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India’s fabulous festivals have a unique knack for fusing religious intrigue, ancient traditions, and evolving cultural norms to create a one-of-a-kind travel experience full of both pomp and pageantry. If you are getting ready for a trip to India this year, planning your trip around one of these festivals is a terrific way to experience the uniquely joyful cultural traditions of the region.
In this comprehensive post, we break down all the sights and sounds of three spectacular galas that make the country one of the best spots in the world for those who love to celebrate life.
HOLI, NATIONWIDE, MARCH 2019
From its ancient origins as a ceremony performed by women to ensure a healthy and happy family, ‘Holika’ has morphed into a variety of festivities that tie together themes of kinship and love with a countrywide celebration of spring. The holiday also bridges in spiritual themes of good vs. evil to create a day when divisions are set aside and unity reigns supreme. For this reason, it is often called the ‘Festival of Love‘.
Holi is typically marked by boisterous celebrations on the day after the full moon in the Hindu month of Phalgun, and is probably most famous for the colorful powders known as ‘gulal’ that are thrown on revelers. Legends abound about this tradition’s origins, but one popular rendition states that Lord Krishna didn’t like his blue-toned face, and was fearful that his true love Radha wouldn’t return his sentiments. His mother suggested that he could paint his face—or hers—any shade that he liked! This has garnered Holi a second popular nickname as the ‘Festival of Colors’.
WHAT TO DO
Here are some of the most unique and enchanting 2019 Holi Festivals from across India:
- March 18th ‘Widows Holi’: The city of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh has always been a central hub of Holi due to the legends of Lord Krishna playing here as a child, and its reputation as a place where light overcame dark. In 2015, it became the sight of another famous event when the widows at Pagal Baba Widow Ashram decided to forego the ban on their participation in the festival and instead celebrated Holi like the rest of the nation. Inviting other area widows to the ashram, they smeared each other with bright rose and marigold, and in doing so began to change the social stigma surrounding women who have lost their husbands in India. Today, the joyful event has become a celebration not only of spring, but of women’s equality.
- March 16th and 20th ‘Holi with Flowers’: Pagal Baba Temple is within 10 minutes of another renowned Holi tradition, ‘Phaloon wali holi’ at Banke Bihari Temple. Here, flowers are thrown on local and international revelers alike by priests to create a bright kaleidoscope of color. Four days later, revelers can again get bathed in rich splashes of hued powders, soak in some blessing with holy water, and enjoy celebratory chanting to close out the temple’s week-long celebrations. The great news is that both of the Pagal Baba and Banke Bihari temples are within 50 miles of the exquisite Taj Mahal.
- March 22nd-24th ‘Hola Mohalla’ (Warrior Holi): This unique spin on Hola dates back to 1701 and foregoes the beautiful colors of ‘gulal’ in favor of astounding feats of agility performed by Sikhs of the region. The competitions and shows take place at the architecturally stunning Sikh temple called Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib in the city of Anandpur, Punjab. This “Holy City of Bliss” comes alive with valiant displays of archery, wrestling, and weaponry alongside intricately crafted traditional costumery, poetry, music, horsemanship, and a dazzling military parade. Local volunteers known as ‘langars’ graciously staff the kitchens, which serve vegan and vegetarian fare to festival goers, and the temple is open to people of all faiths to tour.
GANESH CHATURTHI, MAHARASHTRA AND BEYOND, SEPTEMBER 2-12, 2019
You may have seen caricatures of the elephant deity Ganesh, and he’s the reason that India has a reputation for viewing the tusked descendants of mammoths with awe. Tradition states that Lord Ganesh oversees good fortune and wise choices, and creates a clear path for smoothly reaching life goals. This is why he’s often called upon during lavish Hindi wedding ceremonies, where grooms arrive to much pomp and cheer on a white horse that signals their move into a new, more responsible phase of life.
The 11-day celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi originated about 125 years ago in Pune, Maharashtra as a peaceful way to unite the Indian people in solidarity against British rule, and has since spread out from the city and across the state, as well as to such areas as Dehli in the country’s north and Tamil Nadu in the south. If you are in these areas during early September of this year, you’ll want to be sure to participate in this joyous festival time. The streets turn into a block party full of beautifully crafted statues, parades, prayers, music, and the immersion of the figurines into water on the last day to mark the continuous ebb and flow of life.
WHAT TO DO
Although the festival is now widespread, there are 2 key areas within Maharashtra that offer visitors an awe-inspiring view into the origins and evolution of this unifying event that draws thousands of international guests each year. The singular experience has been likened to a public party full of fun socializing, celebratory spirituality, and delicious local cuisine.
- Pune Festival: As the original host of Ganesh Chaturthi, Pune provides you with the most authentic experience. One of the highlights of the citywide affair is a visit to the 1893 Dagdusheth Halwai Ganapathi Temple from which the first public celebrations sprang. Each year its surrounding mandal replicates famous Indian monuments, and its dazzling nighttime lighting will take your breath away. You can also partake of numerous activities organized by the state’s tourism board, include auto races, dance performances, music recitals, and film and drama events. The festival’s famous ‘dhol tasha’ (drums) signal a call to freedom for the people of the area while providing beautifully rhythmic entertainment. There’s even an innovative new ATM that disperses not money but the traditional ‘modak’ pastry full of coconut and ‘jaggerty’ (sap-infused cane sugar) to leave at the nearest Ganesh alter.
