International Kite Festival, Gujarat
Where : Ahmedabad (Gujarat)
When they tell you to `go fly a kite’ in Gujarat, they actually mean it. And in January, that means sharing the sky with thousands of other kites.
Coinciding with the Makar Sankranti celebrations, Gujarat’s International Kite Festival is held every year in Ahmedabad. As you’ve probably guessed, this is one day when the skies above the city come alive with kites- in a hundred different colours, shapes and sizes, fluttering and darting above the rooftops, triumphantly cutting another kite’s string, and soaring way up above the earth. The Gujarat Tourism Development Corporation organises the International Kite Festival at a local stadium, where kite enthusiasts from all across the world show off their skills. A kite market is held, alongside which are food stalls, cultural performances and special kite displays at night, when illuminated kites- known as tukals- are flown.
When : January 13
Where : Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, parts of Himachal Pradesh
Lohri marks the end of the harvest in Northern India, and is characterised by the worship of fire. Bonfires are lit in the evening, whether in individual households or in communities, and grain- in the form of peanuts, popcorn, puffed rice and similar goodies- is ceremonially `fed’ to the fire. What follows, of course, is plenty of feeding of everybody around as well! Lohri celebrations are never complete without music and dancing, and the feasting is invariably rounded off with a vigorous bit of shake-a-leg.
When : January 14
Where : Northern and Western India
Makar Sankranti marks the end of winter, when the sun moves into the northern hemisphere- thus symbolising regeneration and the start of a new period. Besides being a significant date in the zodiac, Makar Sankranti is also a harvest festival and is celebrated throughout the region as the end of one agrarian cycle.
Traditionally, Makar Sankranti is observed by a ritual bath- in Uttaranchal, in fact, there’s a local belief that anybody who doesn’t bathe on Makar Sankranti will end up being born a donkey in his or her next incarnation! The sacred `sangam’ at Allahabad- the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna- is especially an important place for ritual baths, and is the venue for a local fair. All across North and West India, flying kites and feasting on rice and sweets made from sesame seeds is an integral part of the festivities.
Where : Karnataka and Tamilnadu
In southern India the end of the harvest is observed as a three-day festival called Pongal, when newly harvested rice is brought home, and farmers feed their cattle a rice dish called pongal- hence the name. The first day of Pongal is devoted to the worship of the deity Indra, while the second day is dedicated to Surya, the Sun God. The third day is marked by the worship of the Goddess Parvati and her son, the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh. This is also the day when cattle- an indispensable part of life in all villages- are bathed and decorated, then paraded through the villages. The procession is followed by cattle races, and in some instances, bullfights which are locally known as `jallikattu’- bags full of money are tied to the horns of bulls, and young men endeavour to wrestle with the bulls to get the bags off (and keep the change for themselves, of course!
Where : Assam
The Assamese equivalent of Makar Sankranti and Pongal, Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu too is a harvest festival. Magh Bihu marks the end of the rice harvesting season, and is especially important in agrarian communities. For the occasion, a hut-like structure, called a meji ghar, is constructed from thatch and firewood. It’s erected in the shorn rice fields, and is ritually set aflame during the festivities. Community feasts are held near the meji ghar, and are accompanied by much merrymaking, including dance and music, bullfights and birdfights.
Where : Allahabad
According to Hindu belief, the churning of the primordial ocean centuries ago by the gods resulted in a pot of nectar- a kumbh- which became the bone of contention between the gods and the demons. Following the squabble, the kumbh fell, spilling nectar at four places in India: Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The event is commemorated by a mammoth fair, the Maha Kumbh Mela, which is held every twelve years at one of these four sacred places. Besides the Maha Kumbh, an Ardh Kumbh Mela is held every six years, and a Magh Mela is held annually. The Magh Mela is the Kumbh on a much smaller scale, but is nevertheless an important event.
During the Magh Mela, Prayag (Allahabad) becomes even busier than usual, playing host to the thousands of devotees who come from across the country to offer prayers and bathe in the waters of the `sangam’, the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna. Traditionally, the Magh Mela begins on Makar Sankranti, and continues for about a month of prayers, devotional hymns, ritual baths and more. During the time, the fair grounds- along the banks of the sangam- are flooded with teeming crowds of pilgrims, sadhus, food sellers, shopkeepers and policemen trying desperately to maintain order.
Great Elephant March
Where : Kerala
If you’ve a penchant for parading pachyderms, Kerala’s where you should be headed. Every December- or January, depending upon the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation. This is when God’s Own Country celebrates not just its elephants, but also everything else that makes this state the crowd-puller it is. The Great Elephant March, which continues for three days, begins in Thrissur and traces its way through Alleppey to the capital, Thiruvananthpuram. The March starts with just that: a march of a hundred and one elephants, all gloriously decorated and accompanied by ornate, tinselled umbrellas. What follows is 72 hours of cultural performances and sporting events: snake boat races, kathakali, bharatnatyam and mohiniattam performances, kalaripayyatu duels, elephant tug-of-war, fireworks displays and more. It’s a neat little snapshot of Kerala, and is immensely popular with the droves of tourists- both Indian and foreign- who follow the march.
Eid Ul Zuha
Where : Nationwide
Also known as Bakrid or Eid ul Adha, the festival of Eid Ul Zuha is one of the most important in the Muslim calendar. Observed on the tenth day of the twelfth month in the Muslim calendar- usually in mid or late February- Eid Ul Zuha derives its significance from the story of the prophet Ibrahim, who did not hesitate to sacrifice his beloved son, Ismail, when God demanded Ismail’s life as a sacrifice. Ibrahim’s willingness to obey pleased God, and before the prophet could sacrifice his son, God provided a ram to be killed instead. In commemoration of Ibrahim’s devotion to the Almighty, a ram is ritually slaughtered on Eid. Congregational namaz at mosques across the length and breadth of India is followed by the consumption and distribution of the meat sacrificed. The sanctity of the day- and the period preceding it- makes this a popular time for undertaking the pilgrimage (the Haj) to Mecca.
