Here’s a sampling of India’s major festivals— no small feat for a country this keen on celebration. Most religious holidays are observed all around the country but other festivals are unique to each region. Dates vary, so be sure to check the exact days for the upcoming year when making your plans.
The post-monsoon festival season kicks off with Navratri. A Hindu holiday lasting nine nights, it celebrates a different incarnation of the devi, or Supreme Goddess, each day. For Bengalis, the festival is known as Durga Puja, in honor of one of the most powerful forms of the devi, Durga, who is pictured coolly seated on a massive tiger. Craftsmen whip up glittering idols to be submerged later in the closest river, but they make for spectacular viewing before they’re dunked. It's a national festival, but head to Kolkata, Varanasi, or Delhi to catch some of the biggest celebrations.
Also not to be missed is a folk theater reenactment of The Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit poem, a tradition known as Ramlila— since 2008, enlisted as part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage. Splashier performances, like in Delhi’s Old City, enlist Bollywood stars in major roles, but neighborhoods stage their own scrappier productions-- ask around to find the best show, or simply go exploring on foot. It all culminates at the end of Navratri with Dussehera, when performers blow up towering effigies of the ten-headed demon, Ravana, the poem’s thousands-year-old foe.
Autumn continues to pack a punch with Diwali, the largest and most important holiday in India. Known as the “Festival of Lights,” the five-day celebration honors the return of Ram, hero of The Ramayana, after over a decade of exile. You’re guaranteed a magical, albeit noisy time: Households twinkle with dozens of diyas, clay oil candles, and the sky erupts in clouds of fireworks (to the peril of healthy lungs). On the main celebration day of Lakshmi Puja, families beckon the goddess of wealth and fortune into their homes by drawing trails of footsteps outside their doors. Prayers take place at home, so see if you can join a family for the festivities. Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas, which coincides with Diwali and marks the release of the sixth Sikh guru from captivity under the Mughals.
While those festivals are biggest in North India, South India and Mumbai are the biggest venues for Ganesh Chaturthi, which honors the portly elephant-headed god at the end of summer with wild processions of giant clay statues and the generous consumption of sticky sweets (Ganesh is known for his sweet tooth.) Find a pandal, a viewing shelter for the idols, and prepare for the longest lines you've ever seen. The famed Lalbaugcha Raja, founded in Mumbai in the 1930s, draws a million and a half devotees a day to make Ganesh darshan.
Spring season kicks off with Shivaratri, when Shiva devotees chant frenetically into the early morning and celebrate the fearsome, three-eyed god (Ganesh’s father, and a prolific ganja smoker) by imbibing bhang, a syrupy cannabis drink. Head to the nearest Shiva temple any time day or night to join the faithful as they call out mantras—Kashi Vishwanath, a temple on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi (known as the City of Shiva), holds some of the rowdiest festivities. In some places, you can even procure a plate of marijuana leaves as prasadam, or a religious offering. But don’t overdo it: intoxication may be encouraged, but it’s all in the name of spiritual devotion.
It is Holi, India’s “Festival of Colors,” that officially welcomes spring, with revelers merrily pelting each other with fistfuls of colored powder and dye-filled buckets and water guns. The pilgrim towns of Vrindhavan and Mathura, close to Agra in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, play host to the most fervent celebrations. It’s an unforgettable experience, but be armed for battle and prepared for some surprisingly aggressive thrashings of color; women should take particular care.
Don’t forget multi-faith India’s other religious offerings: Eid-ul-Fitr marks a jubilant end to Ramadan, with thousands of worshippers flocking to shrines to offer prayers and celebrating with special sweet dishes and bright new clothes. Losar Festival celebrates the Tibetan and Ladakhi New Year with cultural performances, mask dances, and vibrant processions, which you can join in Buddhist areas like Leh, Tawang, or Lahaul and Spiti. Each adds another layer to India’s famously diverse cultural tapestry.
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Arts, Music and Literature Festivals
Only in India can you combine cultural edification with a beach holiday. The Kochi Biennale, launched in 2010 down in seaside Kerala, now gives Venice a run for its money with a high caliber program of gallery shows, installations, workshops, and seminars dedicated to showcasing contemporary artists. Each winter, Goa’s Serendipity Arts Festival, a multi-disciplinary event highlighting contemporary photography, dance, cuisine, and theater, also brings together performers and practitioners from India and abroad.
Held in a 15th-century fort in the blue city of Jodphur, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival hosts over 250 musical acts. For literary enthusiasts, the Jaipur Literature Festival, founded in 2006, brings global luminaries like Pico Iyer, Vikram Seth, Orhan Pamuk and Oprah Winfrey to the sun-drenched Rajasthani capital each January to debate books and current events. It’s free and well worth a listen, but beware the crunch of weekend crowds.
For a truly unique music event, hit up the Ziro Festival of Music, an outdoor lineup of indie performers in the remote and otherworldly Ziro Valley, an Apatani tribal stronghold in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Be open to adventure and don’t come expecting the usual amenities: The closest airport is a full state away and most concert-goers camp out, keeping warm during nippy nights with bamboo mugs of apong, or rice beer.
Traditional Cultural Festivals
In Kerala, the Hindu festival of Onam, held at the end of the monsoon season, serves up a fascinating cultural showcase. Not to be missed are Vallam Kali, water races between long, pirate-worthy snake boats, and Puli Kali, an unbeatably photogenic folk dance where performers are masked and body-painted to look like bright, snarling tigers. Neighboring Tamil Nadu is home to the four-day harvest festival of Pongal, celebrated at the start of the new year with an array of sweet dishes and colorful and intricate kolam, drawings made from rice flour, made in front of houses. (Kolam-making workshops are available in Pondicherry if you’d like to hone your skills.)
You may have heard of the obsolete practice of headhunting in Nagaland, but Naga tribes have a lot more to offer than battle lore. Come see for yourself at the popular Hornbill Festival (Dec 1-10), named for the banana-beaked bird of the same name, which brings together members of the state’s 16 official tribal communities to show off impressive crafts, magnificent attire, and traditional music.
In Punjab, the Basant Kite Festival, held in late winter, heralds the coming of spring. Get festive by dressing in yellow and sending a kite up into the sky (be on guard for strings that are coated with glass, which turn kite-flying into a deadly competitive sport.) If you’re a true kite aficionado, then your first stop should be the International Kite Festival (Jan 10) in Gujarat, which draws a whopping 10 million visitors to gape at sublime airborne designs.
Finally, the Pushkar Camel Fair, a jam-packed two-week desert mela (Hindu festival) held every November in sandy Rajasthan, is deservedly a chart-topper on the list of India must-sees. Coinciding with a full moon festival, the livestock trading fair, overlooking the banks of Pushkar’s serene and glassy lake, also hosts cultural and sporting events. But the biggest draw remains its long-lashed, four-legged wares.