- Mumbai Ganesh Festival: About 3 hours northwest of Pune on the beautiful Arabian Sea is perhaps the most famous city in India, which offers you its own unique spin on the celebrations. If you want to get close to the world’s most famous Ganesh idols, head to the city’s central district of Lalbaug. Here the 1934 Lalbaugcha Raja and nearby 1928 Mumbaicha Raja tower over the town demanding sweets be laid at their alters. Stunning gold-encased and city-themed decorative mandals surround these idols. You can even take a uniquely immersive Spirit Behind Mumbai’s Favorite God Tour tour that includes a meal with a local family featuring such delicacies such as ‘bharli vangi’ (stuffed eggplant), ‘koshambir’ (a local salad), and of course the famously sweet ‘modak’. These local guides will walk you through the ins-and-outs of the the traditional private ceremonies before inviting you along to a public statue viewing and evening ‘aarti’ (prayers by candlelight).
- Goa Ganesh Festivals: Goa is India’s smallest state, and sits in the southwestern corner of Maharashtra, on the stunning Arabian Sea. A popular tourist locale due to its many beautiful beaches, natural wonders, and historic architectural sites, the region also plays host to a variety of Ganesh celebrations. In fact, this is considered Goa’s most important annual festival. Highlights include lavish flower competitions among the girls, folk dances of the Fugdi by the women, and ornately decorated ‘Sarvajanik Ganeshostav’ (public Ganesh) mandals like those found in the church square of the capital city Panaji. Visitors can also head a few miles north to the quaint village of Mapusa to see an amazing array of fruit, plant, and flower-infused matolis (market stalls) set up to honor Lord Ganesh. These double as eco-centers of traditional medicinal knowledge where locals and tourists alike converge to learn about the region’s rich horticultural heritage.
PUSHKAR CAMEL FAIR, PUSHKAR, RAJASTHAN, NOVEMBER 4-12, 2019
This extravaganza is also known as ‘Kartik Mela’ (November Fair) or ‘Pushkar Mela’. Its variety of names is only outdone by its diverse range of epic events, exciting competitions, and colorful exhibitions.
The city’s namesake Pushkar Lake dates back to at least the 4th century B.C., and is one of the holy places mentioned in many ancient Hindu texts. Thought to be a sight where Lord Brahma triumphed over dark forces, it has long been a gathering place for pilgrims who believe that 330 gods and goddesses come together each year during November’s full moon to consecrate the water.
Nowadays the century-long festival combines commerce and spirituality to attract upwards of 200,000 visitors annually, most notably the camel and livestock traders sporting bright-colored turbans who make a living from farming and transporting caravans across the desert. An astounding 20,000 camels join the many visitors at this multi-faceted, week-long celebration, which is the largest of its kind in Asia.
WHAT TO DO
The state of Rajasthan tourism board teams up with the Pushkar ‘Mela Vikas Samiti’ (Festival Development Committee) to thrill visitors and support the local economy with numerous fun and engaging activities. Located in northern India, Rajasthan offers some of the most beautiful and scenic palaces and forts in the region.
Take a look at some top highlights of the amazing cultural festivities offered to 2019 guests:
- Camel Charisma: Here, the famed camel-keeping communities of Raika and Rabari create crafts, clothes, delectable cheeses, and delicious treats from these amazing animals’ wool, milk, and yes – even dung! Their popular dung paper notebooks and journals are a must have for culture lovers everywhere.
- November 8th 11:00 a.m. Moustache Competition and November 9th 10:30 a.m. Matka (Earthen Pot) Competition: The festival’s main sporting competitions are held at the fairgrounds and exhibition area, and these two fan favorites see the women running races carrying water-filled jugs on their heads and the men designing their facial hair in uniquely eclectic shapes. The grounds also showcase entertaining folk dance and music shows, turban-tying competitions, and camel ‘beauty’ contests and races throughout the week.
- November 5th 5:30 p.m. Pushkar Lake Candle Floating Ceremony: Known as ‘Deepdaan’, this beautiful early evening event marks the beginning of the first full day of festival activities. It is followed by an uplifting and inspiring concert by Prem Joshua at the Fairground’s stadium at 7:30 p.m.
- Daily Hot Air Balloon Flights: Launched in 2010, the city’s annual Hot Air Balloon Festival was created to coincide with the Camel Fair, and offers visitors rides with amazingly tranquil views of the bustling festival and breathtaking lake scenes below. There are also special ‘night glow’ concerts showcasing balloons from all over the world that take place above the fairgrounds and light up the night sky.
- November 12th 8:00 p.m. Pushkar Lake Fireworks: The festival’s final day sees thousands of devout Hindus and secular pilgrims alike coming together on the night of the full moon for a cleansing bath that honors Brahma’s celebrated triumphs and unites people in peace. A ‘maha aarti‘ (worship by fire) ceremony highlighted by singing and thousands of lighted candles is followed by a world-class pyrotechnics display at the High Level Bridge.
CULTURAL GUIDELINES TO INDIA’S FESTIVALS
Your visit to India can be even more enjoyable by following a few simple etiquette guidelines:
- Dress in non form-fitting clothing with shoulders and knees covered for both women and men
- Provide hosts with a small gift to show your appreciation
- Be aware that tradition sometimes allows for the relaxation of public behavior codes during certain festival events
- Get ready for big crowds with lots of singing, chanting, and boisterous fun
Most importantly, travelers to India are welcomed with open arms to fully participate in the vibrant pageantry of India’s most well loved national festivals, so bring your favorite ‘gulal’, your dancing shoes, and your appetite for adventure! And, if you’d like help planning and coordinating your upcoming journey to India, don’t hesitate to contact a travel agency that specializes in setting up exciting and culturally diverse tours.