Top 5 Festivals of India

Posted by Crooked Compass

Regardless of whether it is your first trip or you consider yourself a veteran of the sub-continent, India always has more surprises around the corner. With a population of 1.3 billion people (and counting!) it is nearly impossible for the everyday traveller to experience all that India has to offer. Indian culture has been influenced by a variety of religious beliefs over several centuries and this unique culture can be witnessed in the many festivals that are held each year. From the annual Sikh celebration of martial arts skills, Hola Mohalla, to the Hindu festival of Mysore Dasara, which celebrates the Goddess Parvathi’s victory over a buffalo headed demon, India’s cultural festivals are a representation of the colourful mythology of this fascinating country.

Here, we share the top 5 festivals of India that you probably haven't heard of!

The chariot of Lord Raghunath
The chariot of Lord Raghunath

1. Durga Puja 

The Durga Puja festival is an annual celebration in Kolkata, praising homage to the Goddess Durga. The festival is based around the Hindu mythological story of the ten-armed Goddess Durga coming down from the heavens to save the world by defeating the evil demon, Mahishasur. Every October the city of Kolkata is transformed for five days into Bengals largest festival, as Hindu’s from across the nation arrive and turn the city into an open art exhibition. Walk the streets and witness various groups compete as they set up their extravagant and fascinating pandals (improvised prayer arrangements), each dedicated to the Goddess Durga.

The Durga symbol signifies woman power, and as you explore the city you will notice countless references to the mother goddess. The modern incarnation of the goddess preaches a message of destroying evil in all its forms, from hunger and poverty to terrorism and violent acts.  The festival concludes on the fifth day with a procession of idols towards a nearby river, where the clay idol of Durga is immersed in water and symbolically returned to the cosmos.

A pandal at Durga Puja.
A pandal at Durga Puja.

2. Kullu Dussehra

The importance of the Kullu Dussehra festival can be dated back to the 17th century when King Jagat Singh was placed under a curse by villager, who the King had suspected had been stashing precious pearls. The King ordered the villager to be tortured until he revealed the pearls, but the villager knowing that he only possessed pearls of wisdom, jumped into a fire and cursed the greedy King. A Brahmin counselled the King, suggesting that the curse will be broken if he retrieved the deity of Raghunath from Ayodhya to Kullu. Shortly after, the Brahmin stole the deity from Ayodhya and brought it to the King and thus lifting the curse. Following the breaking of the curse, King Jagat Singh declared that Lord Raghunath is the ruling deity of the Kullu Valley.

Every October since then the people of Kullu celebrate Dussehra, giving travellers a unique peek into their history and culture. The festival begins with an enormous procession known as a Rath Yatra, for the idol of Lord Raghunath. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Valley of Gods’, Kullu is home to more than 200 local deities that all offer homage to Lord Raghunath during Kullu Dussehra. The festival concludes with the chariot of Lord Ragunath being taken down the banks of the Rivers Beas, surrounded by a pile of thorn bushes and set alight. This dramatic ending is to symbolise the defeat of King Ravana, according to Hindu mythology.

Deity of Raghunath
Deity of Raghunath

3. Hola Mohalla 

Every year in the month of March, Sikh’s from across the globe migrate to the holy town of Anadpur Sahib for an unusual festival that celebrates the martial art and poetry skills of the Sikh community. Celebrated one day after the Hindu festival of Holi, Hola Mohalla is an important date in the Sikh calendar as it marks the beginning of the Sikh New Year. The celebration began over 300 years ago when the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, took time off from fighting to start a new tradition by overseeing mock battles and poetry contests. Over the years, the messages from these beautiful folk poetry has influenced the religious ethos of the region away from military displays to produce the Sikh faith as we know it today.

Another unique aspect of Hola Mohalla is the competition between organisers of langar (food) stalls. The competition evolves around the idea of giving back to the community and caring for each other. If people are willing to share their food, then their will be enough for everyone and no one will go hungry, this is the message of the langar. Surrounded by bright colours, wonderful smells and incredible display of martial art skills, it is the message of the lagnar blasting from speakers that you will not forget.

Sikh's celebrating Hola Mohalla
Sikh's celebrating Hola Mohalla

4. Mysore Dasara Festival 

If you listened to the legends and myths told by the locals, Mysore Palace was said to once be the throne for Mahishasura, a buffalo headed demon. Suffering under this evil ruler, the people of Mysore prayed to the Goddess Parvathi to be set free from Mahishasura’s reign. When the Goddess arrived, she took the form of Chamundeshwari and went to battle for nine days, defeating the evil ruler Mahishasura on the tenth day. Every year, Hindu’s arrive in Mysore to celebrate this victory of good over evil and pay homage to the Goddess. The festival is celebrated in conjunction with the Dasara Festival, a tradition started in the 19th century by the Vijayanagar Kings.

Celebrations are carried out across the week and include vibrant processions of elephants, each carrying the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari, and special daily prays paying homage the various incarnations of Durga. The Mysore Palace is decorated in bright lights that transcend beauty and take the magnificence of the Palace to beyond what is thought possible. The local Dasara is located opposite the Palace and during the week of the festival is full of wonderful clothes, cosmetic products, handcraft goods and local delicacies

Mysore Palace during the Mysore Dasara Festival.
Mysore Palace during the Mysore Dasara Festival.

5. Nehru Trophy Boat Race

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is the biggest annual Vallam Kali (boat games) held in India, featuring several categories of races, including the most popular event Chundan Vallams (snake boats). Once serving as the main means of transportation, the waterways of South India played an integral part in the daily lives of villagers. With the increased use of land transport, the needs for superior skills on the water have diminished. The Nehru Trophy Boat Race keeps the traditions of their ancestors alive by holding races throughout the year that showcase these skills.

Each group competing at the Nehru Trophy Boat Race represents one village, and having worked for months on their skills, each team fights for the rights to take the trophy home. With each team coming from one village, the shame of losing or pride of winning the race is not only shared amongst those competing, but by all of the villagers who are watching as well. The Chundan Vallams (snake boats) can hold over 100 passengers, with up to 64 paddlers, 25 drummers and eight singers leading the rhythm. Often boats will be toppled along the way, but this does nothing to dampen the spirits of those competing. The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is one of the most fascinating and unique boat festivals the world has to offer.

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race
The Nehru Trophy Boat Race

Want to experience one of India's unique festivals? See our range of small group tours!