Where : Bikaner (Rajasthan)
Hosted annually by the desert town of Bikaner, this festival is dedicated to the surly, hardy animal without which the desert would be incomplete- the camel. The festival opens with a parade of beautifully bedecked camels, and is followed by a number of events which include camel races and camel beauty pageants (let the least ugly camel win!). Camel traders and craftsmen from across Rajasthan also converge on Bikaner for the festival, and there’s plenty of scope for eating, souvenir-shopping and taking some great photos.
When : January 26
Where : Nationwide
One of India’s three national festivals, Republic Day commemorates the date, January 26,1950, when India became a republic. This isn’t a day for great feasting or festivities, but there’s plenty of patriotism in the air. Armed forces, including the police, hold parades, and most schools and other institutions have some form of celebration or the other- parades, recitations of patriotic poetry and what not. But all of that can’t hold a candle to the impressive parade held in the national capital, New Delhi. A grand procession of everything from battletanks to marching contingents, dancing troupes, schoolchildren and gorgeously decorated `floats’ from each state, wends its way along the heart of New Delhi. The parade, over which the President presides, is an annual fixture and is easily the most spectacular `official’ event in India.
The Republic Day celebrations end three days later, on the evening of January 29, with the Beating of the Retreat by the massed bands of the defence forces. The function is held at Vijay Chowk in the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi, and it’s every bit as impressive as the parade itself.
Surajkund Crafts Mela
When : 1-15 February
Where : Surajkund (Haryana)
8 km from Delhi lies the monument known as Surajkund, `the Well of the Sun’, supposedly named after a temple to the Sun God which once stood here- a name which was later applied to a tank built at the same spot. Surajkund is fairly quiet all through the year, except in the first fortnight of February, when it comes to life for a glorious, joyous celebration of India’s finest folk arts and crafts. Organised by the Haryana Tourism Development Corporation, the Surajkund Crafts Mela attracts artisans and craftsmen from all across India. On display- and sale, obviously- is a colossal range of souvenirs, from Madhubani paintings and pashmina shawls to exquisite meenakari and bidriware. Literally any handicraft produced in India is represented at Surajkund, and the blend of colours, patterns and designs is truly heady. Added to that are continuous performances of dances, music, puppetry, theatre and other traditional performing arts. All of India in one easily manageable, memorable dose.
Where : Goa
Carnivals are meant to be fun, and Goa’s carnival is definitely that- and much more. Presided over by a popularly elected `King of Chaos’ called Momo, the carnival is the last big bash before the season of Lent starts. It’s a time for unrestrained merrymaking, with dancing, processions, music and unlimited food being part and parcel of the festivities. Street plays and beach parties are held, on-the-spot farces are enacted and everybody has a whale of a time.
The three Catholic-dominated talukas of Salcette, Tiswadi and Bardez are where the carnival’s at its merriest.
Where : Nationwide
Close on the heels of the harvest festivals of Makar Sankranti, Magh Bihu, Pongal and Lohri follows the advent of spring- heralded by the festival of Basant Panchami. Basant Panchami celebrates the end of winter in India, and is marked by the worship of the Hindu Goddess of Learning, Saraswati. Typically, young children are taught their first letters on Basant Panchami, and special pujas are held in schools or other educational establishments. In some communities, ancestor worship and the feeding of brahmins is also an integral part of the celebrations.
Yellow, the colour of spring and of prosperity, is the predominant colour on Basant Panchami, and is traditionally the colour worn on this day. Food cooked on Basant Panchami is often coloured with saffron or turmeric, which imparts to it a yellow hue.
When : February 20
Where : Nationwide
Unlike Eid, Muharram is not a festive occasion, but a solemn one, which mourns the martyrdom of the revered Hazrat Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. The festival is observed on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, which is the first month in the Muslim calendar. Hazrat Imam Hussain died in 61 AH (680 AD) in battle against the forces of Yazid, and his martyrdom is ceremonially observed by long processions, especially amongst the Shi’a Muslims of India. Taziyas (bamboo and paper replicas of the saint’s tomb) and green alams (standards of Imam Hussain’s army, decorated with silver, gold and brass) are ritually carried in the procession, which is accompanied by men who beat their breasts, recite marsiyars (mourning verses) and sometimes resort to self-flagellation to express their sorrow. The processions continue during Muharram, and culminate on the tenth day of the month, which is known as Yaum-al-Ashoora. On Yaum-al-Ashoora, the taziya procession terminates at a local square or a cemetery, where the taziyas and alams are ritually buried.
Where : Jaisalmer (Rajasthan)
If you thought Bikaner’s camel festival was the ultimate in exotic Indian festivals, wait till you see the fiesta at Jaisalmer. A three-day long extravaganza of dances, music, handicraft fairs and interesting competitions- including really unusual ones like a `Mr Desert’ pageant, a `turban-tying’ contest and a `best moustache’ contest- the Jaisalmer Desert Festival is organised by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation. It’s a fantastic showcase of all things Rajasthani, and is justifiably popular with tourists, both Indian and foreign. Besides the food, the music and the cultural performances, there are camel rides, processions, camel polo, and even a camel tug-of-war. All of it is held against the backdrop of the awesome Jaisalmer fort. Fireworks displays at night light up the area, and the fort is illuminated too.
Khajuraho Dance Festival
Where : Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh)
Staged in the setting of the famous 10th century Khajuraho temples, the Khajuraho Dance Festival is organised by the Madhya Pradesh Kala Parishad as an annual event which spotlights both the immense diversity of classical Indian dance forms as well as the architectural brilliance of the temples themselves. The festival goes on for a full week and includes performances by leading exponents of Indian dance forms- Odissi, Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, and more- even (and this is a recently introduced element) modern Indian dance. The performances start at dusk, usually at the Chitragupt Temple or the Vishwanath Temple, with the beautifully illuminated western group of temples as a backdrop. It’s a treat for anybody who’s keen on Indian dance, and draws thousands of eager spectators every year.
