6 of India’s best festivals for the foreign traveller

India undoubtedly has the globe’s largest collection of events, festivals and happenings. The joyful clamour and colour of festivals spread their tentacles from the smallest villages to the largest cities, giving the most eye-opening glimpse into local culture. Ancient ceremonies and contemporary customs merge together to create the world’s most buzzing calendar of both religious and secular events, which would take a lifetime to experience. Here are six of the most vibrant and exciting festivals to experience for the visiting traveller…

Diwali, celebrated widely across India

Probably the most well-known of the Hindu festivals, Diwali is a five day festival which spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Often referred to as the ‘festival of lights’, the festival honours the goddess of fertility and prosperity, Lakshmi, as the bringer of blessings for the Hindu New Year. Houses, shops and public areas are decorated with flickering candles and traditional earthenware oil lamps called diyas, which are lit to guide Lakshmi into people’s homes where prayers are said for a successful year. For many, Diwali also celebrates the old legend of Lord Rama and his wife Sita returning to their kingdom from fourteen years of exile, and the ‘rows of lighted lamps’ are to help guide them safely home. Much like Christmas, Diwali is a time for families to come together to feast and celebrate new beginnings, share gifts and recite prayers. It is celebrated by millions of people worldwide, and throughout India although there are regional differences. Cities such as Delhi, Varanasi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Mumbai go all out on Diwali, with sparklers and firework displays dazzling each city.

Divali

Holi, celebrated widely across India

Holi is an ancient and distinguished religious Hindu festival which has been celebrated throughout India and Nepal for thousands of years. Also known as the ‘festival of colours’, Holi rejoices in the victory of good over evil, but it also holds significance with respect to the end of winter and the arrival of spring, as well as thanksgiving for a good harvest. The two day festival sees revellers dance through the streets splashing brightly colour powdered paints, singing and dancing to traditional folk and classic Bollywood Holi songs. It is the second most widely celebrated festival in South Asia after Diwali, and sees many non-Hindus rejoice in the festival too, as a spring celebration of love and colours. The history of Holi draws on various Indian mythologies, but the most prominent is the legend of Radha and Krishna. Krishna loved Radha, but was insecure about the differences in their skin colour, so he asked his mother who advised that he playfully paint Radha’s face so that it was the same colour as his. Today lovers often celebrate this Holi tradition by painting their faces the same colour. The most exciting places in India to partake in the laughter and enjoyment during the festivities are the temple towns of Mathura and Vrindavan, particularly significant to the history of Krishna, Jaipur and Udiapur, Goa, Hampi and Mumbai.

Holi

Camel Fair, Pushkar

The Camel Fair is one of the largest camel fairs in the world, and is an impressive sight to behold. Held every November at the time of the Kartik Purnima full moon, this epic spectacle attracts an astonishing 50,000 camels and over 400,000 people over the course of two weeks. The occasion converges in the tiny and usually sleepy desert town of Pushkar, nestled in the depths of rural Rajasthan and famed for the beauty of its lake, the uniqueness of its Brahma Temple (the only one in India) and the relaxed pace of life. But during the festival, Pushkar’s population balloons, as camel traders travel from far and wide to buy, sell and trade camels, parading their stock in all their finery and entering them in to beauty contests and races alike. Tented cities pop up in the surrounding fields and small towns in the lead up to the festival as the traders preen and prepare their livestock.  And amongst all of this hive of activity the festival is accompanied by feasting, cultural shows, competitions (such as the longest moustache), jewellery and material markets, and a cricket match between the local Pushkar club and a team of tourists.

camels

Durga Puja, Calcutta

Durga Puja is one of India’s great festivals, celebrated for ten days with grandeur throughout India. This Hindu festival reveres the victory of warrior goddess Durga over the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura, but there’s no Indian city which celebrates quite as fervently as Calcutta, attracting millions of pilgrims – this is not an event for the faint-hearted! The city takes on a carnival atmosphere with streets festooned with decorations and fairy lights, and fairs, merry-go-rounds and food stalls pop up all round the city. Durga Puja is as much an arts festival as it is a religious celebration; a year in the planning, Calcutta’s many talented artisans go to great lengths to create more than 4,000 pandals, fabricated structures which exhibit statues of the goddess Durga, each one captivating in design and clamouring for attention. During the festival the city is essentially turned into the world’s largest open-air gallery, as crowds move around the pandals admiring the art work, whilst live music plays in the street. On the final day of the festival, the idols are carried out in a grand procession surrounded by ceremonial drumbeats and chanting, where they are immersed in the River Ganges, an unforgettable sight.

Durga Puja

Ganesh Chaturthi, Mumbai

Ganesh Charturti, also known as Ganapati, is a ten day long Hindu festival which celebrates the birthday of the beloved elephant god, Ganesha. Ganesha is the god of luck, auspicious beginnings and safe travels, and this festival is believed to bring happiness, good luck and prosperity to all. Similar to Durga Puja, elaborately crafted clay idols of Ganesha are created throughout the year and are displayed in pandals during the festival. On the final day, the statues are paraded through the streets, accompanied by colourful singing and dancing, and immersed traditionally in water, where the clay idol dissolves and Ganesha is believed to return to Mount Kailash. Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in five states, but Mumbai is probably the best place to experience and soak up the party atmosphere, where the throbbing celebrations reverberate throughout the city.

Ganesh Chaturthi

Onam, Kerala

Onam marks Kerala’s biggest cultural festival of the year; a ten day harvest festival which celebrates the golden age of the mythical King Mahabali. The entire state comes together to revel in colourful dancing, games, sports, folk music and performances, and the people of Kerala make elaborate preparations to celebrate it in the best possible manner. Traditional and elegant dance forms such as Kaikottikali, Kathakali and Pulikali are performed as part of celebrations all over Kerala, with dancers enacting famous mythological legends or dressed and painted like tigers and hunters. Another main event which takes place during this festival is the Vallamkali, or Snake Boat Race. Many kinds of traditional decorated longboats are oared by hundreds of boatmen, to compete amidst the cacophony of chanting and raucous cheering from the river banks. Onam is an age old festival, rich in culture and heritage, and of course food plays an integral part, with the most spectacular and elaborate feast being Onasadya, a nine course spread served on banana leaves and including over two dozen dishes. Kerala comes out in its best form and spirit during this ten day celebration, and it is indeed a treat to be a part of the grand carnival.

Snake Boat Race

James Jayasundera is Founder and Managing Director of Ampersand Travel.

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