India is a deeply spiritual country, and festivals are at the heart of people’s lives. The many, varied celebrations offer a unique insight into this fascinating and colorful culture.
Holi is one of India’s most colorful festivals and lasts two days in late march. One the first day, people build bonfires to remember and show respect for the sacrifice of Holika. This Hindu demoness was burnt to death with the help of the god Vishnu, according to Vedic scriptures. The day is spent in gathering fuel for the bonfire with enthusiastic assistance from children. Once the fire is lit, people chant hymns, make offerings, and dance around the fire until it is mere embers.
The next day, the merriment begins with a day-long tossing of colored water on friends and strangers alike to celebrate joy and happiness. As the day goes on, clothing grows more colorful as few miss being doused or sprinkled by colorful dyes. Many people have a “Holi shirt” that they wear each year to spare their good clothes from being splattered. People are good-humored no matter how “colorful” they become. Packets of dyes go on sale weeks before Holi so folks can prepare for this eagerly anticipated day.
In Jaipur, Holi includes an elephant parade with gloriously draped elephants parading along the streets, being judged in beauty contests, and competing in tugs of war. In Bengal, the idols of Lord Krishna and Radha are placed on swings and paraded with devotees jostling for a chance to swing them — and spectators throwing colored water at the idols and everyone else.
The traditional drink of Holi is thandai, a milk-based drink with bhang as the primary ingredient. Bhang is an intoxicant made with cannabis. While cannabis is illegal in India, authorities turn a blind eye on Holi as it is part of a religious rite. And, many officials are rushing home for their Holi celebration and do not want to be delayed by minor infractions of the law. Visitors are advised to leave the bhang to the natives.
Instead, enjoy traditional Holi dishes such as dahi wada (dumplings covered with sweet, salty, sour yogurt topped with tangy tamarind chutney) and malpua (deep-fried patties with a strong cardamom flavor and topped with a sweet sauce.
Diwali is from the Sanskrit word deepavali, which means series of lighted lamps. This five-day Hindu festival of lights is celebrated in November by people of every religion, state, and caste. The festival marks the day Lord Ram returned to his kingdom after 14 years of exile. People decorate their homes with brass and clay lamps, candles, electronic lights, and rangolis, which are colorful patterns created on the floor or on walkways with colored sand, bits of glass, and flower petals. Public buildings are decorated as well, and Hindu temples often have the most elaborate displays.
This is the holiday people wear new clothes, paint henna designs on their hands, light candles, and participate in family prayers. This is followed by an elaborate feast of delicious food and Indian sweets. Popular Diwali desserts include ladoo, jalebi, gulab jamun, and barfi, that is sphere-shaped sweets, pretzel-shaped deep-fried sweets, spongy milk balls soaked in rose-flavored syrup, and a dense milk-based confectionery studded with dried fruits.
Diwali is the biggest shopping period in India. People shop mainly for new clothing, gifts, and gold jewelry. The festival also celebrates Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, so spending is considered auspicious. The weeks before Diwali are the best times to shop in India as merchants present their finest wares.
Jaipur is the best place to experience the lights as all markets and most buildings are festooned with glowing lamps and twinkling lights. In Goa, the focus of Diwali celebrations is the destruction of demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna. Competitions are held in every village for the biggest and scariest effigy of the demon. They are burned at dawn on the day before the main day of Diwali.
Wherever you go in India during Diwali, fireworks illuminate the night skies and firecrackers are tossed with little care for public safety. People are festive and food stalls are abundant.
Durga Puja, countrywide
Durga Puja is one of India’s largest festivals, and it celebrates the victory of the Goddess Durga over the buffalo demon, Mahishasura. In mid-October, the Goddess Kali is worshipped every morning and foods are given to statues of the gods in the evening. Various cultural events and dance programs are held every day and night of the festival. It is a joyful, social time. Streets fill with people, especially in the evenings, who come to admire the statues of Goddess Durga, eat, and celebrate with family, friends, and strangers.
At the beginning of the festival, elaborately crafted statues of Durga are installed in homes and beautifully decorated podiums all over cities and villages. When the festival ends, these statues are paraded through the streets accompanied by music and dancing. At the end of the parade, the statues are immersed in the nearest body of water.
A modern trend during Durga Puja is eating food items like vrat ki chat (crispy potato slices with herbs and spices drizzled with lemon juice) and vrat ki namkeen (potato strips with peanuts and butter—usually served with coffee.) These festival foods are served by food vendors in Mumbai and other large Indian cities.
Pushkar Camel Fair, Pushkar
In November, thousands of camels converge on the tiny desert town of Pushkar, Rajasthan, for the Pushkar Camel Fair. The camels are dressed up, paraded, shaved, judged for beauty prizes, raced, and traded.
This colorful spectacle is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness one of the last great traditional melas, which brings together livestock, farmers, traders, and villagers from all over Rajasthan.
During the event, makeshift stalls are set up selling items ranging from saddle straps, saddles, and beads to strings of cowries. The fair is also attended by a great many women, so the fair offers a huge array of traditional silver ornaments, printed textiles, patchwork clothing, and traditional footwear. Popular Indian food is in abundance from street hawkers and stalls.
Despite India’s poverty, people love their celebrations and are delighted when visitors join in the fun. If you go to India, try to make time for a festival so you can experience the culture’s joyful nature.