When : 20 February
Where : Nationwide
Shivratri or Maha Shivratri is traditionally observed by night-long prayers and the worship of the god Shiva, who is believed to have performed the tandav- the cosmic dance of destruction, preservation and creation- on this night. Devotees of Shiva throng Shiva temples through the day, fasting and praying to the deity for salvation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Shiva lingams in temples are ritually bathed every three hours with the `panchgavya’- the five sacred offerings of the cow- butter, sour milk, milk, urine and dung. This is followed by an offering of the `five foods of immortality’- honey, yoghurt, sugar, ghee and milk.
Maha Shivratri is considered a significant festival for women, many of whom believe that prayers on this day will ensure the wellbeing of their husbands and children (if the woman is married), or ensure a good husband if the woman is unmarried!
Where : Jaipur, Rajasthan
Come March, and the Pink City breaks into an exultant celebration of life, a pre-Holi bash which centres around the elephant. The camel may be the most visible symbol of Rajasthan, but when it comes to Rajput royalty, the elephant wins hands down. So, while Bikaner celebrates the Ship of the Desert, Jaipur makes much of the elephant.
Marked by a range of interesting activities, Jaipur's day-long Elephant Festival is an event not to be missed. Organised every year by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation, the Elephant Festival is held at the Chaugan stadium in Jaipur, and attracts thousands of eager tourists from across India and overseas. The festival starts with a procession; while musicians play folk tunes and dancers whirl in a flurry of colours, richly caparisoned elephants march along in a parade. This is followed by a `best decorated elephant' competition, games of elephant polo, elephant races, a special `elephant decoration' exhibition (see what goes into making these beauties look the way they do!), and a tug-of-war between humans and an elephant. No prizes for guessing who wins.
The festivities end with performances of folk dances; with a liberal splashing of Holi colours on all and sundry, and a spectacular display of fireworks. Elal ephant Festivals
When : 27 March
Where : Nationwide
Holi is the day when everybody sets off to paint the town red- literally. And not just red, but also blue and green and virulent magenta. Basically a celebration of the passage of winter and the coming of spring, Holi has mythological connotations too: it celebrates the death, by fire, of the demon Holika. But that’s not all; Holi is also associated, in some areas, with the God of Love, Kama, as well as with the love of Krishna and Radha. Rather a lot of legends behind one festival!
But what really matters is that this is a day for uninhibited fun. People fling coloured powders or coloured water- along with a lot of other not-so-nice stuff- on friends, family and even strangers, and this is one day when everybody on the street looks like they’ve walked through a rainbow. Riotous singing, dancing and the consumption of huge amounts of bhang-laced lassi or bhang pakoras are also very much a part of Holi celebrations.
Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh, is especially well-known for its Holi celebrations, which centres around the love of Krishna and Radha. An interesting variation of Holi, also in Uttar Pradesh, is in the towns of Barsana and Nandgaon, where `Lathmar Holi’ is celebrated, with women literally beating the men with wooden sticks. Rather rough, but it’s all in good humour!
Where : Nationwide
The Parsi New Year, Jamshed-e-Navroz is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the Shehenshai calendar followed by the Zoroastrian faith. Named after the Persian ruler Jamshed, in whose reign the festival began, Jamshed-e-Navroz is symbolic of rejuvenation and rebirth.
As in all the other new year festivals, at Navroz too there’s much excitement in the air. Homes are cleaned and decorated with ornate rangolis, new clothes are worn, and greetings- along with the customary sweets- are exchanged. This being the start of a new year, prayers are offered at the Fire Temple, and it’s usual for people to go thrice to the temple during the day to worship Khorshed and Meher, the two divine beings who preside over the sun and the moon respectively.
Good Friday and Easter
When : 29 March
Where : Nationwide
Holy Week, the seven days which stretch from Palm Sunday to Easter, is the most important period in the Christian calendar, for it marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind. Good Friday, which is the day when Christ was crucified, is a solemn occasion and is observed in churches across the country. Many Indians fast through the day and end the fast after mass, with hot cross buns (traditionally decorated with a cross crafted from dough).
On the third day from Good Friday is Easter, the day when Christ rose from the dead. Traditionally, Easter masses are held not just during the late morning or evening but also at sunrise, in a local cemetery- symbolic of Christ’s resurrection from the tomb. Easter services are invariably followed by much rejoicing, which includes feasting on the well-loved `Easter eggs’- initially a symbol of fertility, and therefore denoting new life and rejuvenation.
Where : Meerut, Uttar Pradesh
Uttar Pradesh is hard to beat for the things it produces- Lucknow's chikankari; Ferozabad's glassware; Kanpur's leather; Varanasi's silk saris… the list is endless. And if you want a one-stop shop to buy them, come to the Nauchandi Mela in Meerut. A historic fair, more than a century old, Nauchandi is a month-long extravaganza of great shopping, good food, and UP at its noisy best. The Nauchandi Mela begins on the second Sunday after Holi (this year, it starts on April 7). This is when Meerut becomes much more than just a small satellite town of Delhi, and takes on a glitter and vivacity which is highly infectious.
The history behind the Nauchandi Mela is debatable; some say that it began as a cattle fair way back in 1672; others suggest a British revenue-collection fair as the precursor of the mela. Many Hindu devotees believe that it began as a religious festival to commemorate the building of a temple in Meerut by Mandodari, the wife of the demon king, Ravana.
Whatever may be the antecedents of the Nauchandi Mela, the fact of the matter is that this is one of the biggest, most colourful and interesting fairs anywhere in the country. Held for all of a month after Holi, the Nauchandi Mela is held on a 4 sq km area, crowded and colourful as can be. The area's crisscrossed by pathways; and all through are put up hundreds of stalls selling handicrafts and machine-made products from all across India. Textiles, perfumes, jewellery, furniture, ceramics, glassware, leather- the list is endless. Giant wheels, games, nautankis and cultural performances add to the ambience. Performances of music and dance have, in fact, become an important part of the Nauchandi Mela, with maestros such as Pandit Ravi Shankar being among those who have performed here.
