India: the best of the fairs and festivals

India is a feast for the senses at any time of the year. However, time your visit to coincide with one of India’s unique fairs and festivals – some traditional, some recent arrivals – and you’ll be rewarded with an intensity of colour, music, rituals, costumes and an overall sense of India at its most culturally rich.

Sufi Festival, Jodhpur (21 – 23 February 2014) and Nagaur (17 – 19 February 2014)

A combination of religious music fused with more classical sounds of Rajasthan, the Sufi festival takes place in February. Sufi music’s appeal transcends all barriers and celebrates the universal human spirit. Visitors have described their experience at the festival to be deeply moving and revelatory. A tented camp is set up at Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur for the occasion or there’s a choice of hotels in Jodhpur. Next, the festival moves to Nagaur Fort, (3 hours from Jodhpur) where you stay at a tented camp or the Ranvas heritage hotel, restored with help from the Getty Foundation.

Sufi Festival, Jodhpur

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race (9th August 2014)

Also known as the Vallam Kali, this Snake Boat Race takes place on the 2nd Saturday of August on the otherwise still, tranquil waters of the Punnamada Lake near Alleppey in Kerala. They’ve been racing the wooden chundam vallam or snake boats, named after the raised snake-head like stern, here since the 16th century, each propelled by around 100 oarsmen. On the day of this fiercely fought boat race, the tranquil lakefront is transformed into a sea of humanity with an estimated 200,000 spectators. A victory at this race for the villages of Kuttanad is something to be celebrated for months to come.

RIFF – Rajasthan International Folk Festival, Jodhpur (8th – 12th October 2014)

Attracting musicians and singers from all over the world, the RIFF, which is staged in October, has grown in both popularity and cultural stature. Places to stay include the Raas, located inside the old walled city, with all rooms having views of the Fort, or the erstwhile Maharajas’s Umaid Bhawan Palace, now run by of the Taj group.

The Cattle Fair, Bateshwar (25th October – 6th November 2014)

Two hours south of Agra, and best visited as a day trip from the city, Bateshwar is an equally authentic but less touristy alternative to Pushkar. Taking place in November, about 4 or 5 days before Diwali, Bateshwar is really a two in one occasion, part devoted to the sale of cattle, part to a broader cultural celebration and religious pilgrimage.

Pushkar Camel Fair (26th October – 3rd November 2014)

By far the best known of all India’s fairs and festivals, Pushkar takes place half way between Jodpur and Jaipur. Even if camels aren’t your thing, the fair takes place in an increasingly broad cultural context with the capacity to fascinate and engage travellers with its heady confluence of attractions: the presence of various tribal communities of the region, who bring with them camels to trade, the devotees who come to the holy town and the heady fact that this fair is several centuries old.

Pushkar Camel Fair

Jaipur Literary Festival (21st – 25th January 2015)

Held each January in the ‘Pink city’ of Jaipur, the festival of readings, debates, workshops and performances, is Asia’s leading literary festival. This year 100,000 visitors came, while next year’s line up promises Umberto eco, Michael Palin, Noam Chomsky, Bill Bryson et al. Each year the festival’s star shines a little brighter with the best of Indian and international writers, critics and cultural activists coming together to meet, talk, share, and ever so often, argue their highly individual worldview.

David Wickers is Director of Bridge & Wickers.

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