Anna Phipps is a travel blogger at Global Gallivanting who has been based in Goa for the last few years. Since she’s an expert on all things India, she’s shared the five most unmissable India festivals with us. Because who doesn’t love a bit of chaos, a lot of colour and a whole load of awesome celebration?
Travelling in India is an experience like no other. What other country has so much spirituality, such a rich culture and so many crazy parties? There are so many festivals in India and many vary depending on region and religion, but immersing yourself in the joy and religious fervour of one of them is definitely the most fun way to experience India’s culture at its best. Many of the biggest and most popular are in the months of September, October and November. This is a great time to visit if you’re interested in getting swept up in one, and weather-wise, it’s winter – which means that the temperature is perfect for sightseeing.
A common theme of many Indian festivals is the celebration of the victory of good over evil and brightness over darkness. Many celebrations are also based around the Indian epic the Ramayana – it can be a bit confusing to understand, but if you give it a quick Wikipedia and read it before you go then you’ll understand so much more about Indian culture, history and religion.
The 5 best Indian festivals
There’s so much rambunctiousness in India that sometimes it feels like there’s a festival on every day. Here’s the best five festivals to add to your India bucket list if you’re looking for an unforgettable and once in a lifetime experience.
Holi: A crazy festival of colours
Dates: 13th March 2017 or 2nd March 2018
Holi is one of the most famous and craziest festivals in the world, which makes it a strong contender for biggest bucket list must-do with travellers. Celebrating the arrival of spring, it’s known as ‘the festival of colours’ as people wildly throw coloured powder and water all over each other whilst dancing and hugging in the street. The entire week leading up to Holi is a celebration, with fireworks going off, bonfires being lit and random paint-throws breaking out at every corner. Indians can also traditionally consume a potent drink called Bhang (which is made from cannabis).
Holi is great fun to participate in as long as you don’t mind getting wet and dirty, and have a sense of humour. Wearing a white shirt is a great way to show off all the colours you’ll accumulate – and will be an amazing keepsake forever more – but don’t wear your best clothes as they will get ruined.
Ladies, be careful during Holi! Things can sometimes become uncomfortable as the festivities escalate, and local men can become intoxicated. As long as you stay near areas where families are celebrating, you’ll be safe. Loads of hostels also throw parties for their backpacker guests.
Where to celebrate: Holi is celebrated most exuberantly in North India. Delhi and Rajasthan have colourful festivities. Mathura and Vrindavan (not far from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal) have the wildest celebrations as these places are the birthplace and childhood home of Krishna, the main deity for Holi festival.
Ganesh Chaturthi – The festival of the elephant headed god
Dates: 25th August 2017 and 13th September 2018
Ganesha, the elephant headed god is one of the most easily recognisable and most popular Hindu gods. Ganesh Chaturthi is a spectacular 11 day festival that celebrates his birthday. People celebrate by making huge, elaborately crafted statutes of Ganesha that are specially constructed for the festival. After worshipping the deities in their homes, the statues are paraded through the streets, accompanied by wild dancing and singing, until they’re submerged in the ocean.
Where to Celebrate: Mumbai (Bombay) has the biggest Ganesh Chaturthi festivities and is the best place to celebrate. There are thousands of statues displayed around the city and a huge procession takes place from the Siddhivinayak Temple down to the sea where the statues are immersed.
Dussehra, Durga Puja and Navratri – Worshipping the fearsome Goddess Durga
Dates: 2017 – Navaratri: 21 – 29th September 2017. Durga Puja: 26 – 30th September 2017. Dussehra: 30th September 2017.
2018 – Navaratri: 10 – 18th October 2018. Durga Puja: 15 – 19th October 2018. Dussehra: 19th October 2018.
Dussehra, Durga Puja and Navaratri are all separate but very closely linked festivals that are celebrated slightly differently in different regions of India. They take place in September or October and involve 10 days of ceremonies, fasts, feasts and other rituals in honour of the rather fierce some looking Goddess Durga.
The first 9 days of this festival are known as Navaratri, a festival of dance. The 10th day is called Dussehra, which celebrates the victory of good over evil with huge burning effigies of the demon king Ravana.
In Eastern India the festival is known as Durga Puja where huge statues of the Goddess Durga are made and displayed in Pandals – the Indian term for marquees. Durga Puja is a really social and theatrical event and there are also drama, dance, and cultural performances leading up to the finale where the Durga statues are immersed in the River.
Where to celebrate: For Durga Puja the best place to celebrate is Kolkata (Calcutta). Navaratri is best celebrated in Vadodara, Gujarat, where all night dances are held. Mysore in Karnataka has a huge Dussehra parades and celebrations and the Mysore Palace is spectacularly illuminated.
Diwali: The Festival of Light
Dates:17th – 21st October 2017 or 7th – 11th November 2018
Diwali is the biggest and most famous festival in India and is celebrated across the whole country. Held in October or November, the five day festival celebrates the victory of good over evil.
Diwali is known as the “Festival of Lights” as thousands of little clay lamps and candles are lit and fireworks are set off to represent the victory of brightness over darkness and to help guide Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, into people’s homes.
Diwali is like the Indian equivalent to Christmas, everyone goes home to visit their families to share gifts and feast. Diwali is not as crazy as some of the other festivals but it is a heart warming celebration to participate and the flickering candlelight gives everywhere a warm and atmospheric feeling, just be careful of the fire crackers that get set off everywhere.
Where to Celebrate: Diwali is celebrated all over India but is better in the North although Delhi can get very smoggy with all the firecrackers going off. The whole of India seems to be on the move to celebrate Diwali with their families so it’s best to avoid traveling too much during this period and just enjoy the festivities wherever you are.
Pushkar Camel Fair – A carnival like livestock fair and religious festival
Dates: The official dates are 28th October – 4th November 2017 or 15th – 23rd November 2018 but camels start arriving earlier and pilgrims stay later.
The famous Pushkar Camel Fair is an astonishing sight to see. The small but spiritually important desert town of Pushkar in Rajasthan attracts about 30,000 camels which are dressed up, paraded around and traded. There are also many side shows including camel races and camel beauty contests, arts and crafts bazaars, folk and classical music and dancing and even moustache competitions.
After the camel fair there is also a religious festival called Kartik Purnima where pilgrims bathe in the holy Pushkar Lake. The camel fair is a great chance to witness an old, traditional style Indian festival.
Where to Celebrate: The camel fair is held at Puskhar in Rajasthan, but there is also a less touristy camel fair in nearby Bikaner that is held in January.