Any way you look at it- whether from the point of view of a compulsive shopper, a trader wanting to do a bit of good business, or a culture-vulture looking for a great experience- the Nauchandi Mela is worth a visit.
Where : Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka
In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the festival of Ugadi heralds the start of a New Year. Ugadi is believed to be the day when Brahma- the Creator, in the Hindu Trinity- formed the universe. It’s also the time when winter is on its way out, and spring’s round the corner, so the concept of new life and a new year is really very appropriate. Preparations for Ugadi begin a week in advance; homes are cleaned and decorated, new clothes are bought, and, on the day of the festival itself, fresh mango leaves are strung up above doorways to denote prosperity in the new year. Pujas and feasting are, as in almost all the other festivals of India, an important aspect of the celebrations.
Where : Maharashtra
When their cousins down south celebrate Ugadi, the Maharashtrians celebrate Gudi Padva- the Maharashtrian New Year. Gudi Padva is celebrated on the first day of the month of Chaitra, and marks not just the advent of a new year, but also the victory of the ancient Satvahana king Shalivahana over his enemies. The ruler’s victory is commemorated by erecting a pole (the `gudi’), around which is tied a piece of silk. A metal kalash or pot, decorated with mango leaves and marigold flowers, is balanced atop the gudi. Colourful rangolis are drawn with coloured powder, and prayers are offered to the Creator, Brahma.
Gudi Padva counts as one of the four most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar, and is considered an excellent day for beginning a new venture of any kind.
Where : Rajasthan
Rajasthan may be India’s driest and most arid state, but when it comes to sheer colour and exuberance, it’s hard to beat. And Rajasthan is best seen in all its colours at the time of Gangaur, the spring festival dedicated to the goddess of abundance, Gauri (Parvati). Gangaur is a largely female-centric festival, in that most of the festivities and pujas are conducted by women. The fortnight leading up to Gangaur is marked by fasting, daily pujas of Gauri, and on the day of the festival itself, a bejewelled and beautifully clothed idol of the goddess is the centrepiece of an elaborate procession.
Although Gangaur fairs are held throughout Rajasthan, some towns in particular are known for the fair: Udaipur (where a boat procession makes its way across the Pichola Lake), Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Nathdwara. Among the Girasia tribals of the Sirohi-Mt Abu region, Gangaur festivities carry on for more than a month, when devotees carry decorated idols of the goddess from village to village, finally returning to the village they started from. During this period, unmarried men and women of the tribe choose their mates and elope- a custom which has prevailed through the ages and is more or less expected during Gangaur.
When : April 19
Where : Nationwide
All across India, the day of Ram Navami is celebrated as the birthday of the god Ram, one of the most familiar and well-loved deities in the Hindu pantheon. The nine days leading up to Ram Navami are days of fasting and prayer for the devout, and the day of the festival itself is marked by pujas and satsangs (public gatherings). Two cities- Ayodhya (in Uttar Pradesh) and Pondicherry, both of which are mentioned in the epic Ramayana, are especially renowned for their Ram Navami celebrations. Ayodhya, where Ram was born, is the setting for showy rath yatras or chariot processions in which expensively decorated idols of Ram, Sita and Hanuman are carried through the town. The rath yatras in Ayodhya continue for two days and are accompanied by much fanfare and rejoicing. Mahavir Jayanti .
When : April 24
Where : Nationwide
Mahavir Jayanti celebrates the birth anniversary of Vardhaman Mahavir, the founder of Jainism and the 24th tirthankar (religious guru) of the faith. Mahavir was born sometime in the 7th century BC, and his birth anniversary is celebrated with much fervour at Jain temples across the country. Shrines and temples are decorated with flags for the occasion, and on the day of the festival, the idol of the tirthankar is given a ritual bath before being taken out, ensconced in a cradle, in a grand procession.
The custom of donating money, food and clothing to the poor is also an important aspect of celebrating Mahavir Jayanti. In addition, Jain organisations (in some cases, even individuals) arrange for free food and drink for all passersby.
Important Jain shrines such as Sri Mahavirji in Rajasthan; Girnar and Palitana in Gujarat; Parasnath Temple (Kolkata) and Pawapuri in Bihar host major celebrations to mark Mahavir Jayanti.
Where : Punjab
Baisakhi is New Year’s Day in Punjab. And, like New Year across the world, it’s celebrated with much gusto. The day, besides being the start of a new year, also marks the maturing of the winter crop- and the last major festival before farmers roll up their sleeves and begin harvesting the grain.
For the Sikhs, Baisakhi holds even greater significance as it commemorates the day, in 1699, when the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, founded the Khalsa Panth. The festival is celebrated with processions of devotees led by the panj piaras, the elected religious heads who are second only to the gurus. Devotional music is played during the procession, and hymns are sung, both along the way and at gurudwaras. Religious discourses and kirtans are held at gurudwaras, and karah prasad (sacramental food) is distributed.
Where : Nationwide
Eid Milad-un-Nabi, or Barawafat, marks the birth anniversary (as well as the death anniversary) of the Prophet Mohammad. Because of the fact that the date represents not just the birth, but also the death of the Prophet, Milad-un-Nabi festivities are fairly subdued. The twelve days (`barah’ means `twelve’, therefore `barawafat’) leading up to Milad-un-Nabi are indicative of the twelve days of sickness before the Prophet was lifted up to heaven. This period is a time for introspection, prayer and acts of charity. Public meetings are held at mosques, where religious leaders meditate and preach on the life of the Prophet, his teachings and the tenets of the faith. In some places, hymns are sung and marsiyas (mourning verses) recited in mosques. Furthermore, a ceremony called a `sandal’ is observed in some mosques, where a stone representation of the `buraq’- a horse-like creature on which the Prophet ascended to heaven- is anointed with sandalwood paste and fragrant powder.
