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17 Festivals Not to Miss in India

David Pettitt

India is a land of festivals. Whether a combination of riotous colour and raucous celebration, a monumental religious gathering or a serene spiritual ceremony, the range and diversity of festivities in the Indian subcontinent is unsurpassed. The festivals on our list demonstrate this extraordinary variety and highlight that, whether attending a traditional cultural gathering in North East India, travelling for the Holi or Diwali celebrations or visiting one of the country’s excellent music or contemporary literature events, there is a festival in India for everyone.

1. Hornbill Festival, Nagaland

Held on the outskirts of Nagaland’s capital Kohima, the Hornbill Festival is North East India’s most widely celebrated and important cultural event. Nagaland is formed of sixteen major tribes and each has its own unique language, cultural traditions and heritage. Once a year, the tribes unite in the village of Kisema for a week-long festival where the dress, dance, songs, music and games of each tribe are showcased in celebration of traditional Naga life. The festival also highlights the region’s food, drink, handicrafts and art.

When: Held annually during the first week of December
Where: Kohima and neighbouring Kisama, Nagaland

Men in traditional tribal attire at the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, India

2. Holi

Holi marks the arrival of spring and, although observed throughout the country, celebrations are most enthusiastic in northern India. Known as the ‘festival of colours’, Holi signifies the victory of good over evil, heralds the end of winter and gives thanks for a bountiful harvest. By far the liveliest of all Hindu religious festivities, Holi is celebrated with fervour – bonfires are made, religious rituals performed, songs sung and prayers offered before multi-coloured powders of every hue are thrown at friends and strangers alike.

When: During the month of March, depending on the Hindu lunar calendar
Where: Celebrations are held throughout India

Youngsters covered in colourful paints and powders celebrating the Holi Festival in India

Photo credit: Aravindan Ganesan

3. Hemis Tshechu, Ladakh

This significant Buddhist festival takes place in one of India’s most difficult to reach locations – the remote Hemis Monastery, set high in the snow-capped Himalayan mountains of Ladakh. Held over two days, the Hemis Tshechu, or festival, marks the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava who was the founder of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Taking place in the monastery’s central courtyard, the highlight is the masked Cham dance where colourfully attired monks dance to traditional Ladakhi music of drum, cymbal and horn.

When: Held according to the Tibetan lunar calendar, varying between June and July
Where: Hemis Monastery, Ladakh

Crowds at Hemis Monastery attending the Hemis Festival in Ladakh, India

Photo crediit: Hajo Schatz

4. Jaipur Literature Festival, Rajasthan

The inaugural Jaipur Literature Festival took place in 2006 and, over the last decade, has established itself as not only one of the calendar’s key literary events but also the world’s largest free literary festival. Attracting the some of the most famous names in the world of literature including William Dalrymple, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sir V.S Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Margaret Atwood, as well as leading figures in the arts, humanities, politics and entertainment industry, since its conception the festival has welcomed over a million visitors from all corners of the globe.

When: Held each year at the end of January
Where: In and around the city of Jaipur, Rajasthan

Person interviewing someone on stage at the Jaipur Literature Festival in front of a crowd of people

Photo credit: U.S. Embassy New Delhi

5. Diwali

Diwali is one of India’s most important religious festivals and is celebrated with enthusiasm throughout the subcontinent. Also known as the ‘festival of lights’, Diwali is observed by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains and is a festival of new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil and of light over darkness. Held over a period of five continuous days – with the third day the most important – the festival is characterized by gift giving, fireworks, a chance to spend time with family members and the lighting of candles and lamps.

When: Depending on the new moon, Diwali takes place between October and November
Where: Diwali is observed throughout India

Indian woman in traditional clothing holding an illuminated lantern during Diwali

Photo credit: Tanmoy Kumar Roy

6. Pushkar Camel Fair, Rajasthan

Held during November in the holy town of Pushkar, this famous fair attracts traders and pilgrims who gather for several days of horse dealing, camel racing, religious ceremonies and commercial trading. Busy and chaotic, stall holders, sideshows, itinerant musicians and street vendors all vie for business and there are a number of different cultural events and competitions that also take place. The climax of the fair occurs on the night of the full moon when pilgrims gather to bathe in the town’s holy lake.

