Top 5 Indian festivals for foreign visitors

Top 5 Indian festivals for foreign visitors

Celebrating the Holi Festival in Barsana, India

Indian Festivals: 5 festivals of India worth planning your trip around

INDIA IS KNOWN for sensory-busting, rambunctious, non-stop festivals. At any time of the year, all over the country, Indian festivals celebrating religion, the phases of the moon, culture, the seasons, India’s epic stories (the Ramayana and the Mahabharat) pop up with astonishing frequency. The festivals of India are one of the truly great things about India.

UPDATED for 2020 with 2020 Indian Festival dates. 

Indian Festivals may all celebrate different things, but they have one thing in common: they’re a spectacle to behold. These are festivals well worth visiting India to experience. 

  • Diwali Festival
  • Holi Festival
  • Durga Puja
  • Ganesh Chaturthi
  • Pushkar Camel Fair

Here you will find everything you need to know to start planning your trip to experience the top Indian Festivals.


More reading on Breathedreamgo about travel in India


Diwali is a top Indian Festival

Diwali lights. Photo courtesy anshu_si via Compfight

1. Diwali, The Festival of Light, is the number one Indian Festival

Diwali is the biggest Indian Festival, a celebration of the triumph of light over dark, good over evil. The word Diwali means “rows of lighted lamps” and it is also called the Festival of Light. People light small diyas (lamps) and fireworks to help guide Lord Rama home from exile.

Diwali is basically the equivalent of Christmas — a big, festive celebration that brings families together and is the highlight of the holiday season. There are five days of festivities, each marked with different pujas (prayers) and rituals.

The five days of Diwali include the festival of Govatsa Dwadashi (on the first day), Dhanteras (on the second day), Diwali (on the third day), Goverdhan Puja (on the fourth day) and Bhaiya Dooj (on the fifth day). There are also many regional variations on these festival.

On Dhanteras, it’s considered auspicious to give gold gifts, as well as dried fruits, sweets, and household goods. Lakshmi Puja on Diwali is the highlight of Diwali, and is performed at about sunset after a day of decorating the home and fasting. Bhaiya Dooj is a festival that celebrates the brother-sister bond: sisters pray for their brothers to have long and happy lives, and brothers offer gifts to their sisters. 

What you need to know:

Like most festivals in India, Diwali’s date changes from year to year as its based on the lunar cycle and not a fixed date. In 2020, it’s November 14. So check the date in advance, and plan accordingly. Diwali ties up traffic like nobody’s business and makes travel challenging.

Top tip: Find a place to celebrate and stay put for the five days of Diwali.

How to celebrate:

Diwali is largely a family celebration, much like Christmas. Stay with Indian friends or book into a homestay or small, family-run guesthouse so you can experience Diwali with a family.

Where to celebrate:

Diwali (also known as Deepavali) is celebrated throughout India, though there are regional differences. Cities like Delhi, Varanasi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, and Mumbai go all out on Diwali, and the effect is dazzling … to the point of ear-splitting. I’ve been in Delhi three times for Diwali and found the noise and the pollution caused from all the fireworks to be overwhelming — though in 2019 there was only a tiny fraction of the fireworks of previous years due to bans. But be aware, the days following Delhi are some of the most polluted of the year. Buy a good face mask!

Holi is a Festival of India

Holi Festival. Photo courtesy Dave Bouskill, ThePlanetD.com

2. Holi, Festival of Colour, is another top Festival of India

Holi is probably the most well-known and beloved Indian Festivals among foreigners and many want to participate in the festivities — which involves throwing coloured powder and water at each other. It’s a celebration of spring and usually takes place in March.

I’ve celebrated Holi successfully three six times in India. I say successfully because nothing untoward happened. Twice I was at a private club in South Delhi, three times I was at an ashram in Rishikesh, and once at a guest house in Delhi. In all cases, the crowd was controlled and I was never in danger of being molested by bhang-drinking male youths, and I had a great time.

What you need to know:

Like Diwali, and many other festivals, Holi is based on the lunar calendar. It’s celebrated on the full moon in either February or March, so check the date in advance. In 2020, the date is March 9-10.

Holi can be very uncomfortable for women. Please read my blog What you need to know about Holi for tips on how to celebrate safely. The key is to stay off the streets, find a controlled group of people to celebrate with and go easy on the bhang lassi (also known as thandai).

How to celebrate:

Finding the right group of people to celebrate Holi with is key. My other tips include covering your skin and hair with oil (such as almond oil) to prevent the colour from staining your skin for a week. And try to use natural, plant-derived and non-synthetic colours if you can find them.

Top tip: Lathmar Holi is a unique festival that takes place in Barsana, near Mathura, a few days before Holi. In this tradition, the women beat up men with sticks (laths) before playing Holi with colours.

Where to celebrate:

The best place to celebrate Holi is probably Mathura / Vrindavan in North India, the birthplace and childhood home of Krishna. The celebrations here are legendary.

There are also many private celebrations such as the Holy Cow festival in Delhi.