Where : Nagaland (Ao tribe)
Between May 1 and 3 this year, the small but immensely beautiful hill state of Nagaland will come alive with the Motasu Mong festival- a time for much rejoicing, feasting, dancing, singing and merry-making. A traditional festival of the Ao tribe, Moatsu-Mong originally stretched over six days- but the modern abbreviated version of three days doesn't seem to have diminished the festivities in any way!
Traditionally, Moatsu Mong was celebrated only after the biggest (and most time-consuming) tasks of the community were completed- the sowing of grain, the cleaning of village ponds, the construction and repair of houses. The days leading up to the festival are, even today, a period of hectic activity. Homes are cleaned and decorated; rice beer is brewed (in huge quantities- what is a festival without liquor, after all?!) and cows, pigs and fowls are fattened for the inevitable feast. For the three days of Moatsu Mong, there is much rejoicing, singing and dancing; delegations go from one village to the next, bearing gifts, feasts are held, and eulogies are sung in praise of traditional heroes.
Moatsu Mong is now being promoted by Nagaland Tourism as a national event, and Chuchuyimlang village is the main showcase for the celebrations- a great place for visitors from across the country and abroad to get a ringside view of Naga life.
Sikkim Tourism Festival
Where : Gangtok, Sikkim
Breathtakingly beautiful is the first word that comes to mind when Sikkim is mentioned- for this tiny state tucked away in the Eastern Himalayas packs a punch when it comes to natural beauty. A heady combination of snow-capped mountains, frothing rivers, forests of rhododendron and flowers all the way- that's Sikkim for you. And what better way to celebrate Sikkim than at the annual Sikkim Tourism Festival, held in Gangtok every May? Flower shows, exhibitions, cultural programmes and interesting competitions are all part and parcel of this amazing event.
Organised by the Sikkim Department of Tourism, the month-long Tourism festival has been held every year since 1981. The venue for the festival is the White Hall in Gangtok, and for the space of thirty days, the entire complex comes alive with performances of traditional Sikkimese dances, films on tourism, exhibitions of local arts and crafts, and flower shows which highlight the gorgeous flowers of Sikkim- orchids, rhododendrons and primulas among them. An interestingly offbeat `yak safari', a local food festival and white-water rafting on the Teesta are also a part of the festival.
Where : Nationwide
The festival of Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti celebrates the birth of Gautam Buddha in 563 BC. The most important of all the Buddhist festivals, Buddha Purnima is considered the most auspicious of all the days in the year. Although there are minor regional variations in the way Buddha Purnima is observed, the festival is generally observed by lighting oil lamps before the image of the Buddha, by reciting prayers or reading from the scriptures. Meditation and offerings of flowers, silk scarves, incense and fruit are also part of the worship rituals.
Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh) and Bodhgaya (Bihar) are, in particular, known for the Buddha Purnima celebrations which are held in these two cities.
Where : Hemis Gompa, Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir)
Come summer, and the cold desert region of Ladakh awakes from a long and harsh winter. This is the time when tourists from far and wide arrive to trek, to climb mountains, to go river-rafting and to stare, awe-struck, at some of the most beautiful examples of Indo-Tibetan culture. And if you go to Ladakh in the summer, you really shouldn’t miss the memorable Hemis Festival, held at the Hemis Gompa, the largest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. Hemis is home to more than 500 monks and, at the time of the festival, plays host to hundreds of eager devotees, local villagers and tourists. The two-day festival is marked by prayers and the display of an age-old thangka (religious painting) which is just one of the treasures housed at Hemis. All through the festival, traditional dances are performed by masked monks. The dances, which are accompanied by cymbals, drums and trumpets, portray the triumph of good over evil.
During the Hemis festival, hawkers and shopkeepers set up stalls outside the monastery, selling a variety of wares- most of them souvenirs to cater to the crowds of tourists coming to see the festival.
Where : Puri (Orissa)
If you’ve ever wondered what a juggernaut actually looks like, this is where you can see it- in the great annual rath yatra (often referred to, rather prosaically, as the `Car Festival) of Lord Jagannath in Orissa. The venue for the festival is the town of Puri, famed for its temple to Lord Jagannath, as Krishna is known in this part of the country. For the rath yatra, three huge chariots- each with about a dozen wheels up to 7 feet in diameter- are ritually pulled through the streets, from the Jagannath temple to the temple of Gundicha Mandir. The raths are replicas of the Jagannath temple and each of them carries an idol- of Jagannath, of his brother Balbhadra and his sister Subhadra- to Gundicha Mandir, where they stay for a week before being taken back, again in the raths, to the Jagannath Temple.
The entire journey- back and forth- is accompanied by thousands of pilgrims, many of whom (in previous years, but fortunately no longer) threw themselves under the wheels of the `juggernaut’ in their fervour. Today, the days for the yatra are holidays, when all of Puri becomes one huge fairground and temple rolled into one.
Where : Nationwide
The festival of Nag Panchami is dedicated to the worship of snakes. It’s celebrated all across India at the peak of the monsoon- the time when snakes are most likely to be around- and takes the form of prayers to the snake god for protection from snakebite. Specific pujas differ from one part of the country to another; in some places, live snakes are worshipped; in others, an image or a dough effigy of a snake is revered. The worship generally includes bathing a snake (or its idol) with milk, to the accompaniment of the music played by a snakecharmer. Needless to say this is one day when snakecharmers are in great demand!
Simultaneously, the god Shiva, who is believed to be very fond of snakes- so much so that he is depicted with a snake around his neck- is also worshipped. The festivities for Nag Panchami continue throughout the day, with fairs, music and dance, magic shows and gymnastic feats being among the major highlights.
