Top 5 festivals of India for foreign visitors

Photograph by Andrew Adams of Katha Images

Photograph by Andrew Adams of Katha Images

5 festivals in India worth planning your trip around

INDIA IS KNOWN for sensory-busting, rambunctious, non-stop festivals. At any time of the year, all over the country, festivals celebrating religion, the phases of the moon, culture, the seasons, India’s epic stories (the Ramayana and the Mahabharat) and who knows what else pop up with astonishing frequency.

They may all celebrate different things, but they have one thing in common: they’re a spectacle to behold. These are festivals well worth visiting India to experience.

Here you will find everything you need to know to start planning your trip.

 Photo above courtesy Andrew Adams.

Diwali, festival, India

Photo courtesy anshu_si via Compfight

1. Diwali, Festival of Light

Diwali is the biggest festival in India, a celebration of the triumph of light over dark, good over evil. The word Diwali means “rows of lighted lamps” and it is also called the Festival of Light. Everyone lights small diyas (lamps) and fireworks to help guide Lord Rama home from exile.

Diwali is basically the equivalent of Christmas — a big, festive celebration that brings families together and is the highlight of the holiday season. There are five days of festivities, each marked with different pujas (prayers) and rituals.

What you need to know:

Like most festivals in India, Diwali’s date changes from year to year as it’s based on the lunar cycle and not a fixed date. This year (2015) it’s November 11. So check the date in advance, and plan accordingly. Diwali ties up traffic like nobody’s business and makes travel challenging.

Top tip: Find a place to celebrate and stay put for the five days of Diwali.

How to celebrate:

Diwali is largely a family celebration, much like Christmas. Stay with Indian friends or book into a homestay or small, family-run guesthouse so you can experience Diwali with a family.

Where to celebrate:

Diwali (also known as Deepavali) is celebrated throughout India, though there are regional differences. Cities like Delhi, Varanasi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, and Mumbai go all out on Diwali, and the effect is dazzling … to the point of ear-splitting. I’ve been in Delhi twice for Diwali and found the noise and the pollution caused from all the fireworks to be overwhelming. Next time, I’m going to try a smaller city!

Holi, festival, India

Photo courtesy Dave Bouskill, ThePlanetD.com

2. Holi, Festival of Colour

Holi is probably the most well-known and beloved festival in India among foreigners and many want to participate in the festivities — which involves throwing coloured powder and water at each other. It’s a celebration of spring and usually takes place in March.

I’ve celebrated Holi successfully three times in India. I say successfully because nothing untoward happened. Twice I was at a private club in South Delhi and once I was at an ashram in Rishikesh. In both cases, the crowd was controlled and I was never in danger of being molested by bhang-drinking male youths.

What you need to know:

Like Diwali, and many other festivals, Holi is based on the lunar calendar. It’s celebrated on the full moon in either February or March, so check the date in advance. In 2016, the date is March 23.

Holi can be very uncomfortable for women. Please read my blog What you need to know about Holi for tips on how to celebrate safely. The key is to stay off the streets, find a controlled group of people to celebrate with and go easy on the bhang lassi (also known as thandai).

How to celebrate:

Finding the right group of people to celebrate Holi with is key. My other tips include covering your skin and hair with oil (such as almond oil) to prevent the colour from staining your skin for a week. And try to use natural, plant-derived and non-synthetic colours if you can find them.

Top tip: Lathmar Holi is a unique festival that takes place in Barsana, near Mathura, a few days before Holi. In this tradition, the women beat up men with sticks (laths) before playing Holi with colours.

Where to celebrate:

The best place to celebrate Holi is probably Mathura / Vrindavan in North India, the birthplace and childhood home of Krishna. The celebrations here are legendary.

There are also many private celebrations such as the Holy Cow festival in Delhi.

Holi photo courtesy Dave Bouskill of ThePlanetD.com.
Photo of Kumartuli in Kolkata by Andrew Adams

Photo of Kumartuli in Kolkata by Andrew Adams

3. Durga Puja

Durga Puja is truly one of the great festivals of India, and though not as well known as Diwali and Holi, has a lot to offer visitors. Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal is THE place to celebrate Durga Puja. The festival honours the goddess Durga, who represents the divine feminine energy, or shakti — the force, power and warrior aspect of the divine mother. Taking place over five days, Durga Puja’s date is tied to the phases of the moon. This year (2015) it’s October 19 to 23.

