The Indian subcontinent is known for a diverse and vivid cultural heritage, which truly comes into its element during the country’s major festivals. While some of these festivals commemorate seasonal changes (spring and harvest being two important occasions), others have religious and historical roots. And while India’s festivals can get loud and often overwhelming – especially for first-time visitors – there’s truly no better way to experience the country’s beauty than by being a part of its celebrations. Do note that most Indian festivals are based on the lunar calendar and dates can vary from one year to the next.
If you’re eager to experience the many sights, scents and sounds of India in its vivacious glory, make sure to check out our comprehensive guide of the most eagerly-awaited festivals in the country.
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights and denotes the triumph of good over evil. The festival is celebrated every autumn across India. Diwali means different things to different people – for Hindus, Diwali marks the return of Lord Rama to his rightful after 14 years of exile. To illuminate his journey, the villagers lit thousands of lamps, giving birth to the still existing tradition of lighting earthen lamps during Diwali. The Sikhs mark Diwali as the day Guru Har Gobind freed himself from the Gwalior Fort, where he was being held captive by Emperor Jahangir, while the Jains celebrate their last Tirthankar attaining nirvana on this day. Across India, the festival is celebrated by decorating homes and public spaces with flowers and lights, bursting firecrackers and by eating loads of sweets. To experience Diwali at its dazzling best, do visit Varanasi, Udaipur, or Delhi.
The Festival of Colour celebrates the advent of spring and is usually celebrated in the month of March. The night before Holi, a Holika bonfire is lit to symbolize the destruction of internal evil. The next morning, revellers smear colour and throw coloured water on each other. Many groups also travel from one place to another, carrying drums and other musical instruments.You can also visit Bursa near Mathura for Lathmar Holi – celebrated a few days before the actual festival. Here, women beat up men from the neighbouring village with sticks, commemorating the time Lord Krishna and his friends were chased away by his beloved Radha and her friends for playfully teasing them. Viewing the Holi celebrations in Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, will likely go down as an experience of a lifetime.
- Durga Puja
This ten-day festival (although only the last five days are celebrated) honours Goddess Durga, the physical embodiment of divine feminine energy. This festival is best experienced in the city of Kolkata, which has the highest density of Bengalis. The city comes alive during these ten days with several day-long cultural activities, which include community feasts and cultural performances. The tenth day of the festival marks the goddess’s victory over a powerful demon, and is commemorated with large public stages or pandals that are mounted with exquisitely decorated earthen statues of the goddess in her moment of victory. Pandal-hopping is a popular way to celebrate in Kolkata along with gorging on local delicacies (savoury and sweet).
- Ganesh Chaturthi
The elephant-headed God is one of India’s most popular and his birthday is marked by an extravagant ten-day celebration during the monsoon. During this time, statues of Lord Ganesha are installed in private homes and public arenas. Vedic hymns and texts are chanted by devotees who dress in their festive finery while visiting the outdoor pandals, which are elaborately-decorated outdoor platforms. Several localities also run contests for the best decorated pandal, which leads to some very impressive set ups. Ganesh Chaturthi is observed as a public festival in India’s western states, while the East Coast considers this a more private celebration. Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated with enthusiasm in Mumbai, and the Siddhivinayak temple in Prabhadevi sees serpentine queues of devotees eager to catch a glimpse of the elephant-headed God. On the eleventh day, the statues are paraded across the city with much fanfare, before finally being immersed into the sea.
- Pushkar Camel Fair
Pushkar is a small town in Rajasthan that is famous for its beautiful lake, for having the only Brahma temple in India and for its massive camel fair. The fair is an annual autumn event that sees the villages inundated with camel traders eager to sell and trade camels. Additionally, there are numerous cultural events, feasting, a colourful marketplace where objects made by local artisans are available for purchase, and unique sporting activities such as camel races. The Pushkar Camel Fair is a huge tourist draw and many hotels and operators set up lavish tent cities to accommodate visitors. Prices can vary depending on the type of accommodation you are interested in – Musafir.com offers several attractively-priced tour packages for the Pushkar Camel Fair that you should certainly check out.
Onam is Kerala’s annual harvest festival that goes back to the state’s agrarian past. The festival commemorates the return of King Mahabali from the underworld to visit his people. Legend has it that the king was such a prosperous ruler that the gods began to consider him a threat. Through a cunning trick, the king was compelled to surrender his land and the heavens, compelling him to retreat to the underworld. Onam celebrations are marked with feasting, traditional music and dance performances and the famous snake boat races that have over a 100 oarsmen row these long and graceful boats. Make sure to visit the Thrikkakara temple near Kochi for its cultural programme and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race Competition to view these fabulous boats in action. The Onam Sadya or traditional meal, features an array of vegetable curries served with rice, banana chips, fried banana chunks coated with jaggery and payasam – a milk and jaggery-based dessert, and is an integral part of this festival.
While most travellers tend to associate Indian festivals with Diwali and Holi, these two festivals are only the tip of the giant iceberg that comprises the Indian subcontinent’s culture. If you are still planning your next trip to India, or are curious about where to set-off to on your next break, make sure to refer to this guide before you begin planning your next getaway. For the very best flight deals and vacation packages, head to Musafir.com, India’s most trusted travel portal for affordably-priced domestic and international tour packages. Browse through our flight offers and exiting deals to find a comprehensive travel package that works well with your budget, tastes and travel requirements. Musafir.com has packages that are customisable as per your travel requirements and can easily be adapted to suit solo travellers, couples, families and large groups.