Where : Northern India
An important festival in Rajasthan, Teej is also a day for rejoicing in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar. Teej celebrates the arrival of the monsoon- a cause for celebration, indeed- and is appropriately observed by the donning of green clothing which symbolises the verdure of rain-fed fields. Teej is traditionally celebrated by women, who go their parents’ home for the festival. New clothes, usually gifted by the woman’s parents, are worn, and women gather together to fast and to offer prayers to the goddess Parvati, whose devotion to her husband, Shiva, is considered exemplary. On Teej, an idol of the goddess, bedecked in red and gold clothing, is taken in a procession, accompanied by chanting and hymns.
But Teej is not just a religious festival; it also is a time to celebrate the coming of the rains- a time for renewal and rejuvenation. Teej `melas’ or fairs are fixtures at villages and towns, where thousands come to eat, drink, buy, sell, and generally enjoy themselves. The celebrations include music and folk dances, as well as the hanging of swings from trees, where groups of women and girls gather to swing.
When : August 15
Where : Nationwide
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” said Jawaharlal Nehru about this, one of the most important days in the history of the Indian nation. On August 15, 1947, India won its independence from British rule, and that independence is celebrated every year, although in a much more subdued form than on Republic Day. There are no parades or extravagant processions on Independence Day, but most institutions, both academic and governmental, hold a low-profile celebration in which the hoisting of the national flag is the key element. At New Delhi’s Red Fort, too, a large public gathering, mainly of dignitaries, is held. It’s addressed by the Prime Minister, who also hoists the tricolour.
When : August 20
Where : Nationwide
An old legend in Hindu mythology tells of how, during a fierce battle between the gods and the demons, a sacred thread tied by his wife on the wrist of the god Indra helped bolster his courage and defeat the enemy. The modern interpretation of that legend has substituted the sister for the wife, and the demons have changed somewhat from being flesh-and-blood monsters to the more mundane problems of everyday life; but the spirit continues in the form of Raksha Bandhan.
Raksha Bandhan affirms the relationship between a sister and brother with the symbolic tying of a thread around the wrist of the brother, whereby he promises to protect her against all harm, while she prays for his wellbeing. The thread, known as the rakhi, today appears in many forms, both simple and highly ornate, decorated with gold or silver foil, beads, silk thread, sequins and more. In most modern households Raksha Bandhan is a light-hearted occasion, calling for plenty of playful banter. Traditionally, brothers were expected to gift something to their sisters on this day, and that translates today into clothing, jewellery, or money.
Where : Kerala
Onam is when Kerala parties. Boat races, song and dance, lots of good food, and as much exotica as you can take are there for the asking. Onam is celebrated in gratitude for the bounties of the land, for all that nature provides for the people. On a slightly different level, the festival also keeps alive the legend of a benevolent ancient ruler called Mahabali, who, it is believed, again visits his subjects- the people of Kerala- during Onam.
For the festival, preparations start as much as ten days in advance. Homes are cleaned and thresholds are decorated with a flower mat called a `pookalam’; everybody’s in new clothes, and there’s much feasting on delicacies such as the immensely popular rice pudding, payasam. Pujas take place in homes and temples, and grand processions, which include richly caparisoned elephants, dancers and musicians, wend their way through towns and villages, accompanied by fireworks and cheering crowds. Kathakali performances and boat races- locally known as vallamkali- are also permanent fixtures during the Onam celebrations. The towns of Kottayam and Aranmulai are, in particular, famed for their Onam boat races.
Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti
Where : Ajmer (Rajasthan)
The largest Muslim fair in India, the annual Urs of the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is held at the dargah of the saint in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The Urs (the death anniversary of the saint) is an occasion for a massive pilgrimage, with thousands of devotees flocking to the dargah. The Urs celebrations continue for six days, commencing with the hoisting of a white flag on the tomb by the Sajdanashin (successor-representative) of the Chishtia order. Over the days which follow, the tomb is ritually anointed with rosewater and sandalwood paste; qawwalis are sung and poetry recited in praise of the Almighty, prayers are said, and devotees offer nazranas or votive offerings. Outside the dargah precincts, two massive cauldrons cook sweet rice garnished with dry fruits and condiments to be served as ‘tabarukh’ or sanctified food.
At the time of the Urs, a busy bazaar springs up at the foot of the dargah. Flowers, embroidered prayer rugs, prayer caps and decorative chadars are among the many things to be found in the bazaar, apart from the usual souvenirs which make their way to fairs such as this.
Phoolwalon Ki Sair (Sair-e-Gulfaroshan)
Where : New Delhi
Delhi is not all pollution and noisy traffic, as some would have you believe; it’s also the home of a very interesting annual festival, with a history more than a hundred years old. Way back in the 19th century, the British appointed Bahadurshah Zafar the Mughal emperor. Bahadurshah’s half-brother, Mirza Jahangir, was understandably annoyed at being thus ignored; and he, to vent his frustration, took a pot shot at the British Resident. The Resident, though uninjured, instantly exiled his would-be murderer to Allahabad. Mirza Jahangir’s mother, who missed her son terribly, made a vow that if her son returned to Delhi, she would walk from the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya to that of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. Her prayers must have been powerful, for Mirza Jahangir was pardoned; and his mother’s pilgrimage, which she duly went on, has continued till today in the form of the Sair-e-Gulfaroshan, or the Phoolwalon ki Sair.
A three-day long religious (yet secular, for everybody participates in it) festival of flowers, the Sair-e-Gulfaroshan begins with the procession from Nizamuddin’s dargah to Kaki’s dargah. The procession, which is led by musicians, fire-dancers and flower-sellers, makes its way to Kaki’s tomb, where flower `chaadars’ and `pankhas’ are ceremonially laid on the dargah. This is followed by a visit to the nearby Devi Jog Maya temple, an ancient shrine where the ceremony is repeated. The festivities are rounded off with a cultural programme of kathak performances, qawwalis and devotional music.
