India is a land of glorious colors and amazing culture and some of the best travel experiences are the festivals in India. Throughout the year, events bring together people of all sorts to celebrate and commemorate religious, national and social significance. The festivals in India are completely fascinating and something to write home about.
Probably the best known of the festivals in India, even if most people outside the country don’t remember what it’s called, is Holi. Usually held around March all over India, this spring festival celebrates the new season. It starts with a huge bonfire that symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. For two days, or 16 if you’re in the Braj region, you’ll need to wear clothes that you don’t care much about since you’ll be pelted with colored powder and water until you look like a very bright Jackson Pollock painting. The joy is contagious and you’ll soon find yourself dancing along with the crowds and covering everything in sight in color, whether it’s a building, a cow or your travel partner.
While Holi is the Festival of Colors, Diwali is the Festival of Lights. Also called Deepavali, it normally takes place over five days toward November and marks the start of the Hindu New Year. Firecrackers are lit to drive away evil spirits and at night, thousands of candles and clay lamps bathe everything in a warm, golden light. There are regional variations to where Diwali comes from and exactly how it’s celebrated, but the lights usually represent the Inner Light, spiritual awareness and the fact that good always prevails.
The Hindu deity most recognized by non-Hindus is Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. He was created by the goddess Parvati and guarded her chambers. In a fit of jealousy, the god Shiva struck off the boy’s head but then felt remorse and gave him the head of an elephant. Ganesha is the god to call upon if you need obstacles cleared from your path, and placing an image of him at your door will protect your home. His birthday is celebrated in festivals in India around August or September but you may want to be in Mumbai for the festival, which lasts for eleven days. Statues of the deity are displayed on decorated podiums everywhere. Ganesh Chaturthi ends with the sculptures being paraded through the streets and then plunged into the ocean.
Thrissur Pooram is a temple festival in the state of Kerala, in southern India. It usually takes place around April or May and lasts for 36 hours. Like most Hindu festivals in India, it’s very, very loud and colorful. There is much drumming and dancing and the firework displays are spectacular. For many, however, the highlight is the procession itself, which features more than 30 elephants with headdresses and decorations enough to make any Vegas showgirl green with envy.
In around July or August, Hindus all over India celebrate Krishna Janmashtami, also known as Govinda. This is the birthday of the god Krishna, one of the most important Hindu deities. Temples and Hindu homes are decorated with images of the baby Krishna and at midnight, the air is filled with the sounds of devotional songs. People exchange gifts, just like at the Christian Christmas. Celebrations vary across India but try to be in Maharashtra to watch the breaking of the handi. This is a clay pot containing buttermilk that is suspended from a height. People form human pyramids to reach it and the person at the top then hits it until it breaks. The buttermilk spilling over everyone in the pyramid is a symbol of their achievement through working together and groups are quite competitive in trying to break as many of the pots in one day as they can.
With Hindu festivals dominating when it comes to spectacular India festivals, it’s easy to forget that the country also has significant populations of other religions. If you’re in the Punjab region in March, be sure to head to Anandpur for the three-day-long Sikh festival of Hola Mohalla, often simply referred to as Hola. This is the most macho of macho festivals, almost like an Olympics for Sikhs. Male devotees show off their prowess in mock battles and hold military-like parades. Among the awe-inspiring sights are the competitions where a man will stand on the backs of two horses, trying not to fall off or lose courage as the animals speed along. The festival also features competitions in music and poetry and, like at any good celebration, lots of eating.
November in Rajasthan means it’s time for the Camel Fair held in the town of Pushkar. Imagine the largest agricultural fair you can think of and then give it some truly Indian flavor. Traders come from all over to display or admire livestock such as cattle, horses and, as the fair’s name suggests, thousands of camels. These ungainly creatures are dressed in their most beautiful finery and shown off at camel beauty contests, parades and races. The fair also features much merry-making in the form of musicians, street performers and acrobats displaying their skills.
I think that India is a simply incredible country and the festivals of India are just a small drop in an ocean of amazing experiences to be had. Have you been?