India’s festival calendar has something for every religion, nationality and belief, all heralded with elaborate preparation and an exuberant joy rarely found elsewhere. Gifts are exchanged, houses are decorated, song and dance fills the streets and each state and town has its own unique take on a festival occasion. Some events are regional and some national, but all are emblematic of a country which displays diversity at every turn and a people well-tuned to the spirit of celebration. Here are just a few of the major festivals you’ll find in India throughout the year.
India may be a land of Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and many more religious groups, but the start of the year sees a more secular holiday recognised by all. Republic Day on the 26th January marks the anniversary of the Constitution of 1950, when the modern Indian state was born. Parades are particularly spectacular in Delhi, focusing on the India Gate, attended by the Indian President and accompanied by awards and other rituals. Locally, school children perform cultural dances and receive sweets from the government and the tri-coloured flag is seen everywhere.
The meaning of the original term, Deepawali, translates as ‘rows of lamps’ and today, Diwali is known all over the world for its nocturnal light displays. Probably one of the biggest annual events and widely celebrated across India, Diwali falls in November and is significant to multiple religious groups, as well as being a great occasion to witness as a visitor, if you’re lucky enough to coincide this with your cheap flights to India in 2013 that are widely available online. The main tradition of lighting the oil lamps represents the victory of good over evil, while people prepare their households in advance and make vibrant rangoli floor art, commonly meant to welcome the wealth goddess Lakshmi and promote luck.
Held at the turn of the Hindu calendar and the coming of the full moon in late March, Holi is perhaps one of the most recognisable festivals of India: coloured powders and water tossed high into the air, coating everybody and everything in rainbow shades. The aim of the festivities is to celebrate the new season and nature’s return to full bloom after the winter. Northern and southern states associate it with different gods, from the burning of the evil Holika to the story of the God of Love, Kamadeva, who loosed an arrow at Shiva instead of his wife and paid the consequences with fire. Whichever is believed, the end of Holi is usually marked with a symbolic bonfire.
This September festival revolves around the birthday of Ganesha, the mischievous elephant God, with intense celebrations in the Bombay and Madras areas, though popular across the country. Ganesha reigns in Buddhism and Hinduism and clay idols both homemade and statuesque are worshipped, alongside plenty of feasting, performance and poetry. On the last or tenth day the people give the elephant god his watery send-off, as he is paraded through the streets of places like Maharashtra, and submerged into the river or floated out to sea.
Pushkar Camel Fair
One of India’s more regional and traditional affairs is held solely in Pushkar, a town in the desert state of Rajasthan. The Camel Fair began as a trade-off between camel and cattle buyers during the Kartik Purnima festival but now draws in crowds from all over the world to see camel races, beauty parades and even camel fashion shows as the lucky – or unfortunate – animals are dressed in the finest clothes. Also a November occasion, it lasts for five days and includes carnival acts such as magicians, live music and acrobats.
In fact, India has many smaller and no-less noteworthy festivals which are worth looking up if you’re in the country. Why not make a stop at the August Nagaland festivals and celebrate with the Yimchunger tribes, or join in with Novidade in Goa to mark the first harvest crops in September?
Image of Republic Day by rajkumar1220 used under creative commons licence