Where : Leh (Ladakh)
Ladakh, tucked away in the bitterly cold reaches of the Himalayas, lies cut off from the rest of the world for the better part of the year. But, come summer and the entire region suddenly comes back to life, in a vibrant burst of vitality which lasts through the all-too-brief summer. It’s a period of warmth and joy, when Ladakh plays host to thousands of visitors from across the globe. The fun lasts till late September, when winter starts setting in again; but before that happens, there’s one final round of partying, in the form of the Ladakh Festival. The Ladakh Festival highlights the sports and culture of the region, in a weeklong extravaganza of dances, music, handicrafts and sports.
The festival begins with a long procession, of local leaders, schoolchildren and dancers, which makes its way through Leh. What follows is seven days of lion dances, yak dances, craft stalls, excellent local food and plenty of the heady barley beer known as chang! Archery contests are held at Skara (near Leh), and polo matches, white-water rafting expeditions and treks are organised as well. All in all, it’s one of the best times to visit Ladakh- a time when you can get a really good feel, at close quarters, of this wildly beautiful cold desert.
Where : Nationwide
Although celebrated all across India, Ganesh Chaturthi (or Vinayak Chaturthi, as it’s also known) is a really important festival especially in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. Preparations for Ganesh Chaturthi- which marks the birth of the Lord Ganesh- begin up to ten days in advance, and, in places, even months in advance. In virtually every neighbourhood, a gaily decorated and painstakingly crafted Ganesh idol is made, to be illuminated and worshipped for all of the ten days leading up to Ganesh Chaturthi. On the day of the festival itself, sweets- especially laddoos, which are a favourite of the god’s- are distributed (and consumed) and Ganesh temples are crowded with devotees who participate in the worship of the deity. Finally, when all the festivities are over, the idols which have been worshipped over the past ten days are taken out in a grand procession. Accompanied by fireworks, beating drums and the sound of thousands of voices singing devotional songs, the idols are ritually immersed in a nearby sea, lake or river. The immersion, which is known as the `visarjan’, marks an end to the festivities, and is completed with prayers to the god to return again the following year.
Where : Nationwide
Janmashtami, or, as it’s sometimes known, Krishna Janmashtami, celebrates the birth of perhaps one of Hindusim’s most popular deities- the well-loved Krishna. According to Hindu belief, Krishna was born at midnight on the eighth day of the dark fortnight in the month of Bhadrapad. The day before Janmashtami is one of prayer and fasting, which continues till midnight and beyond, when an idol of the god is placed in a cradle and rocked. On Janmashtami itself, Krishna temples are decorated and the idol of the god is ceremonially bathed in a mixture of milk, honey, yoghurt, dry fruit and tulsi leaves- all of which is then distributed as prasad. Hymns, the chanting of devotional mantras, and processional tableaux are accompanied by the enactment of incidents from the life of the god. These are performed by small Brahmin boys, who, for the day, are regarded virtually as incarnations of Krishna himself. In some areas, a staging of the Raslila- which celebrates Krishna’s love for the cowgirls of Vrindavan- is an integral part of Janmashtami celebrations.
One of the most lively customs connected with Janmashtami is the breaking of the `dahi-handi’, a pot of milk, yoghurt, butter, honey and dry fruits which is suspended high above a street. Teams of young men and boys compete with each other to build human pyramids high enough to reach the dahi-handi and break it. The act is symbolic of Krishna’s love for milk and butter, and his plundering of the local cowgirls’ handis.
When : October 02
Where : Nationwide
October 2, 1869, was the date when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi- undoubtedly modern India’s most well-known statesman- was born in Porbandar, Gujarat. Nearly a century and a half after his birth, Mahatma’s Gandhi birthday is still an important national event- in fact, one of the three national holidays in the Indian calendar. It is not a day for exuberant celebrations, but rather one for repose and religious discourse. National leaders and ministers pay homage to The Father of the Nation at his memorial (at Raj Ghat, in Delhi). This is followed by public assemblies where verses are read from religious scriptures and hymns are sung.
Where : West Bengal
The Bengali version of Dussehra, Durga Puja is, as its name suggests, dedicated to the worship of West Bengal’s most beloved deity- the goddess Durga, the embodiment of all feminine virtues. Durga Puja festivities continue for a period of nine days, although the preparations and the excitement begin long before that! In all neighbourhoods, gorgeously decorated idols of the goddess are created- often in the form of large tableaux which depict her in the act of destroying the demon Mahishasura. Installed in specially erected pavilions known as `pandals’, the idols attract huge crowds who come to admire the tableaux and their decorations. Stalls selling a variety of foods and other wares, including household appliances, clothing and the like, come up around pandals, and that, combined with the loud music played at each pandal, makes this a very noisy (but enjoyable!) period. The festivities reach fever pitch by the ninth day, following which, on the day of Vijayadashami, the idols of the goddess are ritually immersed in a river or sea. The immersion (known as `visarjan’) symbolises the return of Durga to her husband after her ten-day sojourn in her parent’s home.
When : October13
Where : Nationwide
Dussehra or Vijayadashami ranks as one of the most important festivals in the Hindu calendar- a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. Rooted in the legend of Ram’s defeat of the demon king Ravana, Dussehra re-enacts the epic battle, in more forms than one. Traditionally, a `ramlila’ is staged in community halls, schools and temples, where the well-loved story of the Ramayana is performed all over again. Simultaneously, poems, songs and stories recount the virtues of the deity. A few days prior to Vijayadashami, bamboo and paper effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhakarna and his son Meghnad are erected. The effigies are crammed with firecrackers and, on the day of the festival, ceremonially set alight in the evening, to blaze and burn in a shower of flames and exploding crackers. Pujas, music and ritual processions are just some of the other components of Dussehra.
Dussehra festivities in certain parts of India are especially notable. In Kullu (Himachal Pradesh), for instance, the celebrations carry on for ten days, during which beautifully decorated idols of deities are brought to Kullu town in processions from across the valley; the festival itself is marked by pujas and Natti dances.