A year in the planning, Kolkata’s many talented artisans go to great lengths to create pandals — decorated stages that exhibit statues of the goddess Durga. Each night of the festival, crowds of people move from pandal to pandal admiring the art work and enjoying live music. On the last day, the statues are taken by procession for immersion into the Ganga (Ganges) River, known in Kolkata as the Hooghly.

What you need to know:

Durga Puja is as much an arts festival as it is a religious celebration. The festival essentially turns Kolkata into the world’s biggest open-air art gallery. Bengali culture is known for nurturing some of India’s greatest artists, writers and filmmakers (such as the great Satyajit Ray), so the creative nature of the Durga Puja festival should come as no surprise.

How to celebrate:

The best way to celebrate is to go along with the crowds visiting the pandals each evening.

Where to celebrate:

There are other places that celebrate Durga Puja — last year I joined the festivities in South Delhi — but nobody does it better than Kolkata. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that should not be missed.

 Kumartuli photo above courtesy Andrew Adams.

 

Ganesh

Photo courtesy TheFirstPost.co.uk

4. Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesh is the beloved elephant-headed god, a favourite throughout India, and Ganesh Chaturthi is the festival that honours him. It runs for 11 days in late August or September, depending on the cycle of the moon. This year (2015) it starts on September 17.

Similar to Durga Puja, images of Ganesh are made throughout the year and displayed during the 10-day festival. On the 11th day, called Anant Chaturdasi, the images are paraded through the streets, accompanied by singing and dancing, and finally immersed in the sea.

What you need to know:

Ganesh is the god of luck, auspicious beginnings and safe travels, and the remover of obstacles. I launched Breathedreamgo on Ganesh Chaturthi in 2009. The date that year was August 23. Please note, this year (2015), Ganesh Chaturthi begins on September 17, and culminates on September 27.

The festival fills the streets with rowdy crowds and caution is in order.

How to celebrate:

During the festival, Ganesh statues are displayed all over the city, with communities competing with each other. The displays feature music, dancing and feasting.

Top tip: The size of the crowds make Ganesh Chaturthi a daunting undertaking. Visit the 2015 Ganesh Chaturthi Festival Guide  and consider taking a tour.

Where to celebrate:

While Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in about five states, Mumbai is probably the best place to experience it. Thousands of statues are displayed around the city, and devotees gather at Siddhivinayak Temple. The procession to the sea for immersion — called Visarjan — is truly a spectacle to behold.

Pushkar Camel Fair, festival, India

Photo courtesy Koshyk via Compfight.

5. Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar is a small town in rural Rajasthan famed for the beauty of its lake, the uniqueness of its Brahma Temple (the only one in India) and the chilled-out vibe. Many people come here just to BE … and I am no exception. I once spent about nine days relaxing on the roof of the Inn Seventh Heaven.

The Pushkar Camel Fair takes over the town each autumn, at the time of the Kartik Purnima (full moon festival). This means that a religious festival and livestock fair converge on the small town at the same time and turn it into a giant mela (fair).

This year, the Pushkar Camel Fair takes place from November 14-23. The first thing you need to know about the Pushkar Camel Fair is that it really is a camel fair. Camel traders come from far and wide to buy, sell and trade camels … attended by feasting, cultural shows, competitions such as camel racing and the world’s largest pop-up marketplace.

What you need to know:

Pushkar’s population balloons from about 15,000 to a quarter-million people during the Camel Fair, with tent cities popping up all over the fields that surround the small town. Rates for hotels and luxury tented accommodations also pop up — in fact they quadruple during the Fair, making it a very expensive place to stay. You can find package tours that include transport from Delhi and accommodation, and this is probably the most cost-effective way to go.

Top tip: Get to Pushkar a day or two before the actual fair as the livestock traders will be there, and the tourists won’t have arrived yet. Stay at the new ZostelHostel, on the edge of town, for clean, comfortable and affordable accommodation that’s also ideally located.