When: An annual event, the Pushkar Camel Fair is held during November
Where: The holy town of Pushkar, Rajasthan

Man in saffron yellow turban with his camel at the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan, India

Photo credit: Marina & Enrique

7. Durga Puja

One of eastern India’s most revered Hindu festivals, Durga Puja is observed by Bengalis throughout the country but celebrations are most spirited in Kolkata and West Bengal. Held to commemorate the victory of the goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura, Durga Puja takes place over 10 days and also serves a wider purpose in promoting Bengali culture to the wider world. The festival is characterised through song, dance and drama, concluding with religious idols being carried in musical procession to local rivers where they are ceremoniously immersed.

When: Durga Puja takes places either in September or October depending on the lunar calendar
Where: The main celebrations take place in Kolkata but events are held in all major Indian cities

Multi-coloured and bejewelled religious idol during Durga Puja in India

Photo credit: Ramakrishna Math

8. Nehru Trophy Boat Race, Kerala

Drawing huge crowds from all over the state of Kerala, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race and the accompanying festivities are celebrated with great exuberance and intensity. Racing 100 foot long snake boats on Punnamada Lake, close to Alleppey, each vessel and its contestants represent a region of Kerala. Although races like these have taken place for centuries in Kerala, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is particularly significant as it is named after India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who donated the current silver trophy.

When: Held each year in August on the second Saturday of the month
Where: The race takes place on Vembanad Lake close to Alleppey, Kerala

Brightly attired teams in their boats ready to complete at the Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Kerala

Photo credit: Avinash Singh

9. Onam

Observed throughout the state of Kerala, according to legend the Onam festival is held to honour and welcome King Mahabali whose spirit is said to visit the state during this time. Although originally a Hindu festival, Onam is celebrated by all of Kerala’s communities and is as much a cultural event as a religious one. Lasting for 10 days, during the festival people wear traditional clothing, feast and decorate their homes with flowers. They also attend dances, including the masked Kathakali, religious processions and snake boat races.

When: Onam occurs annually either in August or September
Where: Festivities are held throughout Kerala

Dancer in traditional masked Kathakali outfit during the Onam festivities in Kerala, India

Photo credit: Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar

10. RIFF Music Festival, Jodhpur

The Rajasthan International Folk Festival, or ‘RIFF’ for short, is an annual music and arts festival held to promote traditional folk music from both India and the wider world. The inaugural festival took place in 2007 and over the last decade it has steadily increased its reputation, attracting a whole host of major folk musicians, dancers and artists. The five-day festival takes places throughout the city of Jodhpur with a number of concerts and events also held in the spectacular Mehrangarh Fort.

When: The Riff Music Festival is held over five days in October
Where: Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan

Folk musicians playing traditional instruments on stage at the Jodhpur RIFF festival in Rajasthan, India

Photo credit: Varun Shiv Kapur

11. International Kite Festival, Gujarat

Gujarat’s famous International Kite Festival takes place every year during January. Although marked across the state, the best place to witness the event is in Ahmedabad where, since 1989, some of the best and most accomplished kite designers, makers and flyers have been displaying and demonstrating their special one-off creations. This is also a festival where the wider public can also get involved and kites are flown all over Gujarat by young and old alike. The festival celebrates the end of winter and the coming of summer.

When: The festival takes place annually in January
Where: All over Gujarat but the main celebrations take place in Ahmedabad, Gujarat

Young boy on a rooftop wearing a striped shirt watching hundreds of kites flying in the sky during the International Kite Festival in Gujarat, India

Photo credit: Justin Pickard

12. Pongal

Celebrated over 4 days, Pongol marks the first harvest of the year in Tamil Nadu when, around this time, important crops including rice and sugarcane are harvested. The sun, in particular, forms an integral part of the festivities, illustrating its antiquity and reinforcing current thought that Pongal, in one form or another, has been observed for over 1000 years. Each day of the festival commemorates a certain event, taking place with corresponding rituals that include ceremonial bonfires, prayers, cattle races, gift giving, special meals and the decoration of homes in colourful Kolam designs.