In Mysore (Karnataka), Dussehra is marked by a grand procession of decorated elephants, dancers and priests; the procession ends at the Chamundi Temple, where a special puja is held. Elsewhere in Karnataka- and in Andhra Pradesh too- a pyramidical arrangement of dolls, known as a bommai kolu, is created as the main decorative element in homes.
Where : Nationwide
One of India’s most popular festivals, Diwali or Deepawali is the festival of lights- the day when each house, each shop is decorated with hundreds of tiny, twinkling clay diyas. It’s the day when crackers and fireworks, sweets and goodwill rule the roost- the day which heralds a new year, greater prosperity and more joy.
Diwali celebrations continue over a few days, starting with Dhanteras, which is dedicated to Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. For Dhanteras, homes and shops are decorated with colourful rangolis, and diyas are kept burning through the night. The day after Dhanteras is Chhoti Diwali, and the day after that is the festival itself- Diwali. Diwali is celebrated by worshipping the goddess Laxmi, but that isn’t all- what really contributes to all the fun on Diwali is the lighting of lamps; the fireworks; the crackers; the sweets; and the air of camaraderie which seems to pervade the air itself. Other `must-dos’ during the Diwali season include purchasing gold, silver or utensils on Dhanteras; and gambling during the days prior to Diwali. The tradition of gambling apparently derives from the story that the goddess Parvati played dice with her husband, Shiva, on Diwali, and decreed that anyone who gambled during the period would be favoured with wealth and prosperity.
Where : Nationwide
The festival of Bhai Dooj is celebrated two days after Diwali, and is, like Raksha Bandhan, a day dedicated to the love between a brother and sister. Bhai Dooj is observed primarily in northern India, where it is a day when sisters pray for the wellbeing and prosperity of their brothers. Exactly how Bhai Dooj is celebrated differs from one part of the country to another; in Bengal, for instance, sisters often fast through the morning before putting a `tilak’ on the brother’s forehead, and the gifting of rice and new grass is part of the ritual. In Uttar Pradesh, the brother is gifted with an `aab’- a length of flax, knotted into a circular shape and dotted with sugar batashas.
In Bihar, an interesting variation of Bhai Dooj starts with the sister cursing her brother, before asking for his forgiveness- for the epithets, as well as for past mistakes.
But no matter how Bhai Dooj is celebrated, it’s the spirit of love and togetherness which makes this an important festival.
Eid ul Fitr
Where : Nationwide
One of Islam’s most important festivals, Eid ul Fitr is the culmination of the month-long period of fasting and austerity known as Ramzan. It is believed that the Holy Quran was revealed during the month of Ramzan, and in commemoration of that sacred revelation, Eid is celebrated on the day following the sighting of the new moon. On the day of Eid, namaz at mosques is followed by the giving of fitr (alms). Family gatherings, fireworks and much feasting round off the festivities. The highlight of banquet tables is the sweet milk-and-vermicelli pudding known as `seviyan’- because of which many people refer to Eid ul Fitr as `meethi’ or `sweet’ Eid. In predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, special Eid fairs appear, where trinkets, clothing and a whole lot of other bric-a-brac is available.
Where : Pushkar (Rajasthan)
For Hindus, the town of Pushkar, in Rajasthan, is considered among the holiest of towns in India- a town to which any devotee worth his or her salt must make a pilgrimage. Consequently, Pushkar, at any given time, is full of pilgrims coming to seek darshan, to offer prayers at the local temples, and to stock up on virtue enough to guarantee salvation. But Pushkar is most crowded not during the pilgrim season, but during the annual cattle fair which is the highlight of Pushkar’s winter. Every November, thousands of people- cattle traders, shopkeepers, merchants, dancers, musicians and artisans among them- congregate at Pushkar for a four-day long event which holds the distinction of being India’s largest cattle fair. The fair is a memorable- and definitely overwhelming- cocktail of sights, smells and sounds which bring together everything Rajasthani. For the space of four days, Pushkar’s narrow lanes are the scene for hectic trade and barter, for merrymaking and rejoicing- and despite the fact that the increasing commercialisation of the Mela has made it a whole lot more touristy than before, it continues to be a delightful experience.
When : November 17
Where : Nationwide
Among the Sikhs, Gurunanak Jayanti- the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith- is an occasion for great rejoicing. Guru Nanak was born in 1469 AD at Tolevandi (near Lahore), and his birth anniversary is celebrated with much pomp and religious fervour across the Sikh community. The festivities for the day begin with early morning processions known as the `prabhat pheri’; the procession starts at a local gurudwara and makes its way around the neighbourhood, chanting verses and singing hymns. Prabhat pheris are held on the days prior to Gurunanak Jayanti; and for the three days too, there is a continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, from beginning to end, without a break.
The day of the festival is marked by a special procession in which pride of place is reserved for the Guru Granth Sahib, carried on a beautifully decorated float and accompanied by musicians and five armed guards (who represent the panj piaras). Prayers and kirtans at gurudwaras are followed by community meals (langar), where all- irrespective of religious conviction- are welcome.
When : December 25
Where : Nationwide
As in other countries across the world, in India too Christmas- the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ more than two thousand years ago- is a major Christian festival. The way Christmas is celebrated, differs, however from one part of the country to another- and includes both regional as well as foreign elements.
In larger cities and towns, homes and churches (often shops and markets too) are decorated with tinsel, Christmas trees, bells, baubles, and fairy lights- and you might even hear Christmas carols being sung by a local choir. In smaller towns and villages, Christmas acquires a more distinctly Indian feel about it; decorations may include little clay diyas which are lit instead of candles; the fir tree may be replaced with a mango or banana tree; and poinsettias may take the place of store-bought baubles. But what doesn’t change is the joy, the fervour and the excitement which Christmas inevitably brings- that remains the same across the length and breadth of India. Midnight and morning masses at local churches, feasts, family gatherings and charitable donations are all part and parcel of Yuletide celebrations everywhere in India.