Holi photo courtesy Dave Bouskill of ThePlanetD.com.
Photo of Kumartuli, part of Durga Puja Indian Festival

Photo of Kumartuli in Kolkata by Andrew Adams

3. Lesser known Indian Festival: Durga Puja

Durga Puja is truly one of the great festivals of India, and though not as well known as Diwali and Holi, has a lot to offer visitors. Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal is THE place to celebrate Durga Puja. The festival honours the goddess Durga, who represents the divine feminine energy, or shakti — the force, power and warrior aspect of the divine mother. Taking place over five days, Durga Puja’s date is tied to the phases of the moon. In 2020 the date is October 21 – 26.

A year in the planning, Kolkata’s many talented artisans go to great lengths to create pandals — decorated stages that exhibit statues of the goddess Durga. Each night of the festival, crowds of people move from pandal to pandal admiring the art work and enjoying live music. On the last day, the statues are taken by procession for immersion into the Ganga (Ganges) River, known in Kolkata as the Hooghly.

What you need to know:

Durga Puja is as much an arts festival as it is a religious celebration. This Indian festival essentially turns Kolkata into the world’s biggest open-air art gallery. Bengali culture is known for nurturing some of India’s greatest artists, writers and filmmakers (such as the great Satyajit Ray), so the creative nature of the Durga Puja festival should come as no surprise.

How to celebrate:

The best way to celebrate is to go along with the crowds visiting the pandals each evening.

Where to celebrate:

There are other places that celebrate Durga Puja — one year I joined the festivities in CR Park, South Delhi — but nobody does it better than Kolkata. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that should not be missed. I attended in 2019 and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in India. 

Top Indian Festivals include Ganesh Chaturthi

Photo courtesy TheFirstPost.co.uk

4. Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesh is the beloved elephant-headed god, a favourite throughout India, and Ganesh Chaturthi is the Indian festival that honours him. It runs for 11 days in late August or September, depending on the cycle of the moon. In 2020, it begins on August 22 and culminates on September 1.

Similar to Durga Puja, images of Ganesh are made throughout the year and displayed during the 10-day festival. On the 11th day, called Ganesha Visarjan or Anant Chaturdasi, the images are paraded through the streets, accompanied by singing and dancing, and finally immersed in the sea.

What you need to know:

Ganesh is the god of luck, auspicious beginnings and safe travels, and the remover of obstacles. I launched Breathedreamgo on Ganesh Chaturthi in 2009. In 2020, Ganesh Chaturthi is on August 22 and the 11-day festival culminates on September 1 with Ganesha Visarjan (also known as Anant Chaturdasi).

The festival fills the streets with rowdy crowds and caution is in order.

How to celebrate:

During the festival, Ganesh statues are displayed all over the city, with communities competing with each other. The displays feature music, dancing and feasting.

Top tip: The size of the crowds make Ganesh Chaturthi a daunting undertaking. 

Where to celebrate:

While Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in several states, Mumbai is probably the best place to experience it. Thousands of statues are displayed around the city, and devotees gather at Siddhivinayak Temple. The procession to the sea for immersion — called Visarjan — is truly a spectacle to behold.

Indian Festivals include Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar Camel Fair. Photo courtesy Koshyk via Compfight.

5. Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar is a small town in rural Rajasthan famed for the beauty of its lake, the uniqueness of its Brahma Temple (the only one in India) and the chilled-out vibe. Many people come here just to BE … and I am no exception. I have been known to spend days relaxing on rooftops, watching the sunrise on the lakeside ghats, and just being…

The Pushkar Camel Fair takes over the town each autumn, at the time of the Kartik Purnima (full moon festival). This means that a religious festival and livestock fair converge on the small town at the same time and turn it into a giant mela (fair).

In 2020, the Pushkar Camel Fair takes place from November 22 – 30. The first thing you need to know about the Pushkar Camel Fair is that it really is based a camel fair. Camel traders come from far and wide to buy, sell and trade camels … attended by feasting, cultural shows, competitions such as camel racing and the world’s largest pop-up marketplace. However, it does not hold the importance it once had, and has turned into a tourist attraction.

In fact, the situation for the camels of Rajasthan and their herders, the Raika, is critical. Their way of life is disappearing to a many mitigating factors. You can read more about the situation here in Has the Pushkar Camel Fair lost its magic? I also highly recommend that you check out CamelCharisma, a local organization run by people trying to help save the Raika and their nomadic culture.

Read my report, The sacred and profane at the Pushkar Camel Fair

What you need to know:

Pushkar’s population balloons from about 15,000 to a quarter-million people during the Camel Fair, with tent cities popping up all over the fields that surround the small town. Rates for hotels and luxury tented accommodations also pop up — in fact they quadruple during the Fair, making it a very expensive place to stay. You can find package tours that include transport from Delhi and accommodation, and this is probably the most cost-effective way to go.

Top tip: Get to Pushkar a few days before the actual fair as the livestock traders will be there, and the tourists won’t have arrived yet. 

How to celebrate:

Immerse yourself in the mirage created in the Rajasthani desert. Enjoy the food, cultural shows, competitions and market place — where artisan-made products are showcased and sold.

Where to celebrate:

The Pushkar Camel Fair is in Pushkar, of course. But you can also join the camel traders headed to Pushkar in the weeks before the festival.

Indian Festivals include the Diwali Festival

Diwali Festival: Photograph by Andrew Adams of Katha Images


Photo credits

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