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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Want to experience one of India’s unique festivals? See our range of small group tours!
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.