5 of India’s Best Festivals & Etiquette for Travelers

Home to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Jains, India is a cultural smorgasbord; where festivals aren’t just a means of worship, but a reason to unite and celebrate the vibrancy of Indian life.

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Holi

Where to Celebrate: Vrindavan and Mathura.

Holi, a spring festival in the beginning of March, is India’s most euphoric festival.

Locals smear gulaal (colored powder), and drench each other with water balloons, water guns, and buckets. The only breaks are for crispy, sugar-soaked jalebis (deep-fried sweets) and thandai (a drink of milk, nuts, and spices).

On the evening before Holi, bonfires are lit to symbolize the burning of Holika, an evil character in Hindu mythology.

Clean and dry clothes on the day are unacceptable, and you’ll most likely find yourself participating with the festival’s tagline: “Bura na mano Holi hai” which translates to “Please don’t mind, it’s Holi.”

Leave your valuables behind, wear clothes that you don’t mind ruining, and join in the madness.

Holi festival. Photo credit: iStock

Diwali

Where to Celebrate: Amritsar, Mumbai, Delhi, Varanasi, and Jaipur.

Celebrated in October-November, Diwali is a festival of lights that marks the victory of Lord Rama (righteousness) over King Ravana (evil) and his return from exile to Ayodha.

To welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, tiny lamps flicker on colorful rangoli designs at entrances to homes, and windows shine with fairy lights.

It’s a great time to try homemade sweets like barfis and laddoos.

In the evening, families sing aartis in praise of deities Ganesha and Lakshmi, and adults and children alike burst firecrackers late into the night.

Durga Puja

Where to Celebrate: Head to Kolkata. A week before the festival, visit the neighborhood of Kumartuli, where artists paint the eyes of the idol in a ritual called Chokku Daan.

This ten-day festival, celebrated September-October in West Bengal, celebrates the victory of goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura. 

The energy in the air is palpable, as worshippers chant in front of giant bedecked idols of the goddess.

On the final day of Vijayadashmi, the idols are immersed in water. Married women apply sindoor (vermillion), the symbol of matrimony, to the idols and each other, as it is believed that on immersion the goddess reunites with her husband Shiva.

Devotees praying and dancing in front of a Durga idol in Kolkata. Photo credit: iStock

Pushkar Camel Fair

Where to Celebrate: Pushkar, Rajasthan.

Come November, the desert town of Pushkar in Rajasthan comes alive for Kartika Purnima. Expect street shows, magicians, camel races, and beauty contests.

Pilgrims from around the country bathe in the holy waters of the Pushkar Lake. Herders arrive with thousands of camels in time for the full moon, in what initially began as a fair to trade camels, but has become one of India’s biggest tourism draws.

Even if you don’t intend to take home a souvenir of the dromedary kind, there’s plenty of action during the week-long festival.

Pushkar camel fair. Photo credit: iStock

Ganesh Chaturthi

Where to Celebrate: Visit Lalbaugcha Raja and the Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai.

Celebrated in August-September, Ganesh Chaturthi welcomes the elephant god, Ganesha, for eleven days of positivity and happiness.

On the first day, processions carry massive bejeweled Ganesha idols to pandal venues (open to the public), and families bring smaller idols into their homes.

Over the next days, friends and relatives visit to seek Ganesha’s blessings and sing hymns. Sweet modaks, Ganesha’s favorite, are placed by the idols as an offering before being distributed to devotees.

On the last day, the idols are immersed into the sea.

Ganesh Chaturthi, Mumbai. Photo credit: iStock

Customs and Etiquette at Indian Festivals

  • When attending a festival, both men and women should dress modestly, keeping your shoulders and knees covered.
  • A box of Indian sweets for your hosts is an appropriate gift for every festival.
  • Expect enthusiastic singing, chanting, and in some cases, dancing.
  • In some communities, men and women are seated separately, so observe and do as the locals do.
  • Always ask for permission before photographing people, rituals, temples, and idols.
  • If you’re joining a Holi celebration by yourself, avoid large crowds of strangers that are known to get rowdy.
  • At public celebrations, avoid the intoxicating bhang drink made with cannabis leaves, as the effects can take days to wear off, depending on the amount of the drug.

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