Header image courtesy of Jumpstory
As the famous adage goes, “The greatness of a culture can be found in its festivals.” India is undoubtedly the world’s most massive amalgamation of religions, cultures, and communities where people from all walks of life coexist harmoniously and get together throughout the year to celebrate festivals, events, and happenings.
There is literally no dearth of occasions for bringing people closer and making life a celebration. So, if you are among those who want to experience the country’s rich heritage and revel in the enjoyment, here’s a guide on how to plan your next India visit.
Diwali is easily the most celebrated Hindu festival in the world, also honoured by a majority of Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. Celebrated over five days sometime between mid–October to mid-November, this festival of lights symbolises the triumph of good over evil. While for northern Indians, this day marks King Rama’s triumphant return to Ayodhya after defeating the multi-headed demon king Ravana in a heroic battle from a Sanskrit-based epic called Ramayana, the southern Indians take pride in the fact that it commemorates Lord Krishna’s victory over demon Narkasura.
Well, mythological beliefs aside, Diwali and the positive beginnings associated with this day are celebrated with much fanfare by lighting up homes with glimmering clay lamps and bright-coloured lanterns. One will also find intricately designed geometric floor patterns called rangolis outside every home, which is thought to bring good cheer. Rangoli is a traditional art form drawn on the ground outside homes or the sidewalks. Typically made of coloured sand or rice powder, the beautifully crafted rangolis instantly double up the festive mood.
During Diwali, the air is rich with aromas from burning incense oils, and skies light up with spectacular fireworks as constant chatter among guests, families, and friends float throughout the neighbourhood. And much like any other festival where food plays a critical role in getting people together, Diwali too has its own share of an elaborate presentation of fanciest and most delectable time-honoured recipes. After all, it is, undoubtedly, India’s most-awaited time of the year.
For a lot of non-Hindus, he is probably the most recognised (for his elephant head) and popular deity of the Hindu pantheon. Ganesh, or lovingly referred to by many as “Ganpati,” is believed to withstand all obstacles and bring you great fortune and success. He is also idolised for having a blissful initiation of any personal or professional work.
Ganesh Chaturthi, which is a massive 10-day festival celebrated sometime in August or September, has been transformed over the years into a massively synchronised, elaborate public event that brings people of all castes and creeds together and celebrated with much pomp and splendour in western, central, and southern India. In most cities, particularly in Maharashtra—a state in the western peninsular region of India—Ganesh Chaturthi is a sight to behold. The streets are filled to the brim with grand processions where devotees chant hymns and praises and put up a highly-orchestrated performance.
And if you are wondering why the elephant head, according to Hindu mythology, goddess Parvathi created Ganesh with such strength and power that no other god could ever defeat or overpower him in a battle. However, in a flurry of events that involved much rage and anger, Lord Shiva, Parvathi’s husband, happened to chop off Ganesh’s head accidentally. Thus, in an attempt to appease Parvathi and make up for her loss, Shiva replaced his head with a baby elephant, thus giving rise to the elephant sculptured god, as we all know today.
Because of these valorous attributes of Lord Ganesh, there can hardly be a Hindu home in India that does not house a Ganesh idol. Although iconic representations of this widely-worshipped god shows considerable variations over time and regions, a typical Ganesh idol found in homes or marquees in public areas involves the head of an elephant, a large bulbous belly, and a four-armed configuration, each having its own spiritual significance.
This is probably the only day when you ought not to take offence when someone splashes water on you, douses your freshly washed sparkly white clothes in coloured water, and catches you off-guard to smear your face with a multitude of shades of blue, green, red, and pink. Holi revellers love to call “Bura na mano, Holi hai,” which literally translates to “Don’t take it the wrong way, it’s Holi after all.” It serves as a license to indulge in kind of pranks that one would not dare to commit on any other day.
Popularly referred to as the Festival of Colours, people in northern, western, and central India don’t hold back from celebrating to their heart’s content as the festival marks the advent of the beautiful season of spring in March. Like every other Indian festival, Holi too has a mythological significance.
According to the folklores from the Hindu epic Ramayana, a demon king named Hiranyakshyap had an incessant urge to be respected and worshipped by all. To his dismay, his own son, Prahlad, idolised the almighty Vishnu, the creator of the universe. In a sinister attempt to get rid of his son, he instructed his immortal sister Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her arms. However, for her evil motives, she was punished and left to die while Prahlad escaped unscathed.
Thus, Indians take this opportunity to worship fires, signifying the victory of good over evil. For party-goers, this is the time to go a little adventurous by rubbing colours on each others’ cheeks, throwing water balloons at passers-by, spending afternoons guzzling bhang (a mildly intoxicating drink made of marijuana), devour traditional sweets, and take a dip in one of the widely-attended foam and pool parties.
All along the streets, the air is filled with singing and drum-beating to traditional folk music, and by the end of the day, everything is rendered dusty by heaps of coloured powder blown all over.
Durga Puja is the annual commemoration of India’s most unforgiving goddess. Celebrated sometime during the month of October, its grandeur can be experienced in most parts of northern, eastern and western India. Lasting anywhere from six to 10 days, the festival is characterised by extravagant ceremonies and rituals at temples, theatrical interpretations of mythological plays, dazzling lights, and elongated religious recitals.
Ferociously wild eyes, an unsettling face bursting with rage, a blood-thirsty tongue, and arms sticking out unapologetically, holding some of the deadliest weapons we know—can you visualise a fiercer picture? Meet goddess Durga—an embodiment of limitless and existential freedom, the demolisher of the evil, and a quintessential personification of female empowerment. Nothing about her is comforting, beautiful, or pleasing in any way and yet, goddess Durga doesn’t care, for she’s here to slay the unholy from the earth.
West Bengal, a state in eastern India, deserves an exclusive mention as nowhere is it celebrated on a grander scale than in its capital city, Kolkata. Here, you can immerse yourself in the holy waters of Hooghly River, one of India’s most sacred rivers. Undertake an unforgettable spiritual journey by going pandal hopping that put on unique displays of goddess Durga or attend the ceremonial Bonedi Bari Pujas in a traditional setting. And while you’re here, don’t forget to witness the highly intoxicating and intense Dhunuchi folk dance where smoke, sounds, and rhythms swamp the atmosphere.
Onam marks the much-awaited end of monsoon season and a 10-day harvest festival of one of India’s southernmost and most picturesque states—Kerala. Celebrated during the August to September period every year, Onam is a time for families to get together for all-day celebratory processions, feast on an exquisite variety of traditional delicacies invitingly laid out on banana leaves, sing folk songs, and enjoy a harmonious amalgamation of dance and drama through Kerala’s official dance form—Kathakali, which is also India’s most evolved art form with roots dating as far back as 400 years.
The legend has it that the kingdom of Kerala was at its prosperous best under the monarchy of King Mahabali—a demon king, an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, and a ruler liked and worshipped by all. For his unwavering respect and devotion for Lord Vishnu, Mahabali was bestowed with a boon—that he could visit his realm once every year even after his death, thus marking Onam as the official homecoming of the beloved King Mahabali.
While dances, processions, and plays hold a special place in Onam’s glorious carnival, it is the boat races that are among the most eagerly awaited and oldest traditions still alive and thriving in India. A thrilling experience for both rowers and spectators, these 100-feet-long snake-shaped structures go head to head in a remarkably synchronised rhythm to the years-old typical boat songs sung in full volume. During this time, the Keralites also bring the rich past associated with Kerala’s boat race to life with different ceremonial water processions held one after another along with a variety of splendid water displays.