How to celebrate:

Immerse yourself in the mirage created in the Rajasthani desert. Enjoy the food, cultural shows, competitions and market place — where artisan-made products are showcased and sold.

Where to celebrate:

The Pushkar Camel Fair is in Pushkar, of course. But you can also join the camel traders headed to Pushkar in the weeks before the festival.

Ganesh

Photo credits
Diwali diyas: anshu_si via Compfight cc
Pushkar camels: Koshyk via Compfight cc

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30 Responses to Top 5 festivals of India for foreign visitors

  1. Jeet Bhatt September 17, 2015 at 1:07 am #

    Hi,
    I would like to add ‘Garba’ to the list. It is celebrated in Western state of Gujarat and coincides with Durga puja. In my opinion it is the biggest song and dance festival (dedicated to Goddess Mataji) in the whole world and goes on for 9 straight days. It is played in every street, society to large outdoor spaces in all parts of the state. Gujarat, being the safest state in India, women and girls hang around till wee hours in the morning without fear. It is the must-see festival in India and should be on your list!

    • Mariellen Ward September 17, 2015 at 8:22 pm #

      Thanks so much Jeet, it is indeed a great addition, and a festival that I definitely want to experience. I was in Gujarat for the first time last year, and definitely need to go back.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Lakshman Sagar: Feast and fantasy in the Rajasthan desertMy Profile

    • Ranjit October 11, 2015 at 3:28 am #

      Thanks nice article.About Ganesh Chaturthi the best place to celebrate is Pune where is all originated and the crowd is more controlled and immersed in traditions.

  2. Shekhar September 17, 2015 at 3:56 am #

    I must congratulate you for your Blog, I loved it, I must say I first found you on twitter and ever since i am reading your blog….its very informative and have a perspective which i like…Keep travelling ….and keep blogging !!!

  3. Rutavi Mehta September 17, 2015 at 7:25 am #

    Didi, your love towards India is something I have rarely seen in any India travellers as well. The festivals you mentioned are my favourite. The only festival I have missed till now is Durga Puja..Glad you would be going as then I can see through your eyes. Great article , along with giving key points about what to see there like Latmar Holi .Btw you should read my latest blog about Attakul Pongala in Kerala.(Blog link is down). You should see this festival which is completely women oriented. Let me know how do you like it!
    Rutavi Mehta recently posted..Festival of Kerala- Attukal PongalaMy Profile

  4. Saara Naseer September 19, 2015 at 10:25 am #

    Well researched and informative blog.. 🙂
    Saara Naseer recently posted..@ The State Archaeological Museum: GolcondaMy Profile

  5. Surabhi September 24, 2015 at 7:11 am #

    Nice Post.
    India is famous for his great Culture and Heritage. In next write about heritage in india.

  6. Kaiden October 6, 2015 at 5:14 am #

    If you are from outside India, you must see these festivals because these festivals are celebrated by all people irrespective of their religion. These festivals are the backbone of Indian culture

  7. Izy Berry October 14, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

    Great post one of my favorites i never knew about this India is a place that you can discover alot of things

  8. Roxanne Bamboat October 25, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    Sometimes you forget just how amazing India is and how we have beautiful festivals. I think I should plan more trips in the country around festival time. I got lucky because I was in Kolkata last week during Durga Puja and it was all kinds of special 🙂
    Roxanne Bamboat recently posted..The London Photo DiaryMy Profile

  9. Mansee October 31, 2015 at 3:01 am #

    Lovely article and very helpful for expats. As suggested earlier, Navratri is also a colourful and musical festival to be best enjoyed in Gujarat , esp Vadodara.
    Mansee recently posted..ReminiscenceMy Profile

  10. Manish October 31, 2015 at 6:54 am #

    Pushkar camel fair is not among top festival in India. It is just a event. You can mention either Vijayadashmi or Janmastami (lord krishna birthday) etc. Still there are a lot of festivals which are celebrated religion wise.

  11. Gaurav November 3, 2015 at 10:34 pm #

    What about Uttrayan, festival of flying kites. It’s mostly celebrated in Gujarat, Madhya Prsadesh and Rajasthan.

