Many of India’s biggest festivals are religious and follow either the Hindu lunar calendar or the Islamic calendar. The dates may change each year, but the fervour of celebration never does: expect fireworks, colour, singing, dancing and food – so much food – wherever you go. And don’t think for one second that you’ll be simply observing – there’s nothing the locals love more than having tourists join the party. Here are a few of the biggest festivals in India.
Diwali marks the start of the Hindu New Year and lasts for five days. The exact date changes every year as it follows the Hindu calendar, but Diwali generally occurs between October and November. It’s known as the Hindu Festival of Lights as people decorate their homes with lights and ‘diyas’, or oil lights, because they’re said to help the goddess of wealth find her way to peoples’ homes. People will often draw ‘rangoli’, patterns made of coloured powders and flowers, on the floor at the entrance to their homes as a welcome to the gods.
Aside from the beautiful decorations, Diwali is about spending time with friends and family. Feasts are held, gifts are exchanged and firecrackers are let loose – it’s a beautiful and entertaining time to be anywhere in India.
When most Westerners think of an Indian festival, they think of Holi. It’s one of the most celebrated festivals in the country and is famous for the vibrant coloured powders that are thrown through the streets. Red symbolises love and fertility; blue represents Krishna, a Hindu God; green represents new beginnings; and yellow represents turmeric, a powder native to India.
Holi is sometimes known as the Festival of Love, sometimes the Festival of Colour, but whatever you call it, Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil. It lasts for a night and a day and is filled with singing, playing and waterbombs, while the celebrations begin on the first evening with a bonfire to burn Holika, a Hindu demoness.
The festival changes dates based on the Hindu calendar but usually occurs in March, on the last full moon day of the month marking spring.
Another Hindu festival, Dussehra celebrates the victory of Rama over the demon king Ravana, who carried off Lord Rama’s wife Sita. This was, it seems, frowned upon, but don’t worry – good triumphed over evil, and now it’s time to party. Celebrations include bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies of the demon king Ravana, while red spots are also painted on people’s foreheads. This festival usually occurs in October.
4. Ganesh Chaturthi Festival
Ganesha is the god of new beginnings, success and wisdom and can be quite easily identified thanks to his elephant head. Of all the gods that make up the Hindu religion, he’s one of the most well-known, and the Ganesh Chaturthi Festival is held in his honour to celebrate his birth. Usually held in August/September, the festival lasts for 11 days and sees huge statues built, displayed and worshipped in both homes and public areas. On the final day, the statues are paraded through the streets, with thousands of followers dancing and singing alongside, before finally being immersed in the ocean.
5. Krishna Janmashtami
This festival commemorates the birth of Lord Krishna, who is revered for his positive attitude towards life and his ability to smile through life and death, and victory and defeat. The festival is usually held in late August or early September, depending on the year, and the highlight is the ‘Dahi Handi’. Clay pots containing money, butter and curd are strung up from buildings and people compete with each other to reach the pots by forming a human pyramid and clambering to the top. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this bizarre spectacle – Lord Krishna absolutely loved butter and curd, and would try to take it from homes, so the villagers would hang it out of his reach. The story goes that he roped his friends into helping him climb up and reach it.
Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and is one of the most important Islamic festivals. To celebrate, Muslims attend communal prayers, decorate their homes and exchange food and gifts with friends. There’s also a charity donation of rice from wealthy families to the needy. One of the best places to see the celebrations is at Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, which was built in the mid-17th century.
7. Gujarat Kite Festival
Large, colourful and unusual kites flood the skies of Gujarat each January to commemorate the start of summer and the beginning of harvest. Purchase your own at Patang Bazaar, a famous kite market, or just watch the others dance through the sky.
8. Pushkar Camel Fair
Thousands of camels (and their owners dressed in their finest garb) descend upon Rajasthan's Pushkar for the annual camel fair. Camels are traded and raced, acrobats and performers entertain crowds at a nearby fair, while finely dressed males and bejewelled females take the chance to let their hair down.