When: Usually held in mid-January according to the Tamil calendar
Where: Predominately celebrated in Tamil Nadu or areas with a large Tamil diaspora

Woman wearing beautiful traditional clothing to celebrate Pongol

Photo credit: michael_swan

13. Kumbh Mela

One of the most extraordinary religious gatherings on the planet, the Kumbh Mela takes place only four times in a twelve year period with the pilgrimage site rotating between four of India’s most sacred locations. Held either at Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik or Allahabad, the last Kumbh Mela in Ujjain attracted close to 75 million sadhus, hermits, disciples and pilgrims from all over the subcontinent. Attendees perform religious rites and bath in the holy waters of each site’s river which is believed to cleanse sins.

When: Held four times during a twelve year period with dates calculated according to the zodiac
Where: Location rotates between Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain

Crowds of sadhus, holy men and pilgrims attending the Kumbh Mela in India

Photo credit: Seba Della y Sole Bossio

14. Ganesh Chaturthi

As one of India’s most cherished deities, the Ganesh Chaturthi, which commemorates the birthday of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, is celebrated with great zeal throughout India. Held over a 10 day period, idols of Ganesh are created throughout the year in preparation for their display at the time of the festival. During Ganesh Chaturthi, devotees attend musical, religious and dance events with the celebrations concluding when the idols are taken to local rivers in huge processions and immersed in the holy waters.

When: Celebrations take place in August or September dependent on the Hindu lunar calendar
Where: Observed throughout India but particularly in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh

Multiple colourful statues of the God Ganesh to celebrate the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in India

Photo credit: abcdz2000

15. Dussehra

One of India’s major religious festivals, Dussehra – which is also referred to as Vijayadashami – celebrates the victory of good over evil and forms an integral part of the Hindu calendar. Although predominately observed in the north of India, Dussehra festivities take place throughout the country and mark Rama’s triumph over the demon king Ravana. Lasting 10 days, Dussehra events include songs and recitals, debates and re-enactments of Rama’s achievement and end with the burning of effigies of Ravana, his son and brother.

When: Dussehra takes place in September or October according to the lunar calendar
Where: The celebrations are held throughout India

Large effigies paraded through the streets during the Dussehra religious celebrations in India

Photo credit: Public.Resource.Org

16. Jaisalmer Desert Festival, Rajasthan

Held over three days each year in February, the Jaisalmer Desert Festival celebrates the culture and traditions of Rajasthani desert life. Taking place in and around the beautiful city of Jaisalmer, the festival highlights the traditional crafts and performing arts heritage of the state with a particular focus on the music, clothing, dance and handicrafts of the region. Still an important mode of transport in the desert that surrounds Jaisalmer, heavily decorated camels feature prominently at the festival.

When: The festival is held annually in February three days prior to the full moon
Where: In the Thar Desert close to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Smiling camel wearing multi-coloured decorations at the Jaisalmer Desert Festival in Rajasthan, India

Photo credit: Devajyoti Sarkar

17. Bihu, Assam

The most important festival in the north eastern state of Assam, Bihu is observed at three different times throughout the year and is an integral part of Assamese cultural life. The first Bihu festival celebrates the Assam New Year and the sowing of crops whilst the second and third focus on agriculture, harvest time and the coming of winter. A large part of the Bihu festivities centre on the worship of plants and animals but they are also marked by song and dance, the wearing of traditional clothes, sporting events and feasting.

When: Celebrated in different forms in January, April and October to reflect the changing of the seasons
Where: Throughout Assam, North East India

Three women in traditional saffron clothes dancing during Bihu in Assam, north east India

Photo credit: janak chandarana

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