  12. Pete November 26, 2015 at 5:40 am #

    Nice list. But you missed the famous Onam festival of Kerala and Pongal from Tamilnadu these two festivals are a must for visitors from abroad.

  13. Arjun March 31, 2016 at 2:14 pm #

    You could have added Kumbhamela instead of camel festival. Also there is another Brahma temple available in india

  14. NearFox Mumbai April 4, 2016 at 3:37 am #

    Indeed, India is a land of festivals.

  15. Sandeep kr June 23, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

    You forgot to mention the unique festival called ‘Bathukamma’. This ia the only floral festival in the world and its celebrated in the state of Telangana in southern India. http://Www.exploretelangana.com/bathukamma-festival
    You can google about this for more images, songs and how women celebrate.
    You should visit Hyderabad or warangal during this festival to get the real feel of what bathukamma festival is all about.

  16. Sarah June 27, 2016 at 3:50 am #

    I think any place is wonderful when you are celebrating Holi or Diwali with your near and dear ones. My journey through these celebrations was scintillating. Hope I can make it to Mathura for Holi this year. Cheers to the editor!

  17. Sandeep June 27, 2016 at 6:24 am #

    India is an amazing country and so very versatile for its tourist. One of the best way to plan a trip is to select a festival and plan everything around it. Travelwhistle can help you search festivals statewise and monthwise. In addition to festivals you can also know about local food cuisines through this website. The best way to know the people and culture of this wonderland one must experience a full festivals in India. There is so much diversity in this country. You can see different rituals and culture after every 200 kms and there is so much to learn.

  18. Himanshu July 14, 2016 at 7:15 am #

    Guys also try this…one of my friend created an android app for indian festivals
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.app.festives

  19. Perviz Surti July 26, 2016 at 2:07 am #

    India is a potpourri of distinct cultures and traditions, intermingling together to make it the most vibrant land of rambunctious, sensory-busting, colourful festivals.

    Perviz Surti recently posted..Must Visit Places around Mumbai in MonsoonMy Profile

  20. Sai Shankar September 19, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    There are not only 5 but hundreds of festivals in India around which one can plan a trip. If you want to know about the diverse culture and tradition of India than visit Travelwhistle which helps you search Indian festivals monthwise as well as statewise.

    At the same time you can also explore Indian cuisines on Travelwhistle. You can experience real India.

  21. Dheeraj October 27, 2016 at 6:28 am #

    Great overview of Indian Festivals. You could add Onam to it, the Festival of Flowers from Kerala.
    Dheeraj recently posted..Top 10 must visit National parks in IndiaMy Profile

  22. Debargha Bhadra February 13, 2017 at 12:21 am #

    The picture given in the name of Durga Puja is not actually6 so. It is an image showing the making of Goddess kali in Kumartuli. Please make changes.

  23. MS. L. OHARA May 1, 2017 at 4:57 pm #

    I cannot tell if you have done so, but I am writing to request that you please, please do not advertise festivals that use elephants as a part of the festival. The elephants that are used in festivals are treated very poorly at all times, and many of them die young from the abuse. Their horror story begins when they are captured illegally when they are too young to leave their mother. Then they are put through a cruel and barbaric “training” process to break their spirit. After that they are routinely beaten and food/water are withheld in order to gain their obedience. They are trucked around from festival to festival, again without water, food, or shade, and forced to stand on concrete in the hot sun while waiting to parade or participate in a festival out in the hot sun on concrete. In addition, please advise your followers to never, ever ride an elephant. For all their size and weight their musculoskeletal system is really rather delicate and it ruins their spine to carry weight. Thank you.

  24. Sweta Tripathi June 19, 2017 at 2:26 am #

    Hi, you represented all 5 festivals very well, great wishes and thanks for doing good job. In my opinion Raksha Bandhan and Krishna Janmashtami is more popular festival comparison to pushkar fair.

  25. Gauri Dwivedi June 19, 2017 at 3:43 am #

    I really like you article, all five festivals are very famous in India and people want to join its celebration from all over the world.

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