Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in about five states, Mumbai is probably the best place to experience it. Thousands of statues are displayed around the city, and devotees gather at Siddhivinayak Temple. The procession to the sea for immersion — called Visarjan — is truly a spectacle to behold.

Pushkar Camel Fair, festival, India

Photo courtesy Koshyk via Compfight.

Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar is a small town in rural Rajasthan famed for the beauty of its lake, the uniqueness of its Brahma Temple (the only one in India) and the chilled-out vibe. Many people come here just to BE … and I am no exception. I once spent about nine days relaxing on the roof of the Inn Seventh Heaven.

The Pushkar Camel Fair takes over the town each autumn, at the time of the Kartik Purnima (full moon festival). This means that a religious festival and livestock fair converge on the small town at the same time and turn it into a giant mela (fair).

This year, the Pushkar Camel Fair takes place from November 14-23. The first thing you need to know about the Pushkar Camel Fair is that it really is a camel fair. Camel traders come from far and wide to buy, sell and trade camels … attended by feasting, cultural shows, competitions such as camel racing and the world’s largest pop-up marketplace.

What you need to know:

Pushkar’s population balloons from about 15,000 to a quarter-million people during the Camel Fair, with tent cities popping up all over the fields that surround the small town. Rates for hotels and luxury tented accommodations also pop up — in fact they quadruple during the Fair, making it a very expensive place to stay. You can find package tours that include transport from Delhi and accommodation, and this is probably the most cost-effective way to go.

How to celebrate:

Immerse yourself in the mirage created in the Rajasthani desert. Enjoy the food, cultural shows, competitions and market place — where artisan-made products are showcased and sold.

Where to celebrate:

The Pushkar Camel Fair is in Pushkar, of course. But you can also join the camel traders headed to Pushkar in the weeks before the festival.

Ganesh

Photo credits: Diwali diyas: anshu_si via Compfightcc Pushkar camels: Koshyk via Compfightcc

 

Mariellen Ward
Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.
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3 Responses to A Culture Guide to Top Festivals in India

  1. Dave and Deb September 30, 2015 at 7:55 am #

    Thanks for using our photo, do you mind giving our website a proper link rather than just a mention.

  2. WeBlogTheWorld October 1, 2015 at 3:52 am #

    Hey Dave and Deb – yes of course! We syndicated this and links get stripped often. Email me with where you want it to go renee at weblogtheworld dot com – am traveling this week but will fix ASAP – email is best! Thx for alerting me to it!

  3. WeBlogTheWorld October 1, 2015 at 3:53 am #

    Dave – yes yes of course! We syndicated this and links get stripped often. Email me with where you want it to go renee at weblogtheworld dot com – am traveling this week but will fix ASAP – email is best! Thx for alerting me to it!

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